Justice or Mercy?
It’s not fair! That’s the usual response of children as they begin to face some of the realities of the world. It is also a usual response to our reading of the Gospel text for this morning! It’s not fair!
Little Billy shows up five minutes before the game is over, but he gets to go for ice cream after the game just like everyone else. “It’s not fair.”
The ones who only swept out the back of the truck get the same pay as those who helped the family move all day long in the hot sun. “It’s not fair!” And indeed, it isn’t.
As little children, we form notions of what is right and fair and just. And we continue with those ideas of justice on into adulthood. Justice is “a day’s work for a day’s pay.” Justice is “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Justice is when we reap what we sow.
In a truly just world then, we would get paid for the work we had done. That’s fair. It’s the way things should work out if they’re going to work out right.
And, if the kingdom of heaven is the perfect place, then the kingdom of heaven should be a place of perfect justice.
The trouble is that the kingdom of heaven is not just in any way that we would recognize. In the kingdom of heaven, people do not get what they deserve. In the kingdom of heaven, as Jesus tells us in the Gospels, the last are first, the least are great, and the lost are found!
Is that “Good News”? We call it the “good news,” but most of us act like it’s really a crying shame. We treat life as if it were like an accounting system of some sort. If we do something bad, that’s a debit on our account. If we do something good, that’s a credit. The accounting system is just, after all.
You and I love this accounting system. We love keeping score. Play our cards right, and we can be a winner . . . get the right ticket and we’ll win the lottery!
We live with the illusion that we can put everything together . . . we fill our record book with credits on our behalf, full of moral achievements, full of spiritual accomplishments. We can earn a good life – and beyond that eternal life. Or so we seem to think.
But, let me be very blunt here. That belief is not how it goes. So, let me say it again: The kingdom of heaven is not just in any way that we would recognize. It is more like the man who was willing to buy some baseball cards. And so, he put a sign up that read: “Sell your baseball cards here. I’ll pay $1.00 for ten of them.”
Did you get that: the sign said “$1.00 for 10 cards.”
Well now, a young man just happened by one day and saw the sign – and he thought to himself: “I have so many cards, and many of them are duplicates.” So, he ran all the way home, picked out ten of them that he didn’t want any longer, and raced back to the buyer. When he got there, there were two others in line ahead of him. The first boy had five cards, but the man paid him $1.00 anyway. Then, the second had only one card, but the man paid him $1.00, too. Finally, it was this young man’s turn. He handed the man his ten cards and the man handed him $1.00!
Now, the boy thought to himself: “That’s not fair!” “He gave the same amount to each of us – but I gave him more cards than either of the other two.”
But, when he said to the man “that’s not fair,” the man replied: “I gave you exactly what I had promised.”
And it was true! $1.00 for 10 cards!
That’s hard to take for those of us who enjoy exact accounting systems. But the truth of the matter is that according to the justice of the kingdom, our thinking is all wrong.
Like the pastor of a church in Kansas. The pastor of this church always tapped the microphone just before he started the service. He wanted to make sure that it was working right. Then, he would start the service by saying, “The Lord be with you.” And the people would respond: “And also with you.”
One Sunday morning, the microphone wasn’t working. When he tapped on it, there was no sound. The pastor muttered to himself, and he muttered in a voice that was loud enough to be heard, but not quite loud enough to be understood. What he muttered was: “something’s wrong with the mike.”
And the people said: “And also with you.”
That probably shook up the flow of the service a bit, but the fact of the matter is that the theology of that statement was right on target. There is something “wrong” with our thinking when we compare our notion of justice with that of the kingdom.
In today’s parable, Jesus says that it’s not going to be like we think. The kingdom does not operate according to “accepted accounting principles.” The Lord does not keep books.
Instead, the kingdom comes as a gift! And it’s coming is based on mercy and grace. There is no hoop for us to jump through. There is no set number of hours we must work.
Instead, we are saved by grace – and it is a gift!
Now, for many, salvation by grace is a crying shame. We love the old bookkeeping system. We like to think we can do it ourselves.
But Jesus came to save the losers, not the winners. He came to seek the lost, not the found. He came to raise the dead, not the living.
The long and short of it all is that we can’t win our way into heaven . . . and we can’t work our way into heaven.
Remember our text says: the last will be first. In other words, the least will be great. The lost will be found. The humbled will be honored. That’s how the kingdom works – – on the principle of grace!
One Christian writer put it especially well when he wrote: God is the eccentric host who goes out into the skid rows and soup kitchens and charity wards and brings home a freak show. The man with no legs who sells shoelaces at the corner. The old woman in the moth-eaten fur coat who makes her daily round at the garbage cans. The old man with the bottle in the brown paper bag. They are all seated at the marble table in the great banquet hall. The candles are all lit, and the water glasses are filled. At a sign from the host, the musicians in the gallery strike up “Amazing Grace.” (Buechner. Telling the Truth.)
Is that good news? Yes, it is! Especially when we are willing to give up our personal accounting systems when we are willing to give up keeping records of ourselves when we are willing to surrender our ideas about the kingdom. Then it is great news! For it gives us confidence about the grace of God!
God’s Grace!? This text is not about justice, or about mercy – it is about GRACE!
It is like the poor man who wanted to come to this country from across the ocean. He saved his money for years to accomplish that one objective. But, as much as he had saved, there was only enough money for a boat ticket and a large piece of cheese. He boarded the boat and took his cheese to his quarters, where he ate a bit of it each day on the long trip across the ocean. On the last day of the journey, the poor man
went on top to watch the ship come into New York harbor. Another man noticed him and said that he hadn’t seen him the whole trip, not even in the ship’s dining room. The poor man explained that he couldn’t afford the dining room and told him how he had existed on the piece of cheese. “Oh, didn’t you know?” said his new acquaintance, “The meals were included in the price of the ticket.”
Grace! God’s Grace! – and the banquet meals are included in the price of the ticket – a ticket bought for you and for me – the lost – the ones who have it all wrong! A ticket bought and paid for by Christ!
So, is this text about justice or mercy? No! It’s about GRACE!