Grace Upon Grace is the new book of sermons from David Johnson, a great friend of Mockingbird’s here in Charlottesville, VA. You may have heard some of his sermons on our Resources page, or had the pleasure of listening to his talk on parenting at our conference this past Fall. This particular collection spans topics from all the “personal matters” of life: parents and kids, wives and husbands, money matters and big decisions, corporate ladders and childhood mistakes. In doing so, Dr. Johnson brings the heart of the gospel into the common corners of our daily lives–but not without first alluding to his all-too-relatable stories of 1970s America, or the equally relatable figures of culture, from Shakespeare and Springsteen, Marty McFly and T.S. Eliot. For parents seeking grace with children, or seminarians looking for fresh material, or anyone in need of some good news, these are sermons that bring new life into the everyday.
This excerpt comes from “Scrambling to be First: Christ’s Freedom in the Rat Race,” a sermon on The Parable of the Landowner (Matt 20:1-16).
One of my favorite teachers in elementary school was my third grade teacher, Mrs. Stevens, an “old school” teacher who maintained a strict sense of order in class, but who also genuinely cared about each of us. On the first day of school she asked us to line up for lunch and there was a mad scramble to get to the front of the line. After we had lined up, Mrs. Stevens went to the back of the line, smiled and said, “This is the front of the line,” and led the class to lunch. I still remember the surprised grin on the face of kid who suddenly found herself in the front of the line, as well as the angry response from someone at the back of the line: “This is so annoying!”
The next day when we lined up for lunch we all scrambled to be last in line, so Mrs. Stevens went to the middle of the line and said, “Today this is the front of the line.” Eventually we all got the message and the scrambling to be first stopped.
Today’s Gospel lesson, the Parable of the Landowner, is unsettling on the surface for many people, and for some people their response to this parable is the same as that of the kid in the back of the line: “This is so annoying!” This parable can indeed be annoying because when it comes to merit, to getting what you’ve earned thank-you-very-much, it turns everything upside down. The grace the landowner demonstrates in this parable is the opposite of what Jesus’ hearers, and we, would expect. One scholar aptly refers to this parable as “The Parable of the Eccentric Employer.”
We live in a world in which people scramble to be first all the time: kids in elementary school scrambling to be first in the lunch line, high school students scrambling to be in the top ten percent of their class, college students scrambling to get into a certain fraternity or sorority, employees scrambling for promotions, parents scrambling to get their kids ahead.
In this parable Jesus talks about a landowner who needs workers for his vineyard and one day goes into town multiple times and hires workers for his vineyard. Some work all day, others half a day, others a quarter of a day and still others for just one hour. At the end of the day the landowner does two things that reveal his grace. First, he pays the last people he hired—those who only worked an hour— before anyone else; second, he pays them a full days’ wages. He then proceeds to pay everyone else the exact same amount, including those who had worked all day long.
While apparently those who worked less than a full day respond gratefully by accepting the grace of the landowner and going on their merry way, there is an angry, visceral response by those who are paid last. Jesus says, “They grumbled against the landowner” and complain to his face, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” These grumbling workers feel entitled.
…And I know I’m not alone, for many of us still want to cling to our sense of deservedness. Shaking off our sense of deservedness is like trying to shake off a spider web we’ve walked into, and we don’t really want to shake it off anyway. But again, in the kingdom of heaven, God’s grace supersedes it all. In his book, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning describes this:
The gospel of grace… obliterates the two-class citizenship theory operative in many American churches. For grace proclaims the awesome truth that all is gift. All that is good is ours, not by right, but by the sheer bounty of a gracious God… Jesus comes not for the super-spiritual but for the wobbly and the weak-kneed who know they don’t have it all together, and who are not too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace (25, 28).
Arguably one of the greatest American short story writers is the late Flannery O’Connor. In a letter she once described the main theme of her stories, grace. “Part of the difficulty,” she wrote, “is that you write for an audience who doesn’t know what grace is and doesn’t recognize it when they see it. All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it.”
O’Connor was only thirty-nine when she died of lupus. Toward the end of her life as her suffering increased she wrote a short story entitled “Revelation,” in which she describes Ruby Turpin, a smug self-righteous Southern woman who experiences grace, but as a “character who is not very willing to support it.” Near the end of the story Ruby has the following vision:
She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives… and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself… had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right… They were marching behind the others with great dignity… yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away… In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.
In this vision the smug Ruby Turpin finds herself at the end of the line, behind the white trash, behind the freaks, behind the lunatics—not unlike the angry, entitled laborers at the end of the line behind those who had not borne the heat of the day. In the kingdom of heaven, scrambling for first doesn’t work.
The “annoying” Parable of the Landowner reveals the good news of the Gospel, that God is a gracious God, that he has the power to give his grace however and to whomever he chooses and that he has chosen to give his grace to you and me, especially in the areas of our greatest failure.