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The Arbitrariness of Grace

from the “Nurture in Time and Eternity” collection

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 16:2-15
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

September 18, 2005
Marsh Chapel
Boston University

Ever since the feminist movement has called attention to unequal pay for equal work, we have become tender about the issue raised in Jesus’ parable. The vineyard owner, who is a symbol of God, pays everyone the same for very unequal work. Is this fair? It seems not to be fair, and anyone here who has supervised employees knows how upsetting it is for people to go around complaining that they are not paid enough for what they do, relative to others. Should everyone be paid the same rate in proportion to the quantity and quality of the work they do? Should this be qualified by seniority? By extra tolerance and support for the inexperienced? Should those with special needs be paid more in the form of extra support so that they can do their jobs? Should affirmative action and equal opportunity considerations enter in? Should full-time employees committed to an enterprise be paid more than part-timers hired for piece-work? Should we have government subsidies of American workers when foreign workers can do the job more efficiently? The day-work workers in Jesus’ parable are closest to migrant farm workers in our society. I’d love to know what Caesar Chavez, a devout Christian, thought about this parable of Jesus. In our society our moralists and legislators have thought long and hard about these complicated issues, and the rules that now govern employment in our society would have driven Jesus’ landowner up the vineyard wall. Still, no one thinks we have yet sorted out all the moral dimensions of the economic issues of reward for work. The globalization of the economy and the degradation of the environment make all these issues new every day.

From the standpoint of first century economics, the landowner had a good position. He contracted individually with the workers from early morning until the eleventh hour. No one was paid less than standard wages for a day’s work. From that standpoint no one had a complaint. That he paid those who went to work later the same as everyone else might not seem fair to those who started at break of day, but the early birds themselves were not cheated out of anything they had bargained for. Technically they had no complaint.

The analogy with church-life is painfully clear here. We all know Christians who have devoted themselves to the church from childhood, working hard on committees, devoting their income to the church, and defining the social shape of their lives around church activities. I’m one of these people. We want to be rewarded for this. Some of you know how in various congregations a great deal of time is spent honoring the hard workers, the Sunday School teachers, the Board members, those who cook the dinners, and all the rest. Of course it is good to express gratitude, but so many of us come to expect the gratitude because of the good works that we do. How off-balance we feel, then, when the agenda of the church turns out to be serving those who have not been faithful and devoted! The parable of the lost sheep is comforting for those who are lost and hope that God is looking for them. But to the ninety nine sheep who are left to their own devices while the shepherd goes to look for the lost one, that parable is not welcome. Or think about the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15: the older brother was deeply provoked when his younger brother was welcomed back with a feast of a fatted calf; the older brother had worked unstintingly for his father all his life, while the younger spent his inheritance frivolously, and yet the older brother had not been celebrated with a party with even a goat, let alone a prize calf. Don’t we all identify at some level with the hard-working older brother, even though we know we shouldn’t? Well, we know we shouldn’t because the point of much of our work in the church is to help those prodigals, isn’t it?

Still, it just isn’t fair. It’s time to acknowledge the far greater unfairness of life as such. Some people are born in America, which at its worst is still far better than being born in Dafur. Some people are born rich and others with nothing. Some have great parents, others horrible families or none at all. Some people are born smart and others slow. Some handsome, others repulsive. Some graceful, others disabled. Some have the DNA for long life, others for susceptibility to allergies, cancer, genetic diseases, and general frailty. Some people are born in happy times, others in times of violence and chaos where no happy life is possible. Some people are lucky in daily life and others are hit by crazy drivers, chance diseases, and the bad accidents of history. I could go on and on about the unfairness of life, if fairness means that we all have equal resources, opportunities, and inner nature. You all get the point. Life is unfair and we are thrown into arbitrary situations.

Our first response to realization of this arbitrariness ought to be quick and heavy outpourings of gratitude. Everyone here and in the listening audience of this broadcast is in a greatly favored situation relative to the majority of people on the Earth. Even when our careers collapse, our child dies, or we grow diseased toward death, we know that there are millions in our own time who have no careers whatsoever, all of whose children starve early, and who live diseased for so short a time that they cannot contemplate the closing down of life as if it had a normal trajectory. It should humble us to know that, no matter how unfortunate or desperate we are, people less fortunate than we exist who still give God gratitude and glory for the very gift of life itself.

