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God's Frustrating Grace

God's Frustrating Grace

Eleventh-Hour Justice

If we are going to trust God and enjoy God and love life, we have to understand how God views justice and relationships.

We tend to base our relationships on justice and fairness because we feel a measure of control. We know what to do, we know what to expect, and we know what we deserve. But Jesus has a habit of messing with our concept of justice. Matthew chapter 20 gives us a parable told by Jesus that does just that. I’m going to start with the last verse of chapter 19. (Matthew 19:30)

But many who are first will be last, and the last first. For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.” So they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise.

And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle, and said to them, “Why have you been standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.”

So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, “Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.” And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius. But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius.

And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner, saying, “These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.”

But he answered one of them and said, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?”

So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.

Jesus starts this parable by saying that this is what His kingdom is like: the last are first and the first are last. In other words, in the domain, culture, and community that Jesus is building, our ranking systems are backward.

Jesus is redefining our idea of justice.

Why is this important? Because if we try to relate to God based on what we’ve done, what we deserve, and what we think He should do for us, we’re going to end up as confused as these vineyard workers.

God’s idea of justice requires a great deal of trust from us. We have to believe He is good and He will take care of us.

As human beings we naturally think along the lines of what we’ve earned and what we deserve and what is fair. But Jesus says, “Let me tell you what my kingdom is like” and proceeds to tell a story that is flat-out frustrating. It’s frustrating unless you’re the eleventh-hour worker, that is.

I find that often when I’m disturbed or discouraged, it isn’t because my life is terrible. It’s because something in my life isn’t meeting my expectations. God isn’t doing what I think he should, and I have a hard time just letting go and trusting Him.

I’ve noticed that how much I enjoy God and life is directly tied to how much I trust God in my life.

Just like this ancient culture, we have a ranking system. It usually exists in the secrecy and the crevices of our hearts, but we all classify each other. We all rank each other.

“Wow, that’s a beautiful person, a real top-shelf kind of beauty.”

“That woman is such an excellent human being.”

“He’s a gifted guy. Amazing talent.”

“Um, him — not so talented. Not so gifted.”

“Whoa… hard to look at.”

You know what I mean? We all have our class system.

Jesus essentially says, “I understand how you think. I understand you have first place and second place and eighth place and dead last. You have a ranking system, but you need to understand My ranking system. Many whom you think are first are actually going to be last; and many whom you think are last are actually going to be first.”

“Uh, wait. What?”

Notice in Jesus’ parable that the only group of workers with a contract with the landowner is the first group. They agree to work a full day — twelve hours — for one denarius, which was a standard day’s wage. This is a fair agreement. They work an honest day and they get paid an honest day’s wages. Everyone knows what to expect. Everyone is happy with the terms.

At the third hour, which would have been around nine o’clock, the landowner goes back and hires some more workers. These workers, however, are hired on trust, not on contract. The owner doesn’t tell them how much he is going to pay them. He just says, “I’ll pay you whatever is right.”

He does the same thing at the sixth hour and ninth hour, or noon and three o’clock. Finally, at the eleventh hour, an hour before quitting time, he hires one last group. And he tells them the same thing: “Trust me. I’ll pay you what is right. I’ll pay you fairly.”

Then the work is done, the whistle blows, and it’s time to get paid. This is where the friction starts. It’s fascinating to me that the landowner insists that his paymaster pay first the guys who arrived last. Why didn’t he pay the first workers first? That would have made sense. Or maybe pay them in alphabetical order? Or have them line up randomly? The landowner seems a bit sadistic, like he’s trying to pick a fight here.

Actually Jesus is making a point: grace can be frustrating.

“Okay, eleventh-hour guys. Where are you?” The paymaster has his bag of coins in hand. So the workers who showed up an hour before quitting come forward. They are fresh and energetic and they smell nice. They never broke a sweat. Their manicures are impeccable. The owner says, “We agreed that I would pay you what is fair, right? So here’s a denarius for you, and a denarius for you, and one for you…”

The guys who have been working for twelve hours are way at the end of the line, but they are really paying attention. They’ve been wondering how this was going to go down. Instantly they start doing the math. “They got a denarius? That’s crazy. Guaranteed we must be getting a lot more than that. Awesome.”

The paymaster goes through the next three groups of workers. “Denarius, denarius, denarius.”

Finally he gets to the guys who were there first, the guys who were under contract. “A denarius for you, and one for you…”

“What? Hey! No fair!”

“I’m sorry. Is there a problem?”

“Yes, actually, now that you mention it. We bore the heat of the day. It’s like Phoenix, Arizona, out here. These guys worked at twilight. They still smell nice.”

The early group was keeping track, weren’t they? Why weren’t they just busy working? Instead, they’re like, “They worked one hour. We counted. We clocked them. One hour. And you’re going to give them the same as us? Haven’t we earned more? Where’s the justice in all of this?”

What is Jesus saying? That God doesn’t give us what we think we deserve. He gives us what He wants to give us, and He asks us to trust Him that it is right.

Some of us read this and think, Actually, I’d rather have justice. I understand justice. Justice is quantifiable and predictable and comfortable. I want to deserve what I get, and I want to get what I deserve.

Really — we want to come into contract with God? We want to talk about what we deserve? That’s a dead end. We don’t want to go there. The Bible says in Romans 6:23 that the wages of sin is death. If we’re going to get technical about it, that’s what we deserve.

Anything more is sheer grace and mercy.

So let’s stop talking in terms of what we deserve, and what we’ve earned, and what is just. If that really plays out, you and I are doomed.

We are all products of grace. We are all saved by grace.

Let’s remember that and celebrate that.

Excerpted with permission from Life Is___ by Judah Smith, copyright Thomas Nelson 2015.

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