So You Think You Understand Grace


Just because you can sing it, say, it and praise it, doesn't mean you understand it or even see it. I'm talking about 'grace' and so is Jesus. The apostle Peter didn't understand grace. Peter actually thought that he and the other apostles had done what the rich young man was not able to do. More than that, Peter stated that they had done what Jesus Himself said was impossible for man to do at all.

The young man came to Jesus assuming eternal life can be had by doing a good thing. Jesus quotes the 2nd table of the Law telling him to obey it. The young man says that he had. This man, though young, is a hardened, self-righteous sinner heading for hell. So Jesus nukes him. He goes to the 1st table of the Law saying, "To go to heaven, sell all you have, give it to the poor, and follow Me." He couldn't do this because he loved his belongings more than eternal life. So he goes away sad.

Then Jesus notes how hard it is for those rich in this life to go to heaven. This shocked the apostles because they equated being rich in life with being blessed by God. "Who then can be saved?" they asked. Jesus answers, "It's impossible for a man to save anyone. Only God can do that." Peter doesn't agree. Though he's seen the impossibility of saving yourself by giving up possessions, though He's heard Jesus say it's impossible for man to save anyone, Peter asserts they've left everything to follow Jesus and then asks, "What then will there be for us?" Peter isn't willing to say they've earned the eternal life Jesus promised to the one who keeps all the commandments and leaves his possessions, but he believes their works deserve something.

What nerve! What self-righteousness! What a total lack of understanding grace! But what does Jesus do? Nuke this self-righteous jerk the way He did the young man? Nope, not Jesus. He promises the apostles a share in ruling His kingdom of glory, and He promises all who've left anything a 100 times as much in this life and eternal life in the next. Wow! Jesus promises far beyond what any sinner ever deserved because our leaving of things and our following of Him is always sinful and incomplete. We get a hint though that something else is afoot here rather than works and rewards when Jesus closes this section with the same thought He closes the parable, "But many who are first will be last and many who are last will be first." What's afoot here is grace.

St. Peter didn't understand grace, and neither do I. I look for what Jesus promises to those who've left anything, when I haven't left anything at all for His sake. O, I've left plenty of things for my sake, but what have I left for His? And the truth is that anything I've ever sacrificed or gave up for Jesus' sake has really been about me. I am like the little boy who asked his dad for 4 quarters to put in the collection plate rather than a paper dollar. When the plate was passed, he stood up on the pew and dropped those quarters one by one into the brass offering plate so everyone in the whole church could hear his gift ring.

I think my sacrificing for Jesus should be evident to all. I've earned what Jesus here promises to give. I'm miffed when I don't see Jesus giving me what He has promised. Though I haven't really left a house, I still expect to see 100 more for me. Though I haven't really left any family for Jesus' sake, I expect to see 100 brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, and children. Just what I would do with 100 of any one of them, I don't know, but not understanding grace I misunderstand what Jesus graciously promises, and I look down upon what He really does graciously give.

What does Jesus give His followers in this life that He doesn't give others? He gives everyone family and things, but Jesus promises not 100 times as many for His followers, but 100 times as much. What's a 100 times as much as family and possessions? Well family and things aren't total blessings; problems do come with these. There are no problems or downside to what Jesus has given His followers.

Find me the downside in Absolution, the keys to heaven here on earth? If I had the keys to Ft. Knox, I'd think that was something, yet all sorts of problems would come with all that gold. Fine me the downside of a Water of life that rescues me from Satan and death? If I had the fountain of youth, I'd think that was something, yet despite Rod Stewart's song there is a downside, a dark side even to being "forever young." And find me the dark side, the downside, even a flipside of having the Body and Blood of My Lord and God in Bread and Wine to eat and drink for physical life now and eternal life later? If I had a genie in a bottle, we'd all think that was something, yet even genial Barbara Eden showed the problems with genies.

I look down on the means of grace because I don't understand grace. Neither did the apostles, so Jesus tells this parable which shows that grace is in God's heart not ours. Grace is not bound or contained by our thoughts, ways, or reasoning. In fact, fallen men are offended by grace because it is not fair. It is not fair to give those who worked 1 hour the same as you give those who worked 8.