Our second response to the realization of arbitrariness should be to take stock of our conception of God. Although we are inclined to imagine God in the image of the best that we can imagine for human beings, which is to be fair and just with equal benefits for all, God is obviously not that. God’s creation is arbitrary from beginning to end. The big bang did not expand equally but clumped into galaxies. The Earth was hospitable to many life forms, but most have been extinguished. People have been born all over the Earth, but some were favored by hospitable natural elements and high civilization, others not. Many of you have read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, which shows how climatic and environmental conditions favor some societies and not others; the very differences in those conditions mean arbitrary differences in the lives of people across the globe. Despite the fact that we can affirm that God loves us all equally, we have to admit that God does not provide for us equally. In part, our God’s glory consists in freedom to make a tilted world.

Jesus’ point in the parable, however, was not really about economic justice. Nor was it about the arbitrariness of God’s creation where some people come out on top and others at the bottom, although of course he did acknowledge that and said that in his kingdom the first will be last and the last first. Rather, Jesus’ point was about the infinite fullness of God’s grace. Like the vineyard owner, God can reward people far more than they deserve.

The fourth century churchman, St. Chrysostom, wrote a wonderful sermon to be preached at the Easter Vigil on the Saturday before Easter morning. At that service, people are at the eleventh hour, a phrase he elaborated repeatedly, awaiting the celebration of the resurrection. Everyone is tense for the resurrection moment. In his day, and in ours at this service that we do in Marsh Chapel each year, we have lit the candles symbolizing the light of Christ against the darkness, listened to the scriptures of the promises of God for salvation, and sung the hymns that incorporate the people into God’s work. The catechumens have been examined, just then baptized, and accepted into the church, and we anticipate closing with the Eucharist by which we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection. Then comes Chrysostom’s sermon. If you began the Christian life in the infancy of your days, Hallelujah, welcome! If you came at 9 a.m., like the beginning of adulthood, Hallelujah, welcome! If you came at noon, in a midlife crisis, or in the afternoon, facing old age, Hallelujah, welcome! And if you come at the eleventh hour of the workday, when you really can’t do much good at all any more, do not hold back. Come! Hallelujah! You are welcome! The grace of God is as full for you as for those who lived bathed within it since the dawn! For God’s grace, the eleventh hour is as good as the first!

Now I suspect that St. Chrysostom’s sermon was as upsetting to the good folks of his own time, the acolytes, deacons, and proper established Christians, as it is to us. His was a doctrine of radical grace, grace that does not demand that it be deserved, but offers to transform those who do not deserve it and yet accept the grace. In our own time, when people feel so strongly the requirements of good behavior, this is a strange and strong gospel. I think for us that this gospel might be movingly expressed in a source far removed from the elevated theology and liturgy of Chrysostom. Tom Waits wrote a song, “Down There by the Train,” that is an uncanny re-expression of Jesus’ parable. Perhaps some of you have heard the version sung by Johnny Cash that goes something like this:

There’s a place I know where the train goes slow;
Where the sinner can be washed in the blood of the lamb.
There’s a river by the trestle down by Sinner’s Grove
Where the Willow and the Dogwood grow.
Down there by the train
Down there by the train
Down there by the train
Down there where the train goes slow.

You can hear the whistle, you can hear the bell,
From the halls of Heaven to the gates of Hell,
And there’s room for the forsaken
If you’re there on time.
You can be washed of all your sins and all of your crimes,
If you’re down there by the train,
Down there by the train,
Down there by the train,
Down there by the train,
Down there where the train goes slow.

There’s a golden moon that shines up through the mist,
And I know that your name can be on that list.
There’s no eye for an eye, there’s no tooth for a tooth.
I saw Judas Iscariot carrying John Wilkes Booth.

If you’ve lost all your hope, if you’ve lost all your faith,
I know you can be cared for, and I know you can be safe.
And all of the shamefuls, and all of the whores,
And even the soldier who pierced the side of the Lord,
Is down there by the train,
Down there by the train
Down there by the train
Down there by the train,
Down there, where the train goes slow.

Well I’ve never asked forgiveness, never said a prayer, Never given of myself, never truly cared. I’ve left the ones who loved me, and I’m still raising Cain. I’ve taken the low road, and if you’ve done the same, Meet me down there by the train, Down there by the train Down there by the train, Down there by the train, Down there where the train goes slow.

At the eleventh hour, Jesus is waiting.


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