Grace in a Works-Righteousness World

The Rev. Kate Alexander
Christ Church, Little Rock
September 18, 2011
Proper 20, Year A

At the tender age of four, my son has already learned how to work the system. On his first day of pre-K, he learned that you can earn little green tickets for good behavior, for things like raising your hand to talk or following the teacher’s directions. And when you reach fifteen green tickets, you get to go to the treasure chest and pick out a surprise. Having heard that bad behavior like biting and using bad words will get you red tickets and thus set you back, he’s been careful. And on day fifteen, he proudly took his first trip to the treasure chest. The much-anticipated prize was a plastic skeleton ring and a pair of giant rainbow sunglasses, and he was thrilled.

I find the ticket system fascinating. It shows just how early we get indoctrinated into a reward system. And not only a reward system for good behavior, but also into a complex system of how our value is calculated in our society. Think about how much it takes in this world to be deemed a righteous person. If you’re four, being righteous means you hang up your backpack and wash your hands when you get to school. But once you’re an adult, the list is a mile long.

Being a good person in this world has something to do with how kind we are to people. And how much money we make or how well we planned for retirement. And how our relationships are going. And whether we floss everyday and keep up with email. Not to mention how clean our house is, and whether or not we vote in elections. Being a righteous person by our cultural standards is sometimes measured by how well we eat and whether we exercise. And whether we pay our taxes on time and engage in charitable giving. And whether or not, in the words of Oprah Winfrey, we are living our best lives. When you really think about the list of what it means to be a good person in this world, it seems like managing our lives to the good is more than a full-time job.

In theological terms, this system of value is known as works righteousness. We earn our good standing in the world and especially in God’s eyes by doing good works. The Protestant work ethic is alive and well. Our indoctrination into this system begins at least as early as pre-K, and probably earlier. It’s the message of our culture and of countless churches. Do things well, and God will be pleased with you. Do things well, and you might be able to earn or prove your salvation. But today’s parable in the vineyard blasts through that message and shatters our entire culture of works righteousness. The question is, given how steeped we are in our current way of seeing things, are we even willing to go where Jesus wants to take us?

The story of the landowner is fairly straightforward. He hires day laborers at various times throughout the day to work the vineyard, and them pays them all a full day’s wage. Those hired first thing in the morning grumble about earning the same as those hired last. The landowner replies, “’Are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

It’s a great story, and we can cheer for those hired late in the day who got lucky because of the landowner’s generosity. It’s fairly easy to read God into the landowner who loves us all the same and dispenses grace in equal amounts to all. And one can easily assume that when the landowner pays everyone at the end of the day, Jesus is talking about that final judgment when we reach the gates of heaven.

But Matthew had something different in mind when he started the parable with the simple phrase, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” When Matthew speaks of the kingdom of heaven, he is not talking about something just at the end of days. He is talking about a real and present reality. The kingdom of heaven comes near to us now. Heaven is a kingdom that continuously collides with the earthly kingdom we live in. Which means that we have one foot in each.

And Jesus tells us that we have a choice to make. Will we choose to see everyone else with as much grace in our eyes as God does? And will we see ourselves with that much grace? This is about as counter-cultural as things can get for us in a works righteousness world.

There is a saying attributed to a contemporary of Jesus by the name of Philo of Alexandria. He said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” Everyone in a works righteousness world is struggling to be valued, accepted, and loved. We desperately try to earn our goodness, and there is always more work to do. But if we embrace the kingdom of heaven, here and now, perhaps that battle is a bit diminished. We can at least start with the basic foundation of grace, knowing that we are already in God’s vineyard. And perhaps our works in God’s vineyard can flow out of that. Being recipients of vast amounts of grace does not get us off the hook for striving for goodness in this world. But learning to see that real and present grace as something we have already received can help tame our demons about whether or not we are even worthy of such grace.

I have to confess that I have fully embraced the reward system I saw at Luke’s school. My boys are now being indoctrinated into works righteousness at home. They get stickers for cooperating. A certain number of stickers will get them a new toy. I want them to learn the value of doing their chores and being nice to their siblings. But the parable of the vineyard reminds me that I have to be careful. I also need to teach them that they are already citizens of God’s kingdom and therefore steeped in grace. As they grow up, I want them to be able to walk in both the earthly and the heavenly kingdom with agility. I want them to learn their own true value and the true value of everyone they encounter. I want them and us to know that our God is a generous one, and we can move through this earthly kingdom with that same generosity of spirit.