Unmerited Grace

September 20, 2020

Matthew 20:1-16

I recently received a blast from my past in something new. In the eighties, the movie, The Karate Kid, was released. Starring Ralph Macchio as Daniel LaRusso and William Sabka as Johnny Lawrence, his rival. Johnny appears to have it all in life and Daniel and his mother just have the carload of possessions they brought to California from New Jersey.

Daniel is holding fast that life is not fair after moving from his friends in New Jersey and now finds himself being bullied by Johnny and his group of friends. It is a hero story and you find yourself rooting for Daniel. Now, over 30 years later there is a new series on Netflix titled Cobra Kai.  We return to familiar settings in California to find Daniel and Johnny in midlife and their position in life reversed as Daniel owns a successful car dealership and Johnny is struggling to make ends meet. Johnny now is the one that is examining life as not fair.  

The idea of fairness is quite often determined by those that find their expectations not being met. They are left grumbling on the sidelines because they did not get their way and it is simply not fair! I know that I can point to a few times in my life where I have felt this way, and I am sure that if you think about it, you can name some times as well.

As we listen to our gospel lesson from Matthew today, we find a similar situation happening in the parable that Jesus shares. Over the course of the day, the landowner comes out to hire workers. The landowner has a heart for the people that are patient enough to wait for a job to come their way and most likely cannot find one another way. The first hires agree to a day’s wage, which is one denarius. At the end of the day, the vineyard workers are paid, starting with the last hired and working their way to the first hired. Surely, when the last hired received one denarius, those hired first are going to receive much more. However, they did not agree to anything more. They received what was promised to them. And yet, they grumble. They are not thankful for the money they did make to help provide a meal for their family that evening. Instead, they sound ungrateful and greedy.

The landowner reaffirms that they were paid what was agreed upon and it is simply none of their business what he pays everyone else. I will admit, I was right there with those first hires when it came time to be paid. It’s not fair! Their argument is based upon three things. First, they assumed that they would be getting more, just because those that did not swelter in the heat for the entire day received what was originally promised to those hired first. Second, they are being made equal to those hired last. Come on, how is that fair? Third, they put in the work. Their work should merit a greater pay. The first hired were burdened with working an entire day and had the sun beating down on them.

There are times in our lives when we make the same assumptions. We feel that we have been shortchanged and it is simply not fair. Perhaps, we were born in a blue-collar household and our classmate was born in the million dollar mansion on the other side of town. This may not seem fair, but it is reality. Much like the characters depicted in The Karate Kid. We receive more of the story as we engage the new Cobra Kai series and learn more from the character’s backgrounds.

So, why is Jesus sharing this parable with us?

If we go back to the first verse in chapter 20, Jesus says, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner…” These stories are meant to be so radical that it makes the disciples stop in their tracks and think about what they are doing. Remember, the king that forgave a debt as large as a small countries GDP last week?

It has to be radical because the grace of God is radical. It comes to all people, regardless of the time that they entered the vineyard to work. God’s grace comes to us in our sinfulness and even when we are hunkering down and grumbling. The grace of God is simply a gift to those that are open to receiving it. It is not possible to come too late to receive the grace of God. In the actions of the landowner, Jesus reveals the transcending and transforming grace of God, where all should be rejoicing.

This grace is unmerited. There is nothing that we must do to receive it. We enter the field when we are ready, and sometimes we may even end up leaving the field and returning later. And this is radical. This does not match the expectation in our earthly world where we are paid for performance and even our higher education.

What would it look like if we were to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth today? There would be many people upset. Because their expectations would not be met. God is not a God that pleases everyone. God is a God of grace and Jesus Christ calls us into action to live out the kingdom in our world today. Even by revealing God’s grace in pieces, they start to add up. And by doing so, we share in the love of God’s unmerited grace for all of creation.

By Alex Steward

I am a husband, father, and pastor within the ELCA. I did not grow up in the church and thus come at this pastoring thing with an unique perspective.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: