Final Vocabulary: Grace

Septuagesima
Matthew 20:1-16
February 12, 2017
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO

In the name of + Jesus.

Final vocabulary is the term that is given to the words and language that are most foundational to how we view the world. They are the words that, when you think about them, are hard to define in simpler terms; you simply know what the words mean. They are the words that you take for granted in the way you approach the world. Different people have different final vocabularies, and different communities also.

In the Church, we have our own final vocabulary, and the next three weeks focus on themes for three of these vocabulary words. Since they are so fundamental to how we understand the world around us, including God who reveals Himself to us, it’s important to have a grasp of what these words mean. And since it’s hard to define final vocabulary in simpler terms, we have to expand the words, rather than break them down.

Today’s final vocabulary is grace. What is grace? There are a lot of ways people define grace: undeserved love, a free gift. These are true, but they only just get us started. What is grace?

GRACE IS GETTING WHAT YOU DON’T DESERVE

I.

With fundamental words and ideas, we often need to experience them to know what they mean. Like love. How do you describe love? But you know it when you love someone, and when someone loves you. Grace is related to that. It’s difficult to define grace, but if you’ve experienced it, then you know it. And that’s one of the reasons that Jesus speaks in parables. He doesn’t come teaching from a theological textbook where point I.A.3 is a definition of grace. He tells a story of grace. The parable of the workers is a parable of grace, because each worker got full pay despite the work he put in.

For the reign of the heavens is like a man who was a ruler of a house, who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the workers for a denarius, he sent them for the day into his vineyard.

And going out around the third hour, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace and to these he said, “You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is just I will give to you.” So they left. Again he went out around the sixth and ninth hour and did the same.

Going out around the eleventh, he found others standing and said to them, “Why have you been standing in the marketplace the whole day?” They said to him, “Because no one hired us for himself.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.”

When evening came, the lord of the vineyard said to the steward, “Call the workers and give over to them the wage beginning from the last until the first.” And when the ones from the eleventh hour came, he gave one day’s wage. And when the first ones came, thinking that they would receive more, he also gave them one day’s wage.

And they began to raise complaints about the ruler of the house, saying, “Those who were last did one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the heat.” And answering one of them, he said, “Friend, I did not treat you unjustly. Did you not agree with me for a day’s wage? Take what’s your and go. I desire to give to the last as I gave to you.” Or is it not allowed to me what I desire to do among my own? Or is your eye evil because I am good?” Thus the last will be first and the first last.

There is an irony in the parable (most parables have an ironic twist to them). It’s set up by the fact that the house ruler decides to distribute the day’s wages with the people who were hired last (who barely had enough time to do any work at all). And they all got a day’s wage. As he worked backward, all the workers got a day’s wage, regardless of whether they put in a day’s work.
This is grace. You can’t explain it; you can only experience it. But here’s the thing. Even though all of the workers received their wage by grace, not all of them experienced the grace. The first workers thought they were owed for their labor, and so they rejected the gift. They had a different final vocabulary, so to speak. Ironically, they worked a day’s work, but didn’t receive the day’s wage—because they didn’t understand grace.

II.

There’s a reason that Jesus teaches in parables. There’s a reason that the Gospels are stories and not doctrinal essays. Even Paul’s letters, which are the most systematic doctrine, still have a narrative arc to them. The stories of the Bible are meant to establish our final vocabulary by making us a part of the story. This parable tells the bigger story of God’s kingdom, and you become a character in the story, too. Grace means that your reward is based not on your works, but on the promise of God in Jesus Christ.

There’s a point in a movie or reading a book when you are no longer a viewer or a reader, but you become part of the story. You get immersed in it. It’s what they mean by the phrase, “suspension of disbelief.” This is the critical point in reading the Bible. IT’s not about you reading in order to glean some special, secret knowledge that can only be found in a holy book. That direction is backward. The Bible is given not so that we can make it part of our lives, but so that we would become part of its story.

The parable of the workers is to make you a worker in the parable. Some of you have been in the fields since you were a little baby. Others are more recent “hires.” The emperor Constantine converted to Christianity as a young man but wasn’t baptized until his death bed. There are any number of stories of workers in the kingdom of God. But what unites everyone’s stories is that the work you put in does not determine the reward at the end of the day.

So you and I and everyone in this kingdom are workers by grace. The wage we receive is not the one we have earned, because the wages of our sin is death. But the free gift of God is eternal life. That’s the conclusion of the story. After the work is done, the day just goes on. The wage paid to you is the earnings of someone else. Jesus is the one who did the work when He suffered and died on the cross, and bore more than the heat of the day; He bore the sins of the world. And on the third day He rose from the dead, opening heaven’s treasury for you.

What is grace? It’s final vocabulary. You can’t simply define it. But when you become part of the story of Scripture, you become a recipient of grace. Like the workers who get paid irrespective of their work, you are rewarded not for your work, but for the work of another. Jesus has earned your reward. You don’t deserve it, but you get it anyway.

In the name of + Jesus.

Jacob W Ehrhard
VD+MA