Grace Doesn’t Make Sense

First United Methodist Church — Omaha
Dr. Jane Florence
September 24, 2017
Scripture: Matthew 20:1-16 and Isaiah 55: 6-9
Sermon: “Grace Doesn’t Make Sense”

Isaiah tells us, that God says, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways.”

What are the ways of God, you ask?
Jesus spends most of his ministry time trying to answer that question for people. “The ways of God are like…” he begins. The words are usually translated: “the kingdom of God is like…” or “the kingdom of heaven is like…” That’s what those phrases mean, “the way of God is like.” Some 35 to 45 times Jesus tells a story about the realm of God’s ways. Why does Jesus give so many answers? Maybe because people didn’t like or understand his answers. Truth be told, we still don’t.

The ways of God are like… let’s see… imagine a building contractor…
He goes down to the corner of 24th and Vinton at 6:00 am. There are a dozen men gathered there wearing long sleeve cotton shirts and straw hats looking for work for the day. The contractor calls the men over. One becomes the negotiator for them all. They settle on $50 per man for the day’s work. The men wished for more; they need more. If they could get work for $50 a day, every workday of the year, they would have $13,000/year. It’s hard to feed your children and keep a roof over your head for $13,000 these days. But you see, they won’t get work every day of the year. Harsh Nebraskan winters leave them without day labor for months at a time. Work gets scarce in January, but kids still get hungry. Oh well, $50 is what they usually get, so they agree. The contractor sends them off to work his roofs that day. At least they know, they will have payday today.

At 9:00 am, three hours later, the contractor returns to 24th and Vinton. There he sees another dozen men standing idle, he says to them, “go work on my roof, and I will pay you what is right.” That’s a rather vague ‘contract’, but they go to work also, thankful for whatever cash will be paid to them at days end. It won’t be enough, but it will be something.

Three hours later, the scene is repeated. More workers are hired.

Again at 5:00 pm there are men at 24th and Vinton, standing in the heat, knowing the work day is almost done and they will return to their family this night with only dust and sorrow in their pocket. The contractor approaches these men asking, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” “No one hired us,” they said. “We thought we had work, but the man never came.” The contractor says, “Go to work on my building.” They went.

The sun sets and daylight begins to fade. The contractor said to his bookkeeper, “The men have finished for the day; it’s time to give them their pay.” He calls for the men who went out last to come to the front of the line. Only working but an hour, he tells the manager, “give these men a day’s wage.” The men who worked but the last hour of the day walked out of the construction trailer with a crisp $50 and a smile on their face. There would be milk for the children tonight.

Then the men who went to work at 3:00 pm also stood in line to receive their pay. They too were called to the front and paid. Each came out smiling with a $50 bill in hand. Then the men who went to work at noon, and the ones who went to work at 9:00 am. All were ushered to the front to receive their pay. All received a day’s wage.

When the ones who had worked in the hot Nebraska sun, atop the tar roof, from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm, were handed their $50, they grumbled. “What?! We worked in the scorching heat all day! And you made these others – who worked but one hour- you made them equal to us!”

The contractor replied, “Friend, did I not pay you what we agreed upon- the usual day’s wage? Take it and go. I choose to give the last the same as I gave you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

The ways of God are like that. “The last will be first and the first will be last,” Jesus says, looking at his disciples who had been working with him the longest.

Then the mother of two disciples asks Jesus, “but my boys having been following you a long time. They gave up their fishing business. They will be great in your kingdom- yes?” The other disciples grumbled. Jesus sighed.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord God of Israel.

Depending where you are standing in the worker line, you don’t like what Jesus has to say in his story. Assuming we’ve been on the hot roof all day – sweating under the noonday sun or walking the dusty roads of Galilee with blistered feet, or working in the church kitchen all these years, or teaching Sunday school and wiping dirty noses, or giving our money even when times were lean, if we’ve been plowing the field or harvesting the wheat, or fishing for God’s people a long, long time, we don’t like his story one bit, and we begin to wail “that’s not fair!” Try again Jesus. We really don’t like your story. Oh, it’s not that we don’t like your God just tell us a story about your God that sounds more like us. Tell us God is like us then we will understand God. Tell us if we work harder than someone else, we will get more rewards. Tell us if we pray more God will love us more. Tell us God’s way rewards hard work and sacrificial service and lazy. Tell us that story Jesus, we call.

Jesus says, “the ways of God are like… a tiny grain of mustard seed that grows into a big tree.” No, Jesus, we don’t get that one either. He tries again, “the ways of God are like… yeast that a woman mixed…” No, try again. “The ways of God are like… treasure hidden in a field… fine pearls…” No, no, no, we say.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord God of Israel.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Ok fine, then, Jesus, if everyone is going to get the same, I’ll just chill out until the last hour. I’ll hang out in the marketplace till the sun is almost down then I’ll pop over to the worksite, and stand in line for the $50 bucks same as the suckers who worked all day! Baptize me on my deathbed.

Let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that God may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for God will abundantly pardon.

Jesus is clear. God’s ways do not fit the way of the world. Jesus never tells a story about the Kingdom of heaven as a street paved with gold just beyond the white pearly gates exclusive for people who work the hardest. Jesus told hard stories to hear and hard to understand. They are challenging stories that remind us: we are clearly not God. Our thoughts are not God’s thoughts, and our ways are not God’s ways.

The good news is that Jesus persists in telling us the truth about ourselves. We get jealous when good happens to others. We are envious when we are not the recipient of the lavish generosity. The truth about ourselves is we continue to look through the lens of the world order, and Jesus is always trying to turn the world upside down and offer a different order where the last are first and the poor, widows and orphans are cared for and the excluded are brought back into community and all people are given their daily bread and all children have milk to drink and everyone gets treated when they are sick. The truth about ourselves is we don’t want God making someone else “equal to us” or removing divisions that let us think we are better than others. Left to our own devices, we quickly lose sight of the Kingdom of Heaven – the Way of God.

The good news is Jesus never gave up telling those great, challenging, stories about seeds, and wheat and pearls and workers. They are stories that open our eyes to see God’s ways and open our minds to think more godly. Jesus teaches us God’s ways and God’s thoughts and shows us that God’s Spirit is within us enabling us to begin to think and see in a godly way. Jesus gives us a vision of the world where all people have enough and all people are cared for and divisions end. And, the really good news is that we get to be a part of bringing God’s ways into reality only by God’s Grace.

May it be so.