One of the reasons I think it is so tough to accept grace from God and others, as well as give grace to ourselves, is we are locked into a mindset of conditional acceptance. Conditional acceptance means that you are loved and accepted if you are good, and you are rejected if you are bad. This kind of thinking characterizes almost every aspect of our lives, from trying out for the basketball team in junior high to the criminal justice system.
When something runs counter to this way of thinking (e.g., grace), it’s tough for us to understand and accept it. In the Gospel of Matthew (20:1-15), Jesus tells a story about some workers in a vineyard that illustrates our struggle to ‘get grace.’
For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius (a day’s wage) for the day and sent them into the vineyard.
About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, “You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went.
He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, “Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?”
“Because no one has hired us,” they answered.
He said to them, “You also go and work in my vineyard.”
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.”
The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. “These who were hired last only worked one hour,” they said, “and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.”
But he answered one of them, “I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
Can you see yourself in the workers who were hired first? Even though they received the payment they had agreed to, they were upset that the workers hired later were given grace and paid the same amount. Things didn’t line up according to the laws of conditional acceptance. When this happened, the result was grumbling.
How would you have felt if you were one of the workers who were hired last? Would you have felt grateful and appreciative that you were paid the full denarius? If you are locked into the system of conditional acceptance, you might have felt guilty about not doing enough work to deserve the full amount.
The passage gives us three insights about how to get out of the conditional acceptance system and into the grace system:
- Gratitude. The workers who arrived first grumbled because they were not paid more than the workers who arrived last. The antidote to grumbling is gratitude. In the story, the landowner reminded them that they had agreed to work for one denarius, and they were treated fairly. Instead of thinking about what you don’t have, be thankful for what you have been given.
- Humility. In this story, the landowner was in charge. He could do what he wanted with his own money. If he wanted to be generous and give it away, that was his choice. Similarly, sometimes it is tough for us to admit that God is in charge. If he wants to give grace to other people (and us), that is his choice. Also, the workers who arrived first focused on their status relative to the workers who arrived last. They thought they were better, and were upset when the workers who arrived last were made equal to them. Humility reminds us that we aren’t better than anyone else—we are all equal in the eyes of God.
- Focus on our own work. The problems started when the workers who arrived first began to compare their situation with the workers who arrived last. They did the math, calculated and compared the money earned per hour, and were frustrated. But the landowner urged them to focus on themselves and the agreement they had made. In the same way, we can get into trouble when we compare our situation to others. Everyone is called to their own journey with God. Try to focus on your own work.
Discussion: Are you locked into a system of conditional acceptance? Who did you identify with most in the story of the landowner? What is one step you could take toward implementing a system of grace in your life?