Jan Johnson

Wisbit - March 2013

Grace That’s Hard To Swallow  

At least one of Jesus’ parables tends to frustrate people. A vineyard owner hires workers at 6 AM, more at 9 AM, at noon, at 3 PM, and at 5 PM, but pays them all the same wage! (Matt 20:1-16). How can that be fair? I began to understand, however, that Jesus--as a construction worker himself--understood how important it was to be able to make a livable wage. Picture a street corner of laborers waiting to be hired. It’s agonizing to be the ones left there day after day and never hired.

Now thanks to Ken Bailey in Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, I understand it even better. Bailey titles it “The Compassionate Employer” and points out that the central focus is the compassion and grace of the employer (showing us the character of God). Like the vineyard owner, God goes out of the way to make sure we have what we need each day and refuses to leave us standing on the street corner in despair.

The odd details tell us a lot. Any well-organized vineyard owner would have known how many workers he needed and hired them at 6 AM, but this one makes four trips back to the street corner to hire more. (This isn’t even the vineyard owner’s job—too undignified--it’s the manager’s job.) But the vineyard owner goes back himself, returning every few hours to hire more workers. So what does all this back-and-forth running mean? Did he leave each time feeling sad for the workers he’d left behind unhired? So did he then try to find things for more workers to do because he remembers their rejected faces as he drove away? Or did he just come back to check on them, but then seeing them still there, he said, Oh get in! I’ll find something else to do.

The unpleasant drama occurs at the end. The owner promised a day’s wage to the earliest group who worked the longest but only a fair wage to the rest. When the paycheck moment arrives, he first pays the 5 PM workers a full day’s wage for one hour! All the others get a full day’s wage too. The earliest workers get upset, thinking they deserve more. To which the owner says, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” The amazing and abounding grace of God can also be infuriating.

As I meditated on this passage, I saw that I fall in with a long line of crabby, self-righteous people in Jesus’ parables, including the older brother in the prodigal son story. I notice what others do wrong. I notice what I do right, and I want the recognition! I try to be responsible and do my part. I work hard. Why should others get what I get when I do so much more?  Bailey commented (p. 354), “Self-righteousness distorts visions of self, God and the neighbor.” Jesus crafted this picture of God so we would make no mistake about God’s character as One who abounds in steadfast love, not willing than any should perish or lose heart.

After confessing my self-righteousness, I found I enjoyed gazing at the “compassionate employer” who runs back and forth throughout the world seeking out people (like me) who deserve nothing but are greatly loved. This is who I want to be when I grow up.

Grace and peace,
Jan Johnson




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