Thursday, July 21, 2005

Jesus' Gospel of Grace (2)

Jesus taught constantly about grace, even in stories and sayings where He did not even use the word! This is why it was said He was "full of grace and truth" and His teachings were "words of grace" and why the doctrine of grace became so important to the church and why it features so prominently in Paul’s writings.

For example, the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) tells of an employer who hires some workers early in the day, some later, and some an hour before quitting time, then pays each of them the same amount. When the workers who worked all day complain, the employer's explanation is: “Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?' "So the last will be first, and the first will be last." (Matt. 20:15-16). God’s standard of reward is totally different from human standards of payment – it is entirely a matter of grace. The labourer who puts in a full day received a denarius, which was a usual day’s wages – this is what they deserved. But those who were sent into the field at the end of the day and worked only one hour received the same wages as those who had worked all day. By human standards a day’s work deserves a day’s pay. But by God’s standards those who worked for one hour also received a day’s pay. Human standards are based on merit and reward. God’s standard is grace.

The well known parable of the Lost Son (Luke15:11-32) has a similar message. A son demands the family fortune and wastes it, then returns home expecting little in the way of good treatment. The father welcomes him handsomely, over the objections of his other son who stayed at home and served dutifully. The older dutiful son got what he deserved. The younger son got what he didn’t deserve. By human standards the older son should have been rewarded for his loyalty and service. But by God’s standards the younger wayward son was accepted because his father loved him. This is grace.

We can see a common thread in these parables of Jesus: the grace of God is something that upsets human ideas about merit, about what is deserved, and what is due as a reward.

In fact, we see in some of Jesus’ sayings and stories that the rewards are out of all proportion to the service which was rendered. Matthew records some examples of this:

- “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19:29)

- “"Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions.” (Matthew 24:47)

- “"His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'” (Matthew 25:21,23)

This is the way it is with God.

- First, even our opportunities for service are a gift from God (Matt 25:14ff);

- then we are rewarded when we have only done our duty;

- finally we are rewarded out of all proportion to what we have done, even when we don’t reserve to be rewarded at all.

Such is God’s grace.

It is impossible to earn God’s favour. The story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14) makes the point that not even religious observances can make us deserving of God’s rewards. In the story the tax collector, in a class of people despised and often associated with “sinners”, is “justified before God” while the Pharisee who prayed, fasted and gave money to God’s temple comes in for criticism. Yet elsewhere we are taught to pray, encouraged to give to the poor, and told that fasting is valuable. This parable focuses our attention on the motivation for religious observances. If we are being “religious” in order to earn merit with God then our efforts are useless. However, if our observances are the grateful responses of someone who has been saved as a result of God’s undeserved favour, then they will not go unrewarded.

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