September 20, 2020, What If We Are Not the Good Guys?, Matthew 20:1-16 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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The readings for today bring us face to face with the grace of God. Jonah has been sent, kicking and screaming, by the roundabout journey through a whale’s belly, to prophesy death and destruction to Nineveh, a great city in the Assyrian Empire. He goes through the whole city, a city that is so huge it takes three days to walk across, announcing the coming wrath of God. But when the people of Nineveh respond to his prophesying by repenting, fasting and mourning and wearing sack cloth and ashes – everybody from the king down to the cattle – God forgives them. And Jonah is left feeling like a right fool, angry and useless and resentful.
In the parable that Jesus tells, the workers who were hired early in the morning come at 6:00, tired and dirty and sweaty, to pick up their well-deserved paychecks, only to notice that the layabouts who’ve only been working since 5:00 are receiving the same wages as themselves. They’re angry and resentful, too, and really, who can blame them?
We know these stories, we’ve all heard them many times. But no matter how many times we hear them, most of us, I think, find the grace of God challenging to our human sense of what is fair and what is right. How comfortable are you with the idea of God offering forgiveness and free grace to Adolph Hitler, for example? If Hitler, or Charles Manson, or the child molester who lives down the block, if any one of them accepted Jesus on his deathbed, how do you honestly feel about sitting across the table from him at the wedding supper of the Lamb?
When we read these stories, we are forced to wrestle with our natural human resistance to the grace and abundant forgiveness of God. And that is a good challenge for us, an exercise in understanding what God really means when he tells us to forgive our brother or sister seventy-seven times. We sit with Jonah on that hill overlooking Nineveh, and we struggle to understand how God can have compassion on those who are truly wicked. We stand in line with the hard-working laborers in the vineyard, and we struggle to accept the grace of God that rewards the latecomers and layabouts just the same as those of us who show up early and work hard. That’s the way most of us have been in the habit of reading these stories, I believe; that is our common understanding of these two passages. But I want to invite you today to look at the grace of God from another angle.
What if you read the story of Jonah, and instead of seeing yourself seated on the hill with the angry prophet, overlooking the city, struggling with your righteous indignation, suddenly you recognize yourself down in the dirty streets, walking among the wicked people of Nineveh? What if you hear the voice of Jonah crying out your own sins?
What if you read the parable of the workers in the vineyard, and instead of seeing yourself chatting with the hard-working laborers at the end of a long hot day, suddenly you recognize yourself standing awkwardly in the empty marketplace, embarrassed and unwanted, after all the good workers have been hired? What if you are the one coming to collect your wages with your head down, full of shame, knowing full well how little you really deserve?
What if you read Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son, and instead of seeing yourself as the dutiful older brother, offended by all the fuss being made over your worthless sibling, suddenly you recognize yourself dressed in stinking rags, stumbling down the road toward home, overcome with shame, desperately hungry, cold and exhausted?
What if you read the Passion of our Lord, and instead of seeing yourself sorrowfully standing at the foot of the cross with John and the faithful women, suddenly you recognize yourself running as fast as you can in the other direction, seeking a place, any place, where you can be safe, where no one will know you belong to that Galilean preacher? What if you hear your own voice along with Peter’s, vigorously denying Jesus, cursing in your panic, insisting you have nothing whatsoever to do with that man?
What if you suddenly hear your own voice above the clamor of the raging mob in Jerusalem; your own voice raised in anger and fear and hatred above all the others, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
What if we were to read about the grace of God, not as good people who have a hard time accepting the Father’s outgrageous liberality – but as real sinners, hopelessly wicked, desperately in need of his forgiveness?
It is only when we honestly come face to face with the depth, and the persistence, and the intractability of our own sin – not sin in the abstract, not the sin of others, but our own thoughtlessness and selfishness and cruelty – it is only then that we will understand at last that the grace of God is not an offense at all – it is the breath of life to us. The unconditional and abundant grace of our heavenly Father is our only hope, our only light, and our only and everlasting joy.
Jesus ends his parable the way he often does, with this formula: “So the last will be first, and the first last.” One of the reasons we so often struggle with this is that we think of ourselves as the first, and in faith we work to reconcile ourselves to God’s strange kindness, bringing in all those people we view as unworthy or unexpected. We read Matthew 25, and we are challenged to make a spiritual inventory of our lives – and rightly so – considering whether or not we have served God in the poor and hungry and naked and friendless, the last and the least.
But our whole universe shifts when our eyes are opened and we suddenly realize that the last and the least, the helpless and friendless, the unworthy and the beggar – that’s us. That there is no difference between us, washed and combed and dressed in our Sunday respectability, and our unwashed neighbor living on welfare who has never darkened the door of a church. Jesus loves the wretched sinner, and that is the most glorious news in the world to us as soon as we realize that we are that wretched sinner. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound! That saved a wretch like me.” We love that hymn. But do we really understand the truth of what we are singing? Because when we do, and only when we do, then the grace of God shines forth in our lives. Then and only then can we really see the unmerited love of God as the pearl of great price, that precious treasure whose value truly surpasses everything we hold dear.