One of the most respected Baptists of the twentieth century was a pastor by the name of Carlyle Marney, who, upon his retirement, developed a retreat center for ministers in western North Carolina, a place where clergy could escape the strain of ministry, refresh their spirit, renew their sense of calling, and heal emotionally and physically. During a colloquium at that retreat a young pastor was pouring out his frustration with his pastorate, lamenting his lack of progress in ministry and venting his frustration with his church. In the midst of this young man’s expression of pain Marney quietly murmured, “Give grace, John; give grace.”
Those words may help explain one of Jesus’ most mystifying parables. Jesus tells of a Master who goes to a certain corner of the village to enlist workers for his vineyard. The Master finds willing workers at 6 am and sends them into his fields for the very fair wage of a denarius a day. But the Master determines that his fields could stand more workers, so he returns to the same corner at nine, then at noon, and again at three, enlisting more laborers for his vineyard each time, telling them he would pay them whatever was fair. Finally, he returns about five in the afternoon and notices that there remains a small, hopeful, unpicked group still standing, waiting for employment. The Master asks “Why are you standing here?” They answer, “No one will hire us!” The Master replies, “I’ll hire you! Go into my vineyard.” But these folks only work for an hour. Nevertheless, when it comes pay time that evening the Master orders his steward to pay all the laborers the same wage of a denarius — a very fair wage for a day’s work, a fabulous wage for those who had worked a half-day, and an incredible gift for those who had worked in the vineyard for only an hour.
Something in us that wants to protest, “Unfair! Unfair! How could the Master justify his generosity toward those last workers? How could the Master justify paying those who worked an hour the same as those who worked all day in the hot sun? The Master of the vineyard replies, “Because I am free to do. It is my nature to be gracious.”
Before dismissing the Master as capricious and unjust, pause for a moment to reflect upon the type of fellows who would have been left on that corner hoping all day to be employed, but who never were picked. Jesus’ hearers would have known exactly who such people would have been. You do, too, if you pause to think about it. These people certainly wouldn’t have been lazy. They had been waiting all day to work, and indeed, it took considerable fortitude to wait in hope all day in the face of rejection. No, these people weren’t lazy. These people weren’t chosen by anybody for work because they were considered too weak, too old, too young, too sick, too crippled to do a good day’s work. These were the leftover people perpetually passed-over by everybody because they were deemed not up to the job. Yet these were the very people to whom the Master said, “I’ll hire you: go into my vineyard and work!” And when the Master paid these people a full day’s wage, did they deserve it? No! They knew they didn’t deserve it. But more than anyone else they needed it. And they knew better than anyone else in the Master’s vineyard that service in the vineyard is a privilege. More than anyone else in the vineyard, they knew that the Master had given them grace!
But these last laborers in the vineyard weren’t the only people who needed to learn the meaning of “giving grace.” Notice that Jesus says the first laborers were not outraged by the last laborers receiving a denarius. They were bothered primarily that the Master paid them equally to these last workers. They thought they had earned more. They had merited more! But the Master responded, “Give grace. Give grace to those who worked only for an hour. For only in so doing can you recognize your true status, too.” Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the key to understanding Jesus’ story: those who had labored longest thought they had earned their place in the Master’s vineyard. But the Master said, “Oh, no. You are here in my vineyard on the same basis as everyone else. You are here by invitation only. No one works in the Master’s garden based on merit. You were allowed to work in my vineyard. Working in my vineyard is a privilege. So give grace, because the fact you are working in my vineyard means you have received grace, too. I have invited you to work for me.”
One of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man of great courage and integrity. He wrote a famous little book called Life Together, in which he argued that the Christian life begins with the sense of having been given grace. Indeed, he maintained that the beginning of a healthy spiritual life starts with considering “oneself the greatest of sinners.” Bonhoeffer added, “This arouses the resistance of the natural man, but also that of the self-confident Christian.” The laborers who have worked all day for the Master and think they have earned their place in the vineyard are the “self-confident Christians.” They think by their labors that they have merited God’s inclusion and favor. No! Each of us must begin by seeing ourselves as among the worst of sinners and recognizing that our presence in the Master’s vineyard is pure grace. We have been given grace and are thus called upon to give it.
One of the greatest Christian preachers who ever drew breath was Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great London preacher who brought countless souls to Christ. One day a friend relayed to Spurgeon a scathing denunciation that a disgruntled parishioner had made about him, and Spurgeon responded, “He said that only because he does not know me.” Spurgeon added, “If he knew me, he would have said something much worse!” By that statement Spurgeon was signifying that for all of his spiritual powers, he knew he didn’t merit inclusion in God’s vineyard – his presence in the Master’s vineyard was a gift of pure grace. Like Bonhoeffer, Spurgeon knew himself to be among the greatest of sinners.
