Justice or Grace?

By Michael E. Brooks

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give to you.’ So they went” (Matthew 20:1-4).

Traveling by taxi in Nepal can be interesting. By law every taxi must have a working meter to fix the fare for any trip. However it is very common to get in a cab and have the driver refuse to use the meter, or to claim it is broken.
I have adopted the practice of negotiating a fare in advance with such drivers. Once negotiated, I pay exactly the rate agreed upon, no more and no less.
With those drivers content to use the meter, however, I always pay the metered fare, then add a modestly generous tip. My reasoning is that the first category of drivers are taking care of themselves and asking for what they “deserve”. The others trust me to “do what is right.”
Is that not the issue in Jesus’ parable of the laborers in Matthew 20? The story continues to describe how the landowner added new laborers throughout the day, then when the work was finished he paid them all the same amount — one denarius.
The all-day workers were unhappy, believing they should receive more pay than those who worked only a few hours. The landowner responded,

“Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?” (Vv 13-15).

It is clear in the parable that the first workers had negotiated their wage. Those employed later had no fixed agreement, other than the owner’s promise to do what is right. Jesus is contrasting the Jewish desire to achieve salvation by works through the Law with God’s offer of grace through trust in Christ.
This parable makes it clear that one must choose the system by which he seeks fellowship with God. If we negotiate terms by which God is obligated we will be under Law.
That means that when one attempts to identify minimum effort required (e.g., how often do we have to go to church?) to be considered a “faithful Christian,” he or she may be depending upon justice, not grace.
The landowner’s rebuff of the all-day workers is significant. “Take what is yours and go your own way.” They had earned their wage. It belonged to them. But after payment the landowner had no further obligation to them. No relationship had been established. Each party was free and clear of the other.
Is that the situation we desire with God? Do we really want exactly, and only, what we have earned? Do we want to “put in our day” and then go our own way, with no further interaction? Surely not. What every human has earned is death because of sin (Romans 3:23; 6:23). If we ask to be treated with justice we are doomed to eternal destruction (Romans 3:10ff).
How much better to trust in God to do what is right, thus enabling him to treat us graciously. We are blessed because of God’s nature, not our own. The man who worked only one hour was overpaid, not because he was such a good worker, but because the landowner was so generous.
We serve a loving and gracious God who gives because of his love, not because of our loveliness. And we are eternally grateful that this is so.

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