Does Jesus' View of Grace Offend You?
Where is grace? Real grace. True grace.
Giving to one another generously and abundantly, without thought of any payback? Giving not just from a bucket of excess, but from one’s needs? Giving that causes the giver to suffer? Giving to those who can never repay? Giving to those who hate you? Who have harmed you?
Where is this grace? It is a foreign object. We don’t see it. We don’t understand it. We don’t do it. We don’t know how to do it. And we don’t like it.
I am likely typical. I give of my surplus: my surplus money, time, and energy. And I hope to be noticed, to get appropriate gratitude and applause. When do I give without wanting anything back? When do I give to those who hurt me or insult me?
Grace is pouring out one’s life, without any hope of something being poured back. Grace is pouring out our time, talents, resources, physical and mental energy, without looking to see what is left. Grace is emptying self, until suffering, even upon those who hate.
Who does this? We hear rumors of it, but we don’t see it. What is familiar is the pouring out of anger and frustration. We are harsh with each other. Even in our homes, grace is alien. We get cross with each other. Prickly. “I have poured out much. You have poured out little. So I will punish you, and coddle myself.”
Grace is central to Christianity, and so it is still in the DNA of Western society. This means that one important aspect of grace—giving one’s life for the good of others—is still admired.
But true Christian grace has been pummeled. The German philosopher Nietzsche (1844-1900) did a lot of the demolition. He derided the Christian values of humility, kindness, and pity. These only got in the way of the ideal “superman,” the “magnified man, disciplined and perfected in both mental and physical strength, serene and pitiless, ruthlessly pursuing his path of success and victory and without moral scruples” (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 1997, p.1154). Nietzsche understood grace, and it disgusted him.
The Alien Nature of Grace
Ayn Rand (1905-82) was the same. In her much-admired novel The Fountainhead, hero Howard Roark is strong and talented. He takes what he wants and lives unashamedly for himself in order to achieve his fullest potential and fulfill his destiny. He cares nothing for the weak, the disabled, or the frail. These are hindrances to be thrown off. Grace has no place in Rand’s system. By retarding the strong and the talented, Grace just poisons things.
Such attacks on grace have not been unsuccessful. Our naturally ungracious hearts have lapped it up. In short, grace is alien to us.
In fact it is so alien to humanity, that in order for us to understand grace, Jesus has to shock us. And he does that in his parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.
He tells a story that will antagonize us, that will perhaps even enrage us. When builders insert bolts into concrete, they use explosive tools. Explosive charges force and break the bolt into the hard concrete. The concrete is our graceless hearts. The explosive bolt is Jesus’ parable. He tells it not to guilt us into grace. He tells it that we might understand grace, and so be in a position to receive it. For it is only when we have received grace that we can come to be gracious.
Here is the parable from Matthew 20:1-16,
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.”
Not every commentator agrees, but the proximate audience seems to be the Pharisees. Jesus was a Jewish rabbi who taught, surprisingly and incessantly, that God willed to bless non-Jews, that Gentiles are invited to receive salvation and to be a part of the kingdom of heaven.
This upset the Pharisees. We can almost hear them saying:
We can trace our ancestry 1,800 years back to Abraham. We were slaves in Egypt for 400 years. We fought under the Judges for 400 years. We struggled to expand the kingdom under David and Solomon. We endured the divided Kingdom. We endured the destruction of the north in 722 BC. We lived through the great siege of 586 BC. We saw Jerusalem razed. We endured exile. We fought tooth and nail to re-establish the temple and the nation. We resisted brutal Persian, Greek, and Roman invasions.
Are you saying that these Gentiles, who played no part in this except to persecute us, can simply turn up now and receive the kingdom of heaven?! We are the first, and so we should be paid first. We should receive the first and best of God’s blessings! We deserve it!
All this history seems to lie behind Jesus’ story. Those who were hired at the start of the day are the Jews who had suffered and toiled for two millennia. Those hired at the end of the day are the Gentiles. They are “Johnny-come-lately.” They have—according to this mindset—endured and suffered nothing. The sun is setting, there’s a cool breeze, and all the hard work has been done. Yet they can receive exactly the same as the Jews!
Jesus’ parable resets the perspective.
God, the landowner, is fair to some, and he is lavishly generous with others. There’s nothing unjust about that. The kingdom of heaven is his. This is the one grand point of the parable. God can give it to whomever he likes.
And when we take this one point and set it in the broader context of human rebellion, we see God’s generosity shining out even more brilliantly. For, unlike the parable, no one deserves any good from God. There are no workers who have done all that God has required and who deserve payment from him. “There is no one righteous, not even one . . . All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:10, 23).
So when God gives the kingdom of heaven, it is always an undeserved gift. Every good thing from God comes by grace. Everything is freely given, undeserved, and unearned.
What is it that antagonizes us about Jesus’ story?
We put ourselves in the place of the landowner: “I would never have done that. I would either have paid the latecomers one-twelfth of what those who started at six got, or paid the firstcomers twelve denarii. I would have made sure everyone got the same.”
Or we put ourselves in the shoes of the six o’clock workers: we feel offended on their behalf.
The landowner’s willingness to give to some and not to others antagonizes us. And notice this: it is his grace that antagonizes. When we extrapolate the story to God, pride gets in the way. The parable implies that we deserve nothing from God, that the kingdom of heaven only comes by his gift. It shames us.
There is something that make the parable’s lesson of God’s grace even more striking. Immediately after the parable we read this:
Now Jesus was going up to Jerusalem. On the way, he took the Twelve aside and said to them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!” (Matt. 20:17-19)
Before time, God determined to save a people. The Son agreed that he would come, that he would take on flesh, that he would bear the sins of his people, that he would give his body to be tortured and crucified for them. The gift of the kingdom of heaven is free for the recipients, but costly for the giver. God purchased the kingdom of heaven for us with the blood of his Son (1 Pet. 1:18-19).
Love it or despise it, this is grace. This is the beating heart of the Bible. God is a gracious God. He gives the kingdom of heaven. He gives it to the undeserving. He gives it at the cost of his Son’s blood. Salvation comes only by grace.
This is one of the great rediscoveries of the Reformation: Sola Gratia, grace alone. Salvation cannot be earned by ritual-keeping, by devotion to prayer and fasting. A thousand masses cannot earn a postage-stamp piece of the kingdom of heaven. No wonder the peddling of indulgences enraged Luther—the church’s sale of certificates to shorten one’s time in purgatory. This was the antithesis of grace.
God opens wide his arms to you here and now.
God gave. God poured himself out. He poured himself out to bless others. He expected nothing from them in return. His gift cost him untold suffering. Have you received God’s grace? God opens wide his arms to you here and now. He says “Come! I have a gift for you! Come and receive the gift of forgiveness, a new heart, reconciliation, and adoption.”
When I know that I am forgiven, then I cannot help but forgive. God has smiled upon me, despite everything, so how can I not smile at others? God has washed away my list of wrongs with the blood of his Son, so how can I not forgive others? God is gentle and kind with me. How will I not be kind to others?
Imagine if even one person truly understood this. Imagine just one person who loves others by pouring out his or her time, energy, gifts, and resources, and who suffers because of this. In this person we would see Christ.
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)
Grace is rare. God has poured it out on us. Receive it, and then pour it out on others.
Campbell Markham is a Presbyterian pastor in Hobart, Tasmania. He blogs at Campbell Markham: Thoughts and Letters.