Part of my training to become a pastor included one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE. CPE is usually a 10-12 week intensive study of self, honestly. But it is a time when seminary students become chaplains in hospital settings, nursing homes, and sometimes places like homeless shelters or even prisons. As strange as it may sound, it is a time when you get to know yourself, your theology, how you operate, and how whatever baggage you may bring with you into ministry may affect you.
I did my CPE at Heartland Hospital in St. Joseph, Missouri. I chose the site because it was just close enough to my parents that if I wanted to go home, I could. It was also a place I was familiar with as I was born in St. Joseph and I went to college about 40 miles up the road. In a way, it felt like I was going home. There were 4 students in my unit that summer: myself, my classmate Rich, an interesting Mennonite named Bruce, and a Methodist woman named Denise. What made this also even more interesting is that we lived together: Rich, Bruce, and myself in one house and Denise in the house next door. It was a space issue, not a personnel issue. It quickly turned into a personnel issue.
Since Rich and I came from the same place (literally, the same seminary) and we were both studying to be ELCA Pastors, we often confided in one another, bounced sermon ideas off one another, and had the usual inside jokes that friends do–often at the expense of our classmates. As the summer progressed, Rich, Bruce, and I noticed that Denise often was able to turn in work that wasn’t completed, that wasn’t up to standards, or that just wasn’t what was asked for. She had various excuses, and we all got kind of sick of hearing them. But, she was never called out for it by our supervisor. We seemed to be working as hard, if not harder than Denise and yet, we were all getting the same praise. I brought this up to Rich one day as we were lounging on our porch and just kinda shrugged and said, “I don’t know…workers in the vineyard, man.” And from then on, this parable kind of became our mantra. When things weren’t going well and we would pass each other in the hospital halls, he would sometimes ask “how is your day going” and I would respond “I’m having a workers in the vineyard kind of day, man.” I can’t read this parable and not think about CPE.
When you think about it, this is probably one of the most offensive parables in the Bible. We may read it and think “but…but…that’s just not fair!” If you have children in your family, no matter how old they are, you have heard “that’s not fair” probably more than you care to. But, if we’re going to be honest with one another here, we’ve all probably said or thought “that’s not fair” more than once in our lives. And sometimes the things that we declare as “unfair” really just boil down to a justice, fairness, or generosity issue. Let me give you some examples I have heard either on the news, read in the newspaper, or heard come from the mouths of fellow human beings.
“I don’t think that the illegals should be able to come here and take our jobs.” Or how about “It’s not fair that I have to pay for my health insurance while that freeloader gets to take advantage of Obama-care.” I have also heard “I don’t think that people who use food stamps should be able to eat as good as you and I do.” Or maybe it could be more mundane things that you either mumble to yourself or complain to your friends about “I work my rear end off doing the laundry, the least those kids could do is put it away!” Or “She got to hang out with her work friends and go have drinks last week while I stayed home with the kids, I don’t understand why I can’t go watch the game with my buddies.” The fact is this: our human definition of fairness and generosity is a long way away from God’s definition.
This parable, at its core, is about fairness, generosity, and justice. Our vision of those things are warped by so many various things that it may be difficult to wrap our minds around the idea that in the kingdom of heaven, God gives everyone their due share, and often times, God gives everyone the same amount of grace whether we like it or not; and this is offensive! We live in a society (especially here in western culture) that tells us “if you work hard, you will be rewarded.” You put in the hours at work, you get a raise. You practice your sport, instrument, or craft for long hours and you are chosen to start for the team, you get first chair, or you get a blue ribbon. You study hard enough and you can get into your school of choice, maybe even with a generous scholarship. All of these ideas are great and motivating, but at the same time they are human driven ideas.
The landowner asks the laborers a very interesting question “…are you envious because I am generous?” Ummm….YEAH!! I want more money than the guys who showed up almost 8 hours after I did. The landowner’s generosity is offensive. “The offense of grace is not in the treatment we receive but in the observation that others are getting more than they deserve. The generosity of God quite often cuts across our calculations of who deserves what.”** And the crazy and frustrating thing is that as soon as we think we have God’s grace figured out, God surprises us. God can surprise us in a good way and God can surprise us in a disturbing way. When you learn that your sins are forgiven, even if you can’t forgive yourself, because of what God did through Jesus on the cross; what a great surprise. When you learn that the person in life who caused you heartache, trouble, agony, or even pain also receives the same forgiveness; what a disturbing surprise.
When you come to the table and have that bread placed in your hand and you are reminded once again of God’s amazing grace that is a pleasant surprise. But when you realize that someone you know has fallen really short of what it means to be labeled “a Christian” also gets to come to this table, no questions asked, what a disturbing surprise. God’s grace never works like we think it should, brothers and sisters. Believe it or not, this is actually good news for you and me. If God’s grace worked by human standards, none of us would receive grace. But (as one of my favorite Christian rock songs says) “if God’s grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking.”
This parable is offensive. God’s grace is offensive. As strange as it sounds, my friends, it would do us some good to prepare to be offended. Our offensive God is wanting to offend you with grace you don’t deserve, with grace you cannot earn, with grace you will receive despite that. How awesomely offensive.