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An Accountant's Nightmare
September 22, 1996

MATTHEW 20:1-16

The grace of God must drive accountants crazy! I'm talking about particular accountants who want life neat, orderly, balanced, and fair; the people who like ledgers of debit and credit where life is easily ranked, assigned, and tabulated.

Our son, Craig, asked me last week if I had any printed sermons on the Prodigal Son. He has a colleague in his law office who is confused and disturbed by the parable. He doesn't think it's fair. I asked Craig if his friend is an elder brother. Sure enough, he is! The elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son was very upset and angry with his father who, not only welcomed the irresponsible younger brother home, but gave him the biggest party the farm ever had. The elder brother, who had remained home through the years to do the work, felt cheated. The elder brother didn't think he was treated fairly. And, Craig's friend agrees. He doesn't think it was fair either.

I wonder what Craig's friend thinks about the parable read this morning! Not only is this parable an accountant's nightmare, think what it does to lawyers who are committed to the pursuit of justice! In Jesus' parable, the workers who worked only one hour, the last to be hired, were paid the same as those who worked 12 hours! Guess what! Those who worked 12 hours didn't think it was fair. They complained, "These last have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat."

How many of you think it was not fair of the grower to pay all the workers the same wage? I don't either. However, God's grace is not fair. That's why it's called grace. But, deep down many of us prefer fairness to grace. Especially when we are the elder brothers who do our duty day after day working hard for father, we prefer fairness to grace. Especially when we are the workers who slaved in the hot sun picking grapes for 12 hours, we prefer fairness to grace.

But, turn it around. If you have ever stood in a labor line, hoping, praying for any kind of job, worrying about where you were going to get money to feed your family, pay the rent, buy them clothes; if you were among those who came from Oklahoma in the 1930s to escape the drought, and would do any kind of work, migrating from farm to farm, looking, asking, praying, hoping for something; if you were one of those who slip across the border trying to scrape a few dollars together to send back home to your family in Mexico to buy food, medicine, any kind of hope; then, I suspect, you prefer grace to fairness. After you had hung around the labor hall all day long hoping against hope, and unbelievably were hired at 5:00 to pick grapes, how would you have felt if a gracious, generous grower had paid you a full days wage! Such rejoicing, such gratitude, such tears of joy you would shed! It depends where you are coming from whether you prefer fairness to grace, or grace to fairness.

Furthermore, if you think the elder brother and the pickers who worked 12 hours were treated unfairly, and their righteousness was not adequately rewarded, let's look at them just a little closer. The elder son was certainly righteous. He had a keen sense of what was right and what was wrong. But, what was in his heart was jealousy and resentment. There wasn't much love and concern for his younger brother who had been missing for who knows how long. There wasn't much love and concern for his younger brother when he heard rumors of how the brother had lost all his money and how he was working on a pig farm (which was especially humiliating for a good Jew), and wishing he could eat as well as the pigs ate. Probably the elder brother had secretly gloated when he heard of his brother's misfortunes. Can't you see him sticking his nose in the air and snorting, "Serves him right. I told you so." And when he saw his father anguishing, praying, and weeping over the younger son, the elder probably righteously comforted his father, "Don't weep for him, Dad. After all, you've got me!" Can't you see the workers who were hired at 6:00 am gloating over their good fortune as they ride off in the back of the pickup?

Ah, the temptation for us righteous ones to gloat over our good fortune, to gloat over the plight of the younger brother, to conclude he got what's coming to him; and to resent it ferociously when the younger brother gets a bigger party, and those who worked only one hour are paid as much as we are. When I was appointed to the Manteca Church, I found a congregation that had experienced an exodus. Several had been unhappy with the church and had dropped out. Some had gone to other churches. But, with the arrival of the new minister, several returned. Most of the congregation were glad to welcome them back, but a few of the loyalists (those who had not jumped ship) were resentful of the returnees! I heard comments like, "Look at them come back trying to take over. I wonder how long they'll stay this time." Elder brother kind of comments-- unforgiving, bitter, righteous!

