Linda Chase, Lent 5, Year B; March 25, 2012; Genesis 4:1-16; Ephesians 2:4-10
Back in 1992 there was a trial that took place in LA that led to riots. It was the trial of several white police officers who had been caught on video beating a black man whose name was Rodney King. I can remember watching the news, watching the arms of the police being raised again and again coming down on King who lay on the ground. The jury found the police not guilty of the charges. The response was out- rage and ensuing riots in south LA. Many people, white as well as black, felt the police did not get what they deserved. During the riots, which followed the not guilty verdict, a group of black men dragged a white truck driver, Reginald Denny, out of his truck and proceeded to beat him almost to death. The whole event was broadcast live as there was a news helicopter over head at the time. Again, I remember watching in horror the beating as it was happening. The outcome of the trial of the LA 4, as they were nick named in the press, the group that beat Denny, was predictable. In a tit for tat verdict, they were found guilty of minor charges and given wrist slapping sentences. Again, many felt justice was not served and the 4 who beat Denny, leaving him permanently damaged, did not get what they deserved.
There seems to be something within human nature that wants people to get what they deserve, or at least what we think they deserve, be it reward or punishment. When people live responsibly, are hard-working, honest and generally good people, the thought is they deserve a good life. They deserve to be happy and if not live high off the hog, at least live comfortably. When that does not happen, especially when bad things happen to them through no fault of their own, do we not often say, “They certainly did not deserve this” whatever the this is. We want life to make sense and when it doesn’t, life does not seem fair.
On the flip side of the coin, when people are dishonest and unethical, the expectation and perhaps even the desire is that they will get caught and be punished. After all, that is what they deserve, is it not? Who laments what happened to Bernie Maddof? Isn’t his 100 year punishment for ruining all those lives including driving his own son to suicide exactly what he deserves? We like people to get what they deserve because it helps us make some kind of sense out of our senseless world.
It is no different in our life of faith either. We even have a scripture verse we like to quote that supports this kind of thinking. “People reap what they sow” and “what goes around, come around.” We like to believe that. So when we run up against a parable that doesn’t go along with this way of thinking, it may throw us for a loop. Jesus told one such parable and it It went like this. There was an owner of a vineyard and maybe it was harvest time because he went to the marketplace looking for workers. Early in the morning he hired a group of laborers and after they had agreed on a fair wage for the day’s work they went into the vineyards.
At 9 am the vineyard owner saw more workers in the market standing idle and so he hired them as well. This same thing happened again at noon, at 3 pm and the lasts group of day laborers was hired at 5 pm. At the end of the day the whistle blew and vineyard owner called all the workers together to hand out the pay for their work. First he paid those hired at 5 pm, one hour before quitting time. They must have been astonished that they received a full days wage for only 1 hour of work. And so it went with each group hired, regardless of number of hours worked, getting the same amount of money; a full days pay.
Finally it was time for the first group hired to get their pay. The parable said they thought they would be paid more because they had seen what all the others had been paid. They were the only ones who had worked a full day. Maybe they were expecting time and a half or double time. But no, they got the same wage too – the wage they had agreed on at the beginning of the day. In the parable, these workers “grumbled” about the land owner having made their pay equal with the pay of those who worked just 1 hour.
Grumbled? Are you kidding me! Today there would be pickets and marchers and signs denouncing the land owner for being unfair to laborers. For not paying the workers what they deserved. A week ago Friday I was in NYC and I saw two HUGE blown up rats; like the blown up Santas we see at Christmas time.. They were in front of St. Luke’s Hospital. Later, when I saw my daughter I asked her about them and she said that’s what they do in the city when workers are protesting against their employer. No quiet grumbling but big, huge rats letting anyone who passed by know what a rat the employer was in not giving the workers what they deserved in terms of salary and benefits.
To be honest, this parable about the generous vineyard owner, I find hard to stomach. It really isn’t about wages and fair treatment of workers. It is about grace, God’s grace that is freely given to everyone and here is the kicker, poured out on even those I think don’t deserve it! It’s not fair God. If we are honest, don’t we at times want God to see what a good life we have been leading – we go to church and contribute and are involved. Yet, there is that other person who lives only for themselves, and he/she gets the same gift to grace? What has he/she done to deserve it?
And that’s the whole point. Grace is free and we have done nothing to deserve it. That is just who God is. Take the story of Cain and Able, for example. Cain was jealous of his brother Able and in a fit of anger killed his brother. What did Cain deserve? The death penalty or life locked? But no, when Cain complained to God about the punishment God placed on Cain, saying that everyone would now seek to kill him. So God said that God would protect Cain and anyone who sought to do Cain harm would have to deal with the vengeance of God. Do we think Cain really deserved such love, understanding and grace from God? Really? Abel was still dead because of his brother but now Cain was protected by God. What is fair about that?
When two of the mothers of the black men who beat Reginold Denny almost to death, came into the court room for their sons’ trial, Denny went over to them and spontaneously gave them each a big hug. Everyone was shocked including the mothers because it was so unexpected. Following the conclusion of the trial Denny was interviewed and asked how he felt about the light sentences his attackers had been given. Again, Denny surprised most everyone by what he said. He said that he was satisfied; that he was not after vengeance. He said that it was now time for the community to come together and forgive; to work together to move ahead. In my way of thinking, Denny was living out grace; giving to others not what was expected, perhaps not even what they deserved.
That is what grace is; giving back that which is not deserved. It is a gift with no strings attached. Free, not earned; ours to accept from God or not. God is the grace giver par excellence….giving and giving and giving to all, even those we think don’t deserve it for who of us really does? God giving us love and forgiveness and grace is wiping the slate clean. Giving us life, then new life and eternal life. Giving us God’s very self through God’s son, Jesus Christ.
Scripture is full of stories of grace from Sarah who was told she was going to give birth to a son at age 99 and she laughed virtually in God’s face. Yet, to her a son was born, Isaac which means laughter. To the thief on the cross who said to Jesus I deserve my fate but you did not. Remember me in you kingdom. Out of grace Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
How magnificent is grace and how lavishly God pours it out. In the parable of the vineyard, after the grumbling of the laborers, the vineyard owner said, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” That is the question is it not? Someone once said that there is nothing harder to accept than grace when it is given to someone else.
Yet my friends, as the letter to the Ephesians makes so clear, God’s grace is for all of God’s children. “God who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which God loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.”
Grace is often an unexpected gift what surprises us because it comes wrapped in expected ways through unorthodox people at unannounced times, Not earned, not deserved, yet a gift to us no less.
What to do with this great gift? Accept it with thanksgiving and praise. Then put grace into practice for as we are reminded in Ephesians; “God has made us, created us in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” Our way of life- to be a liver and giver of grace in response to God’s gift of grace to us. What better time than Lent to extend the gift of grace to all whose lives we touch. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.” to you. Thanks be to God. Amen