Evangelist and Bible teacher in the Eastern Cape. B.A. and H.E.D from University of South Africa and M.A. Abilene Christian University
Parables of Jesus: God of Mercy
We live in a world where we look for, hope for, and dream of being treated fairly. If only everyone would be just and fair, what a great world it would be! However the stark truth of reality teaches us that not everything is always fair. This becomes apparent on many different levels in many different ways. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Politicians often lie to further their own ends. Corruption in society and dishonesty lurks around every corner and breeds in every dark place. Rules are broken and promises made that were never even remotely meant to be kept. So the hope and dream of living in the utopian world of fairness is shattered and we are left disappointed and often disillusioned.
In his parables Jesus teaches about the reality of life and uses real life situations to illustrate not only the character of God, but also his way of dealing with people living in this imperfect world. Here Satan often seems to have the upper hand and this becomes apparent in human behavior. As we approach God, all we ask for is fairness and justice and then to our horror as we look into the mirror of self, we realize that what we need is not fairness but mercy!
In Matthew 19:27 -20:16, the Gospel writer records the parable of the laborer's in the vineyard. A scene so unreal that it must have made the people present when Jesus taught it, stand open mouthed in amazement. In this parable a vineyard owner hires people at different times of the day and then when the time comes to pay them, gives them all the same amount of money. Unfair! Unfair! We cry out as the people first hearing the story must have cried out. Those who had worked long hours must have deeply resented not only those who only worked a short time, but also the owner who after all, was treating the long time workers unfairly. Those who worked the short hour were equally amazed and obviously really pleased by what they received.
Over the years theologians have tried to explain the “unjust” action of the vineyard owner in a variety of ways. Some have argued that the late arrivals, because they missed the heat of the day, actually produced as much work as the early starters. These arguments however, seem to miss the whole point of the parable.
In this parable Jesus overturns the human search for fairness with a powerful parable that teaches something much more important. He teaches that what is needed in this world is mercy and undeserved favor. The first question that we need to ask and answer is, was the vineyard owner unfair? Did he make promises he did not keep? He answers that question himself when he says: “Am I not allowed to pay anyone what I choose to pay? After all it all belongs to me and I can do with is what I please! I am in charge!” So he gave to the workers what they needed rather than what they deserved because he cared for them.
This is exactly what God does as he enters into the world to meet mankind on his terms and not on the world’s terms. If God gave everyone what they deserved it would indeed be a disaster because as the Apostle Paul explains; “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans3:10 –NIV - used with permission). We have the tendency to forget that salvation comes by faith and not works. Yes, God expects a working faith from his followers because as James explains: But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds. Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do”(James 2:18).
All the workers had an opportunity to do the work they were given. God is an “equal opportunity God”. Everyone was rewarded not by the particular amount of work each did, but because when the opportunity came they grabbed it with both hands. This goes against the human inclination to believe that “I am going to be rewarded by God because of the amount of work I did, after all in comparison to others, I did much more! That will be fair!”
The religious leaders of Israel in the time of Jesus did not want to give up their advantage and open access to God to the Gentiles After all they have worked over the ages to serve God. Why should others be accepted on the same basis as they were? But the same attitude can be seen in our modern religious world and even in the local congregations, as new people discover God.
God’s eternal grace requires faith and when that is appropriated the rest will follow. After all can God not work salvation on his terms like the vineyard owner had the right to pay all workers the same wages? Thank heaven we serve a God of mercy and love who does not give us what we deserve but rather what we need!
Scriptures taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION, Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. All rights reserved.
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