Do you recall what happened to the elder brother? Yes, he may have been right, just, faithful, fair, loyal, the good boy. But, he missed out on the party. He sat outside, missing the fun, pouting, sulking, lonely. Notice what happened to the righteous pickers. They may have been fair, loyal, the good workers. But, they missed out on the joy. They were unable to rejoice and celebrate the good fortune of those who had worked one hour and got paid for all day. They were unable to rejoice and celebrate the generosity of the grower. They complained, sulked, dressed in their garments of righteousness and what they consider to be fair.

The point of Jesus' parables is that if those who consider themselves righteous look at their own hearts, they will see they are not so perfect after all, and can be thankful that God doesn't judge by ledgers but by grace. A mother who had raised a large number of children successfully as a single mother was asked how she did it? Did she love them equally and treat them equally? The wise mother replied, "I loved all of them, loved them greatly, but I never wanted to love them equally. I loved the one that was down until he got up. I loved the one who was weak until she was strong. I love the one that was hurt until he was healed. I loved the one who was lost until she was found." That is grace, not loving equally, not loving fairly, but loving extravagantly.

We are living in a day when the hard edge of anger is building up in our country. You-get-what-you-deserve is the battle cry. Compassion and kindness are drying up. What happens when we get caught up in the current popular mentality is that we forget how grace has operated in our lives. Where would you be if you only got what you deserved, what was fair? What about the people who loved you more than you deserved? What about the teacher who went out of the way for you? What about the second chances you were given when you goofed? What about your first employer who took a chance on you, who hired you without references or previous experience? What about the opportunity you were given because you knew someone who knew someone? What about the love of Christ who treats you not on the basis of what you deserve, but generously, even extravagantly?

And, when you realize how grace has been operative in your life, can you generously extend the grace to others? How did you feel when the Watergate crooks Jeb McGruder and Charles Colson got born again? I admit to you, I was skeptical. God forgive me, but in my righteousness, I found it difficult to believe that their conversions were genuine. Now, Charles Colson has founded a very successful prison ministry. Do you see how we assign people to stereotyped roles, and keep them in their neat boxes, where accounting is neat and fair? How about people in your family, your workplace, your neighborhood? Have you assumed that they will never change, that they are beyond the grace of God? With the Impact World Tour coming to Merced, a unique opportunity is being given us to bring people to Christ. Will you pray for those around you, begin looking at them in new ways, looking at them as needing the grace of God?

I recall our first pastorate in Minnesota after seminary. An elderly couple lived behind the parsonage. We were friendly, and when the man was dying, we were neighborly, but I did not offer to pray with them, because, you see, they were Lutherans. In Minnesota, if you are not Catholic, you surely are a Lutheran! I had them neatly confined within their little box, and didn't want to infringe on their privacy. Little did I know how needy they were, until a minister of another church began calling on them. He helped the man overcome his fear of dying, led him to Christ, and comforted the couple with the promise of eternal life. How grateful was the wife! Don't assume anything about anyone. Don't put people in boxes. Don't judge people on the basis of what is fair, but look on people as God loves them. Look at people from the perspective of grace, it may change your perspective!

Jesus told this parable as an example of what? The kingdom of heaven. And, when it comes to heaven, thank God entrance is not determined by accountants and lawyers, or none of us would make it. Entrance into God's kingdom is not based on fairness, because if it were, none of us would make it. As Paul concluded, "No one is righteous, no not even one." (Romans 3:10) Thank God, God dismissed the accounts, closed the books forever, gathered all our IOUs and nailed them on a cross. God quit keeping score long ago. God gave up on salvation by the books. Now, the only way to get saved is to be willing to come to the party, let go of our accounting and let God be as reckless and indiscreet as God wants. Let God pay the workers whatever God's generosity lavishes. Let God throw a party for all younger brothers. Praise God, because where would you be if God were fair?

© 1996 Douglas I. Norris