So we must begin with recognition that our God is a gracious God. And when we grasp this truth we understand that our participation in God’s Kingdom is an expression of God’s gracious nature. And so we are called to give grace to others, even amidst the most difficult of life’s crucibles. I think of an extraordinary testimony from a Union soldier at Gettysburg who was wounded badly on the third day of that great battle, his leg shattered. He was lying on Cemetery Ridge as Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his entourage retreated. In anguish from pain and loss of blood, this soldier nevertheless gathered himself, looked Lee in the eye and yelled, “Hurrah for the Union.” Lee stopped and dismounted. The man thought for a moment that Lee was going to kill him. But as Lee neared, the man saw in his eyes a great compassion. Lee reached down and took the man’s hand firmly and said, “My son, I hope you will soon be well.” This soldier had grown up hating all things Southern, yet here was the leader of the Confederate troops, on one of the worst days of his life, retiring from losing a battle that had doomed his cause, yet stooping to give grace to a wounded soldier of the opposition who had taunted him. That soldier said, “As soon as the general left me I cried myself to sleep there upon the bloody ground.”
Most Baptist churches follow the “20-80” rule. That is to say that 20% of the people do 80% of the work in most churches. But that is not healthy. One of the goals of any successful pastor (and the Nominating Committee) is to change that ratio to 50-80, so that at least half the congregation does 80% of the work. This is important not only because it saves the 20% from burnout, but because it creates more stakeholders in the life of the congregation. But it is also important because it keeps the 20% from thinking that they own the vineyard and thinking that their voices have more say that anyone else’s. Jesus reminds us that this is not true: all who labor in the Master’s vineyard are equal and are allowed a role in fulfilling the Master’s Kingdom simply as a privilege granted by our Lord. Regardless of what we do for our Lord, and regardless of how much we invest ourselves in doing’s God’s work, we are called to give grace to others because we are the recipients of divine grace, too.
For some of us, the hardest person to whom we can give grace is ourselves. Several times over the course of my long ministry someone has come to me and said, “Pastor, I have messed my life so royally, have failed so badly, that I cannot face my family, or my friends, or my church anymore.” My response has always been to ask, “If your best friend came to you and confessed to you what you have confessed to me, would you spurn and shun them?” They always say, “No, I would respect their courage and candor in coming forward and their willingness to move forward in repentance.” So I ask, “Are you saying that you would be more gracious to your friends than your friends would be to you?” “No,” they sheepishly admit. That is when they recognize that the person they have the most difficulty extending grace to is themselves. Sometimes it is not the people around us who are ungracious to us. Sometimes it is we who are ungracious to ourselves.
Sometimes we think it is only by achievement of some high spiritual goal that we can win God’s favor. We think it is only by grabbing the brass ring, only by holding the winner’s trophy, that we are truly blessed. But if you go through life living by the principle that only by success are you sure of enjoying God’s graciousness, you are going to be miserable. Not all of your plans are going to work out as you hope. If you think it is only when you win the prize that God has blessed you, then you will go through life like those workers in the Master’s vineyard, crying out, “Unfair! Unfair!” In truth, the whole journey of our existence, the highs and lows, the victories and defeats, express the totality of God’s grace toward us.
Outside of Fredericksburg, Virginia, there is a bronze monument that commemorates an event that took place on December of 1862, when Union soldiers tried a frontal assault against a well-entrenched Confederate battery and were decimated. By nightfall, 12,000 Union troops lay dead or wounded, and their piteous cries of pain and thirst wafted through the lines of both parties. A Confederate soldier named Richard Rowland Kirkland decided to act. He went to his commanding officer and asked for permission to jump the protecting wall and go give water to the anguished wounded Union soldiers. The officer said, “Son, don’t you know that you’d get a bullet through your head the instant you stepped over that wall?” The sergeant admitted that he knew what would likely happen to him, but he wanted to try anyway. The officer gave him leave. When Kirkland first leaped the wall, Union soldiers thought he was despoiling their dead, and they tried to shoot him. But quickly both sides realized what he was doing, and both sides cheered. For an hour and a half this Confederate soldier carried water and relief to his enemies. That bronze maker, entitled, “The Angel of Marye’s Heights,” depicts Kirkland lifting the head of a wounded Union soldier, giving him drink, giving grace. Kirkland survived that night, but he was mortally wounded nine months later in the battle of Chickamauga in September of 1863.
Give grace my friends. Your grace may not be recognized, it may not be understood, it may not be appreciated, and it may not protect you from misfortune. But when you give grace to others you mirror the character of Christ, and you honor the nature of your own redemption. And the God who sees in secret will reward you with grace beyond your reckoning.