You may be familiar with Phillip Yancey's book What's So Amazing About Grace?
It's a great title. But I think a better question, in light of today's Gospel lesson, is...What's so fair about grace?
Human beings care about fairness. Getting what we deserve. Deserving what we get. Keeping score. Making the equations of life together come out right.
But the God we find in the story of the Vineyard Owner is a God who doesn't seem to give a fig for fairness. Work all day in the hot sun? Earn a denarius. Spend an hour or two on the job before the whistle blows? Earn a denarius. "Hey -- my vineyard, my rules."
Over the centuries this parable has been used as an object lesson in dealing with a lot of issues in the Church -- everything from the friction between Jesus' original followers and converts, to the tension we sometimes find in today's congregations between the Old Guard and new members, to general spiritual one-upsmanship within the Christian community. But I think there's a way to understand it in even simpler terms.
There's nothing fair about grace. And that is very good news indeed, because if there were we would all be out on the curb. None of us deserve grace, because it's not about earning points by doing stuff. In God's economy, Mother Teresa and Bishop Tutu stand shoulder to shoulder with murderers, drug dealers and your Uncle Frank the SOB. The mentally challenged guy in your congregation who screams out an incoherent "Jesus Loves Me" at inappropriate moments in the service, and the most renowned doctor of the Church in all of history -- here's your denarius, fellas.
Which also illustrates another aspect of God's economy -- there's zero unemployment. God keeps pulling people off the sidewalk as fast as they gather there; isn't picky about qualifications or references: "Come work in my vineyard."
And God's grace is enough. In Jesus' parable, all the workers receive the ancient Palestinian minimum wage -- enough to get by for another day. Sometimes I think it's hard for us to get our heads around this: We don't have to clutch at or hoard or fight over God's grace because there is enough for us all. How much of the discord in Christendom today, when you get right down to it, is essentially a grab for grace? -- "It's mine! Mine, I tell you!" -- as if God has not already given us the grace we need? God's grace, properly understood, is a unifying agent between people; by divorcing grace from merit, God refuses to play our human game of dividing ourselves into "us" and "them." "You're all 'us,'" is the divine message in the vineyard owner's unconditional denarius.
Madeleine L'Engle, in an interview with The Door magazine many years ago, observed that we tend to want justice for everyone else but lots and lots of grace for ourselves. Because we just want what's fair; right?
Thank God that God's grace isn't fair. Thank God that God doesn't give us what we want, but instead gives us what we need -- freely, lovingly; not because of who we are, but because of who God is.
Red Vineyard, Vincent Van Gogh