Grace Upends My Rights

We parents wear a lot of different hats in our calling—switching them on and off as frequently as our kids switch their moods, interests, and needs. As they grow older, some hats fall out of rotation, and eventually, as they enter adulthood, only a few are called upon. I’m still Google (“if I’ve had a headache for three days, do you think it’s serious?”, “I’ve run out of milk and I need to make a white sauce, what else should I use?”, “do you remember what my GPA was?”) and the relationship guru. But there’s one hat that I never expected to wear as a parent and that’s as a Labor Dispute Consultant. 

Rubber meets the road in coffee shops, fast food restaurants, and department stores. When my kids were teens and juggling the demands of high school years, it wasn’t easy for them to comprehend the big picture of economics, so I usually started there, helping them see the other side of the conflict: why the boss may not be giving them the hours they want, why another employee may not have to do some of the more despised tasks, why the hours fluctuate radically from season to season. “There is very likely a reasonable explanation for this, and you can ask your boss why, and she may tell you, but she’s not obligated to. However”—and this I’d add with firm emphasis—“you are not to engage in gossip or grumbling with the other employees. Avoid a mob mentality, and proceed with caution around those who do nothing but demand their rights.”

Can you tell I’ve had my fair share of labor disputes? It’s a scenario as old as time. Some would say as old as Genesis 4, categorizing the confrontation between Cain and Abel as the first incident of a laborer standing up for his rights. 

We read in Matthew 20 where Jesus frames a lesson around the illustration of an employer and the workers he hired to labor in his vineyard.

For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 

And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, “You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.” So they went. 

Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, “Why do you stand here idle all day?” 

They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.”

He said to them, “You go into the vineyard too.” 

And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.” And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 

Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” 

But he replied to one of them,”Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”

So the last will be first, and the first last.

(Matthew 20:1-16)

From the opening words, we know to approach this text as a “parable of the kingdom”. While some of the kingdom stories Jesus told taught lessons about the ethics of the kingdom, or the characteristics of the ruler of the kingdom, this parable explores the circumstances of who fills the citizen rolls of the kingdom. 

In the context of this narrative, Jesus continues to challenge the Jewish leaders about their Messiah-blind understanding of the Old Testament passages and the future in-grafting of Gentiles into the kingdom. As many Jews observed Gentiles embracing Christianity, they grew nervous about what this acceptance might mean for them. Would they be edged out? Would this influx of non-Jews change the traditions? The laborers’ questions in the parable echoed those the Jewish audience was asking: “Why should ‘these last’ be made equal to us? Does it not matter that we have labored for so long?” “These last,” they say, referring to the last hired. It could easily be “those people”. We’ve heard the tone behind that epithet before, implying the target group is less meritorious. Perhaps it’s a sneer, in this case that they were lazy sluggards and didn’t rise early enough to get to the square to take advantage of the job offer, so they are not deserving. And by contrast, “we are.”

So it’s interesting that the story turns on the rebuttal the master of the house gives to the foreman of the group. And central to that response is this question:

“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”

In C.S. Lewis’s fantastical exchange between two demons in his classic book, The Screwtape Letters, we are given a speculative view of how the nature of humans is easy prey to the designs of demons. The letters follow the correspondence from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew Wormwood, a junior demon, on the care and keeping of a “patient”—a human who can serve as a tool of their father, the devil, in the undermining of the plans of their Enemy, God. The twenty-first letter of the series addresses Wormwood’s moral attack on the patient “by darkening his intellect.”

“Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury. And the sense of injury depends on the feeling that a legitimate claim has been denied. The more claims on life, therefore, that your patient can be induced to make, the more often he will feel injured and, as a result, ill-tempered.” 1

By focusing on perceived injuries, supposed abuses and hurt feelings, we humans become passionately possessive of what Lewis refers to as our “personal birthright”: the exclusive and authoritative claim on our own time, our own labor, our own bodies, our own feelings. Screwtape is emphatic with Wormwood. Success in attacking the patient is dependent upon how effectively the patient connects the feeling of an unheard claim to the sense of injury. Whether the claim is valid isn’t the point, only that my feelings about my injury are validated.

It may be the extra time we feel has been stolen from us because the person in the grocery check-out line ahead of us has more than 15 items in her cart. It may be the line on our paystub every week that indicates the amount of compensation that has been taken away for taxes. It may be the peevishness with which we answer our children or our neighbors because we just don’t feel like being sociable today. It may be the interference of a moral law in the way I choose to free my body from an inconvenient fetus.

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This sense of ownership of self and all that’s related to it foments the charges of fraud or deception against the master of the vineyard. The laborers who had begun work at the beginning of the day felt their time and sweat and effort had been dismissed as less valuable than the hour of work the later-hired men had put in. As owners of their meritorious time and sweat and effort, they were implying an injury had been made to them when the merit they presumed upon didn’t come their way. Though called to be laborers in the vineyard, they were not judging rightly. They still didn’t understand the economy of the Master. 

Like sulking Jonah sitting outside the city of Ninevah, we believe with absolute certainty that we are righteous for hating the immorality of unfairness to me and my tribe. We don’t see how our perspective on rights and merit is antithetical to God’s algorithm for righteousness. Like Peter’s question to Jesus immediately before this parable is recounted in Matthew, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” (19:27), we are looking for the pay off. And if we don’t get it, what will we do? Peter himself said earlier in his discipleship, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68) What a bind we put ourselves in when we insist upon applying the values of this world on the kingdom of God.

