Grace Isn’t Pretty
I’ve often thought that before the good news is good news, it’s bad news. Why? Because it’s so totally what we don’t expect. We expect fair, and we get generous. We expect justice, and we get mercy. We expect “getting what you deserve,” and we get grace.
All those words – generous, mercy, grace – sound great in general. But in our actual lives they’re not what we expect or, truth be told, want. No parable gets at this better than the parable of the vineyard workers (or day laborers, depending on your translation) found in Matthew 20:1-16. If you get over the quick “Christian” interpretation of “isn’t the manager (God) nice” but really identify with the folks working all day, you quickly sense how incredibly unfair the whole thing is. I mean, who wouldn’t feel resentful after working all day and seeing someone else get the same amount of money for working just an hour?
And that’s the problem with grace – it’s not fair. And that’s why we don’t like it – we set up so much of our lives in the expectation that the world is, or at least should be, fair. Grace messes with all that and introduces an instability that is nearly intolerable. I mean, if people coming right at the end of the day get the same amount as everyone else, then what can we count on?
We prefer order, stability, even predictability. Why? Because that gives us the illusion that we’re in control. If we know the rules and can count on them, then we figure that we can get ahead by playing by those rules. Which is why we get upset when someone comes and messes with them.
Until, that is, we imagine that we’re not the folks working all day but are the ones who weren’t called for work, didn’t get picked for the team, and were left waiting all day hoping to earn a day’s wage to feed our family one more day. It’s not their fault, it’s just the way the day played out. Same in life. Lots of folks play by the rules and don’t get ahead. Others totally shred the rules and seem to prosper. The world isn’t fair. Does that mean that we don’t care about justice. Of course not. But it does mean that even justice has its limits. And when justice meets its limit, then all we can turn to is grace.
When you’re down and out, when you’re the one at the bottom, when the world hasn’t been fair to you, or when you’re the one who screwed up and hurt yourself or someone else, then, suddenly, grace matters. Grace, that is, is for the people who aren’t okay and don’t have it all together. It’s still not pretty – in that it messes with our sense of order – but it is rather beautiful.
Ryan Sato, pastor of First Baptist Church in Edmonton, recently sent me a link to this video interview of Brene Brown, one of my favorite writers, talking about just this parable and theme. It’s just four and a half minutes long and well worth a watch. And, if you like it, check out the website of the folks who produced it: Work of the People.
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