Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Scandal of Grace

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius [which was a day's wage] for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, "You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right." So they went.

He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, "Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?" "Because no one has hired us," they answered. He said to them, "You also go and work in my vineyard."

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, "Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first." The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. "These who were hired last worked only one hour," they said, "and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day."

But he answered one of them, "I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?"

So the last will be first, and the first will be last.
Matthew 20:1-16

I think that many of us are like moral accountants. We walk around day in and day out making little tick marks in our mind... keeping track of how good we are and how bad others are. We may not do it consciously, but most of us are constantly measuring ourselves against other people morally. And we get lost in this endless accounting of how good we are compared to how good they are. When we don't measure up we feel bad, but when we do measure up we feel pretty good about ourselves. And I think that is why many of us find ourselves sympathizing with the workers who worked all day in the above parable. Their logic seems solid to us moral accountants. It isn't fair that they should work hard all day and receive the same amount of money as those who had only worked one hour. Something deep down inside of us wants to scream, "That's not fair!"

You see, we like to think that we have been working hard all day like those early workers and that one day it will be time for us to get our reward. But in all our moral accounting, we have lost sight of our own sinfulness. It isn't as though God were cheating us any more than the landowner cheated those workers. He hasn't withheld anything from those who deserved it. Indeed, none of us deserve anything from God but wrath and punishment for "we all, like sheep, have gone astray" (Isaiah 53:6). So it isn't that God has cheated anyone. On the contrary, He has been exorbitantly generous. It's His generosity that bothers us. It makes other people equal to us that we believe to be inferior. When God offers forgiveness to all, it renders our moral accounting useless. Now we all stand before Him on level ground. That is the scandal of grace. That is what makes God's grace so hard for us to accept. It requires us to let go of our perceived entitlement and come to God based not on our merits but on His generosity.

This aspect of grace came to the forefront of the Christian community a number of years ago in the person of Jeffrey Dahmer. Late in the winter of 1992, Dahmer was found guilty of murdering 15 men and boys and was sentenced to 957 years in prison. The shocking nature of his crimes made Jeffrey Dahmer one of the most infamous serial killers of all time. It isn't appropriate to go into detail here, but it is sufficient to say that his crimes were unspeakably gruesome. As Dahmer served his time at Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage, Wisconsin, his father sent him Christian materials. In 1994 Jeffrey Dahmer accepted Christ as his personal Savior. He was baptized and met weekly with Reverend Roy Ratcliff until he was murdered by a fellow inmate later in that year.* As Dahmer's conversion became news and people began to debate whether it could be sincere, many Christians struggled with the thought that Dahmer could be equal to them in the eyes of God.

The truth is that your moral accounting is bankrupt. We all have a tendency to fudge the numbers in our favor so much so that we can't be trusted. We are all much more like those workers who only worked an hour than we would like to admit. None of us has earned a spot in heaven. No matter how good we may look by the measure of this world, we are all dependent on God's exorbitant grace. The true scandal of grace isn't that God is cheating those who deserve more from Him. It's that God would choose to love any of us at all...that He would choose to let any of us into His heaven. Don't stumble over the rock of offence (Romans 9:32-33). Fully embrace the good news that God has for your life and the lives of those around you. Embrace the magnificent unfairness of the gospel of Christ for it is only by it that you can be saved!

For further reading...
  • Hosea- Much of this book is devoted to the scandal of grace. In it God commands His prophet (Hosea) to marry a prostitute (Gomer) as a metaphor for His love for unfaithful Israel. How scandalous. After Gomer leaves Hosea to return to her life of prostitution, God commands Hosea to take her back. He must purchase his own wife at a public auction as a slave! But the real scandal isn't that a prophet would marry a prostitute or that he would take her back after all she had done. It's that God would love Israel in spite of all her sin.

*See Wikipedia's entry on Jeffrey Dahmer and the following article:

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