Although I cannot remember the exact date, it is a day I will never forget. On a warm day in fall, a sermon was preached on the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20 verses 1- 16) that set me off on a journey that led me to a deeper understanding of God’s grace, and my life hasn’t been the same ever since.
In the parable, all of the workers were paid a full day’s wage regardless of the amount of time they worked or the effort they put in. Like the workers who laboured the full day, it didn’t seem fair to me that they were paid the same wage as the workers who put in less time and effort.
But what really got my hackles up was the underlying message of the parable: the same God who blesses those who faithfully love, serve and obey Him, also blesses those who fall short in their love, service and obedience to Him. The difficult part for me was accepting that it is God’s prerogative to choose how and who He will bless, including those who are not making a diligent effort to serve him or to obey His teachings. As the preacher pointed out, the only explanation for the things that don’t seem to be fair, is that God’s grace is indiscriminate. It is not up to those of us who consider ourselves to be good, practising Christians to question how and why God blesses those who are not. Grace is undeserved kindness and favour from God, freely given to people who do nothing to earn it.
On the day when the sermon was preached, I did believe and still do believe with all my heart that it is through God’s grace we are saved, and not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9). But the parable of the workers in the vineyard got me thinking more about my own beliefs about what is fair. In fact the sermon challenged my understanding of God’s blessings to those who diligently seek Him (Hebrews 11:6), do His work (Hebrews 6:10) and are obedient to His Word (Psalm 111:10).
A few weeks later, I was invited to attend a Bible study in a prison. The text of the Bible study was Isaiah 55, the invitation to those who are spiritually thirsty to come to God because His way is the better option. I paid particular attention to the comments the inmates made on verses 6 to 9.
6 Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near. 7 Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. 8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. 9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Some of the inmates shared that there is no mention of punishment or condemnation in God’s invitation to us to come to Him in verse 7. God offers pardon and mercy to those who respond to His invitation. They also shared that although the criminal justice system has condemned them, they have received God’s pardon and mercy. They spoke of how they receive God’s grace and blessings every day in many ways, even in as dismal a place as a prison. I was struck by their admission that when an error is made, corrective action has to be taken. In their case, they committed crimes that are punished by human law. They also shared that for all human sin, Jesus Christ took the punishment through death on the cross and that by God’s grace we can all receive God’s blessings of fellowship with Him and eternal life.
At that point, the sermon on the parable of the workers in the vineyard really hit home – as if a light had been turned on and my understanding of God’s grace was changed forever. I now understand that God’s ways or principles go way beyond human principles of justice, peace and fairness that are predicated on compromise, compensation and negotiation. God’s grace is given freely and overrides our own beliefs about what is fair. Many of us good, Bible-obeying Christians need to accept that and not try to figure it out.
What’s more, is that my understanding of God’s grace came full circle, in a most unlikely place – a prison – from an unlikely source – inmates who the society has labeled ‘incorrigible,’ and ‘evil,’ but on whom God has bestowed His grace, in the same way He has bestowed grace on me.
I have looked back on past events in my life and realized that God has lavishly bestowed His grace on me. Although I have not committed a crime punishable by law, I now realize that God sees the inmates in the same way as he sees me and in fact, all people who have not ended up on the wrong side of human law. All of us are sinners in need of His grace and mercy. By accepting the saving act of Jesus’ death, we are now people with the potential to do what is good and right by the grace of God and the enabling power of the Holy Spirit.
I agree that we need to have laws and a correctional system to ensure that we all live in a just and safe society and that criminals should be incarcerated and rehabilitated. I am also quite sure that God is a just and fair God, and He does not tolerate sin. But, it is His desire is for all of us to know Him and it is His grace that draws us to Him, wherever we are and whoever we are.
Armed with my understanding of God’s grace, I’m now committed to be a channel of God’s grace – quick to forgive, less critical of others’ shortcomings, not keeping a record of ‘wrong’ and ‘unfair’ actions and to nurture the goodness of God that is in each and every human being I meet.