Simon Kistemaker says,

“This is how it is in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus says. Because God is so good, the principle of grace triumphs. The principle in the world is that he who works the longest receives the most pay. That is just. But in the kingdom of God the principles of merit and ability may be set aside so that grace may prevail. . . . 

The disciples, as children of their time, were steeped in the doctrine of merit. They needed to discard this teaching for two reasons: to fully appreciate the goodness of God and to see that their own place in the kingdom was a gift of grace.” 2

The master responds, “I choose to give.” We in the kingdom have been given so much; the list is endless: Life not death. Any wage at all. Being called “my people” though I am not of his people. Being beloved, though I am not of the beloved. All that Jesus promised in his answer to Peter at the end of chapter 19

“Truly I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.”

To us, the spiritual children of Abraham, according to Romans 9:4–5, we have in Christ:

“the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. . . . the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.”

None of this is by merit, which is why Jesus is such an offense. As Screwtape explains to Wormwood:

All the time the joke is that the word “Mine” in its fully possessive sense cannot be uttered by a human being about anything. In the long run either Our Father [Satan] or the Enemy [God] will say “Mine” of each thing that exists, and specially of each man. They will find out in the end, never fear, to whom their time, their souls, and their bodies really belong—certainly not to them, whatever happens.

Do you mean to say that nothing is mine? That I don’t even own what I’ve worked for? Yes, that is exactly what I am saying. That’s what Kistemaker and Lewis and all of the scriptures are telling us we need to understand in order to fully comprehend the weight of the glory of the gospel. God is not obligated to anyone. Justice for all would be death and hell for all. The vineyard owner could have chosen not to return to the market square. He could have chosen to go to a different market. He could have chosen not to hire anyone. Just as God could have chosen not to give mercy to anyone, he instead chose to give it to a few despite our absence of merit.

And in no way does this trample upon our rights.

Many of us (though not all) who came first or work the longest or labor at the least rewarding jobs or take on the most important and visible tasks will be last. And many of us (though not all) who were called at the end will be first. This is not because of more or less merit, nor is it according to what we contribute or how much or when or for how long, but because of God’s good pleasure, according to the counsel of his will. As Jonathan Edwards said, “The only thing you contribute to your salvation is the sin that makes it necessary.”

We each of us contribute this sin. Yet instead of no one receiving mercy, Jesus is teaching us that anyone can receive mercy. It’s just that no one can claim the right to it. With Christ’s perfect satisfaction of the wrath which our sin deserves, we find equality at the cross—we are all equally indebted to him and equally dependent upon him for everything.

Prior to the exchange with the rich young ruler and the question from Peter, children were brought to Jesus for him to bless and pray, but the parents were rebuked for doing this. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:13-15)

Barring the child-centered era we live in now, for most of history, children have not only been perceived as better never heard or seen, but they have also possessed no rights. Though now upper courts are wrestling with issues involving the rights of the child, in every previous era, the specter of “rights-less-ness” cast a shadow of disadvantage, vulnerability, and oppression over children. 

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Yet, in the economy of the kingdom of heaven, the rights-less-ness of children is not worrisome nor a sentence of doom. Being out of control and unable to command our own lives is a frightening prospect unless we know that the one who claims all rights over us is trustworthy. There is no disadvantage to being under the oversight and care of the mercy and goodness and wisdom of God. In fact, the blessings are abundant.

Truly embracing this paradigm opens us up to love, grace, and patience toward others. We don’t know who the first or the last will be in God’s economy. This goes for the lady at the grocery store, the guy who cuts us off, the neighbors who have a knack for provoking us, the person who sits in our pew, the committee chair who never gives us credit for ideas. Peter himself eventually learns this great mystery of the impartiality of the gospel when he preaches the good news to the Gentile Cornelius and to his household and sees the conversion of all who heard the word. He declares, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47)

We put on the things that are above—compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness and patience, bearing with one another and if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other, as the Lord has forgiven you . . . and love—replacing the old self with its practices of malice, anger, wrath, slander, judgment and unforgiveness. If God’s love—from which we are never separated (Romans 8:38-39)—dictates the dispensation of rights and rewards, then even when others hurt or injure us, we have the ability by the Spirit, which indwells our new self, to assume the best case analysis. He has given us the benefit of the doubt and his economy is perfect. Thus even broken life is better than seeking my own way. 

And one more point . . . 

By delighting in the labor of the vineyard, cultivating fruit, serving one another, laying stones for others to walk on, working at God’s pace and according to his time and for his determined reward, we obtain wealth immeasurable, not in earthly wages, but by heavenly calculations. We shall hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

How do my rights stack up against God’s grace? He calls me “friend,” and I am able to call my fellow laborers in the vineyard friends and brothers and sisters. Vulnerability doesn’t mean harm but nurtures joy. Rights-less-ness is a good place to be, because righteousness in Christ is my inheritance—together with the rest of God’s labor force. 

  1. The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis. Available online here.
  2. The Parables: Understanding the Stories Jesus Told, by Simon Kistemaker 

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