Examine the parable. Get out of your head that any of us could really earn a day's pay from God by our labors. Who doesn't slack off on the job? Who can honestly say that they've worked hard enough to please God? It's like that joke about Mother Teresa. One priest says to another that his greatest fear is that he'll be standing in the judgment line behind Mother Teresa and hear Jesus say to her, "You know; you could've done more." But that's the God's-honest truth, isn't it? We can do more, we should do more, but we don't, and yet we think in our dark, dank hearts that we've earned our pay of everlasting life!

It's even worse than this. This parable must be connected to a parable Jesus tells later in Matthew. When Jesus sets 2 parables in exactly the same place, He means for them to be connected. The second parable is also in a vineyard, and there's even more grace there. This time God doesn't just graciously hire workers right up till the 11th hour itself; no this time he gives the whole vineyard to the workers. And what do they end up doing? They kill the Owner of the vineyard's Son in an attempt to steal His inheritance.

This is the reality of what we all are. Not just lazy workers in God's vineyard, but murderers of His only beloved Son. That's how God sees us all. God sees us all under the same guilt, so He might be gracious to us all. That's what Paul concludes in Romans 11. We see a difference in sins and sinners. We think that being in the Church for your whole life is worth more than being in it for just the last five minutes of your life. When the truth of the matter is that no one can be in the Church unless God for Jesus sake graciously puts them there and keeps them there.

Jesus is the real number one Son who was first, yet became last. To Him belonged the vineyard; to Him belonged all the love and blessing of God the Father. He was the true object of the Father's love from all eternity. Yet, what do we read, "God so loved the world that He gave up His only begotten Son." God loved this wretched world more than He did His only beloved Son. If God so loved the world, than you can bet the vineyard He loves you.

For God the Father to give up His Son in our place, Jesus had to take on our flesh and blood. To take our place working in the vineyard, He had to be a Man. So, God the Son was placed in a Virgin's womb to be born like we all were. And He went the way Tennessee Ernie Ford sings. No sooner was Jesus born than He picked up His shovel and walked to the vineyard to work in our place. He did leave father, mother, sisters, brothers, and all His heavenly possessions, to till the fields, to plant the grapes, to weed the grapes, to pick the grapes, to make the wine and then to give us that Wine to drink in Holy Communion as what it really is, His Blood.

Oops skipped ahead there. Jesus was the perfect vineyard worker although He was the perfect Son of the Owner. He worked in our place. God counts what He did as our doing it. Some of you picked cotton and know that what you picked was weighed and recorded as yours; well Jesus picked and picked grapes, and God the Father recorded all that perfect picking, all the grapes Jesus brought in as having been brought in by you.

There's still the matter of what leads to Jesus giving us His Blood to drink as wine. The Father gives us this great life and vineyard, and we deny He really owns it or us at all. He sends us His only beloved Son to call us back to Him, and we kill Him. Don't say it wasn't you because it was. You may indeed have killed Him softly with cute, pet sins, but your sinful, fallen life is what caused God to send Him to the cross.

The vineyard Owner was going to throw out you, me, and every other worker regardless of what hour he or she had been brought into work. He was going to punish us richly and completely as our sins deserve, and Jesus said, "Punish Me instead." The Owner of the vineyard punished His dearly loved Son by handing Him over into my sinful hands, and I nailed Him to a tree, I shoved a spear into His side, and He bled and bled and bled.

And His blood covered me from head to toe and covered you too, so that God the Father can't see your sins from your lazy, no count work in His vineyard to those lazy lusts that fester in your heart. He sees only the blood of His Son, and that is thicker, richer, deeper, and holier than any sin imaginable. And so that we might know that this Blood is for us, is ours, Jesus gives it to us to drink it in Holy Communion.

Now then, all sinners are under the same blood of Jesus that He graciously poured out for them and on them. Blood covered sinners all look the same whether they've been in the vineyard for hours or minutes. And none of them truly has borne the heat of the day. Only Jesus bore the heat of judgment day and He did it for the first, last and middle. So at the end of the day He wills to give them all the same forgiveness, life, and salvation as if they all really had borne the heat and did the work because that's how Christ in grace sees things. God grant that though we never understand such grace we might at least see it. Amen. Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Pentecost XVIII (20050918); Matthew 19:16-30, 20:1-16