Grace vs. Grades

Grace vs. Grades

Dr. Jim Denison

Matthew 20:1-16

Thesis: Life’s motivation should be gratitude for grace, not performance to earn it

John Claypool has long been one of my favorite preachers. In his now-classic treatise, The Preaching Event, he describes the preacher as a “gift-giver,” one who gives to others the gifts he has received from God. The gift we have received is grace. The gift we are to give is grace.

Unfortunately, many of us don’t open the package. Claypool describes himself during his school years as “a nobody who had to compete and out-achieve all others in order to become a somebody.” Even in seminary his problems with self esteem persisted, and were made worse by the institution he attended. Perceptively, he calls his theological alma mater “a community of grades rather than a community of grace.” Claypool has been reading my mail. And yours.

Surveys indicate that the vast majority of Americans are like John Claypool. We live with perpetual self doubt and self esteem problems. Most of us feel deeply inadequate. We don’t want you to know who we really are, because we’re afraid if you do, you won’t like us very much. So we create what psychologists call an “idealized self,” the person we wish you to see. It’s a mask we wear. And we’re never without it.

But there’s a better way. Living by grades is a sure road to frustration and despair. We can never do enough, for long enough. There’s always someone else to impress, another way to perform. We’re only as good as our last success.

By contrast, living by grace is the sure road to joy of mind and peace of soul. It is the only way off the roller coaster of good days followed by bad. And it’s a road available to every one of us. Here’s how to find it.

Accept the grace of God

We meet the hero of this week’s parable early: “the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard” (Matthew 20.1). Remember, in a parable about the kingdom, the hero is the King. In this week’s guise, he’s a landowner with a vineyard. He owns the vineyard and all it produces. He can hire workers or not. As many as he wishes, whenever he wishes. Anything he pays them is by his choice. And so all is grace.

The first group of workers agreedto receive a denarius, the typical working man’s wages, worth around 17 cents today (Broadus 412). And they began working in the owner’s field.

Around the “third hour” he found a second group of workers. They agreed to work for “whatever is right” (v. 4) and joined the first crew. At the “sixth hour” and the “ninth hour” the vineyard owner hired still more workers, who agreed to work for whatever compensation the master determined to give them.

To this point the story is all routine. The Jews divided the day, from sunrise to sunset, into twelve equal parts. Thus the “sixth hour” was always noon, and the third and ninth would correspond roughly to 9 AM and 3 PM (the hours would be longer or shorter as the length of the days changed; Broadus 412).

A man not hired at the first hour of the day (6 AM) would wait for work “in the marketplace” (v. 3), the place where prospective employers and employees met. These were day laborers, in the most precarious position of anyone in ancient Israel. Even slaves belonged to their master and his family, and would not starve unless times were at their very worst. But a day laborer was hired for a day at a time. He made so little that he could save nothing. To go a day without work was to go a day without food for his family (Barclay 2.223).

Given that the workers were sent to a vineyard, we know that this was the time of the grape harvest, toward the end of September. The fall rains would arrive shortly. If the harvest was not gathered before the rains broke, it would be ruined. Each year’s grape harvest was a race against time. So the master would need all the workers he could get, whenever he could get them (Barclay 2.222).

As a result, even at the “eleventh hour” (v. 6), an hour before sundown and the end of the day’s harvest, the vineyard owner found and employed still other workers. These men had spent the day looking for work, to no avail. Now a man is willing to hire them at day’s end. They cannot expect to receive much compensation, but anything is better than nothing.

So far so good. No surprises, except that a landowner would hire men for so little time, and that workers would accept what they could only anticipate as the smallest of wages. Now comes the twist, the turn which changes everything: “The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius” (v. 9). This was twelve times what they deserved or expected. Imagine their surprise and delight at the generosity of their employer. This is a gift not earned, payment not deserved. Compensation chosen by the owner of the vineyard, in his sovereign will. This is amazing grace.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a woman dressed as a male page and hid herself in the queen’s bedroom, waiting for an opportunity to stab the queen to death. But she was found by the queen’s attendants, and dragged before Her Majesty. Realizing that her case was hopeless, she fell before the queen’s throne and begged for grace. Queen Elizabeth looked at her coldly and quietly said, “If I show you grace, what promise will you make for the future?”

The woman looked up from her knees and said, “Grace that hath conditions, grace that is fettered by precautions, is not grace at all.” The Queen was surprised. After a moment’s reflection she said, “You are right. I pardon you by my grace alone.” And they led her away to freedom. Historians tell us that from that moment Queen Elizabeth had no more devoted, faithful servant than the woman who had received her grace.