Several years ago I sat at a rehearsal dinner with a young woman who was getting her masters degree in mathematics. Not too fond of math myself, I told her how impressed I was and that I felt I had never been real good with numbers. She responded with, “Oh, we don’t really use numbers.” I was silenced. I didn’t even know how to respond, at least intelligently. Math without numbers? Isn’t that like geology without rocks, astronomy without stars, or zoology without animals? Surely she was talking a new math that I had not yet learned.
In Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus takes us to school with the scandalous mathematics of grace. Here He tells the troubling and frustrating parable of the vineyard workers and mathematically- challenged landowner. Troubling because it challenges our sense of fairness and it makes us question what is just. Of course, this is why Jesus so masterfully crafts this great story.
The landowner of the vineyard went out to hire workers for the day and found men waiting at the marketplace. He then hired groups of workers at different times throughout the day- “early” around 6 a.m., 9 a.m., noon, 3:00 p.m., and 5:00 p.m. The workday ended at 6:00 pm. When time came to pay all the workers he started with the last hour crew and paid them a full day’s wage. Those who had worked much longer and harder were eager and optimistic to see what the landowner would pay them. Each one received the very same wage, though the last to be paid had worked hard all day long. We resonate with the tired and frustrated workers as they complain of the injustice served. “It’s not fair!” is our collective response.
The story turns completely when we look harder, not at the characters in the parable but at ourselves- or I should say, as we find ourselves in the story. Every now and then if I read the Bible with a humble introspection and an eye toward application- I find myself in the story (which of course, is the point and power of Scripture). We identify with the frustrated workers because we actually think we’re the first-hour guys, the all-day workers. Our self-righteous angst betrays our misunderstanding, until we recognize that we are, in fact, the last-hour workers. You and I are the ones that others deemed unworthy to hire. We are the ones who showed up late and have done very little. This is the point of Jesus’ story. Perhaps the most profound words in the parable are found in the all-day workers protest against the landowner: “you have made them equal to us”. Praise be to God for the unfair and maddening gift of His grace.
The New Math of Grace
• Grace is not about human merit. It is about divine forgiveness.
• Grace is not about earning wages. It is about dispensing gifts.
• Grace is not about religious moralism or behavioral compliance to rules. It is about a complete reorientation of life to the Gospel.
• Grace is not about finishing first or last. It is about not counting.