Before time, God determined to save a people. The Son agreed that he would come, that he would take on flesh, that he would bear the sins of his people, that he would give his body to be tortured and crucified for them. The gift of the kingdom of heaven is free for the recipients, but costly for the giver. God purchased the kingdom of heaven for us with the blood of his Son (1 Pet. 1:18-19). Love it or despise it, this is grace. This is the beating heart of the Bible. God is a gracious God. He gives the kingdom of heaven. He gives it to the undeserving. He gives it at the cost of his Son’s blood. Salvation comes only by grace.
Where is grace? Real grace. True grace.
Giving to one another generously and abundantly, without thought of any payback? Giving not just from a bucket of excess, but from one’s needs? Giving that causes the giver to suffer? Giving to those who can never repay? Giving to those who hate you? Who have harmed you?
Where is this grace? It is a foreign object. We don’t see it. We don’t understand it. We don’t do it. We don’t know how to do it. And we don’t like it.
I am likely typical. I give of my surplus: my surplus money, time, and energy. And I hope to be noticed, to get appropriate gratitude and applause. When do I give without wanting anything back? When do I give to those who hurt me or insult me?
Grace is pouring out one’s life, without any hope of something being poured back. Grace is pouring out our time, talents, resources, physical and mental energy, without looking to see what is left. Grace is emptying self, until suffering, even upon those who hate.
Who does this? We hear rumors of it, but we don’t see it. What is familiar is the pouring out of anger and frustration. We are harsh with each other. Even in our homes, grace is alien. We get cross with each other. Prickly. “I have poured out much. You have poured out little. So I will punish you, and coddle myself.”
Grace is central to Christianity, and so it is still in the DNA of Western society. This means that one important aspect of grace—giving one’s life for the good of others—is still admired.
But true Christian grace has been pummeled. The German philosopher Nietzsche (1844-1900) did a lot of the demolition. He derided the Christian values of humility, kindness, and pity. These only got in the way of the ideal “superman,” the “magnified man, disciplined and perfected in both mental and physical strength, serene and pitiless, ruthlessly pursuing his path of success and victory and without moral scruples” (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 1997, p.1154). Nietzsche understood grace, and it disgusted him.
Grace is alien to us.
Ayn Rand (1905-82) was the same. In her much-admired novel The Fountainhead, hero Howard Roark is strong and talented. He takes what he wants and lives unashamedly for himself in order to achieve his fullest potential and fulfill his destiny. He cares nothing for the weak, the disabled, or the frail. These are hindrances to be thrown off. Grace has no place in Rand’s system. By retarding the strong and the talented, Grace just poisons things.
Such attacks on grace have not been unsuccessful. Our naturally ungracious hearts have lapped it up. In short, grace is alien to us.
In fact it is so alien to humanity, that in order for us to understand grace, Jesus has to shock us. And he does that in his parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.
He tells a story that will antagonize us, that will perhaps even enrage us. When builders insert bolts into concrete, they use explosive tools. Explosive charges force and break the bolt into the hard concrete. The concrete is our graceless hearts. The explosive bolt is Jesus’ parable. He tells it not to guilt us into grace. He tells it that we might understand grace, and so be in a position to receive it. For it is only when we have received grace that we can come to be gracious.
Here is the parable from Matthew 20:1-16,
“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….”