The Injustice of Grace
We are using the 40 days of Lent to consider different aspects of God’s grace. I believe our culture is increasingly at war with grace. Lent 2021 will be observed in a social, political and moral context unknown to most all of us. The journey to the cross by followers of Jesus will need to pick its way through a minefield of political disillusionment, justified immorality and social disintegration. The quiet of Lenten contemplation will need to find its place amidst the cacophony of voices spewing out various versions of the original lie of the enemy that we are lords of our own kingdoms.
How do we make this journey in a way that cleaves us to our Savior? How do we hear his voice in the midst of the clatter? Last week we looked at the convicting nature of grace. This week we will consider the implications for what may seem to us to be the injustice of grace.
Grace is Unjust
Most all of us likely grew up hearing some of the same platitudes from our parents. Do these words sound familiar?
- What goes around comes around
- You get what you deserve
- You’ve made your bed, now you have to lay in it
There is a sense of justice instilled in us that helps us make sense of the world. There are consequences to our actions. Debts have to be repaid. And even in the face of injustice there is a sense that somehow over time things will even out. No one ultimately gets away with evil deeds.
This sense of justice, fairness and ‘just desserts’ for wrongdoing is embedded in our justice system. It is the foundation of our educational system and it is taught in our churches. After all, God is just, and we are made in his image.
In light of this, we might find disturbing certain parts of scripture that seem oddly unjust. Take for instance Jesus’ parable of the vineyard owner who pays the same wage for two hours of work that he does for eight. Unfair? The day-long toilers thought so.
When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.‘These who were hired last worked only 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.’
The owner’s response is far from satisfying,
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?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last (Matthew 20:11-16).
Consider the plight of the faithful son who works faithfully and tirelessly for his father, then watches as his younger brother insults his father, squanders his inheritance and brings shame to the family. What should the older brother expect when his rebellious sibling comes back to the farm? Rebuke, anger, disdain, banishment? All rightfully deserved, for sure. Instead, he watches in shock as his father runs down the road, embraces his rebellious son, then throws a party for him. Who can blame the older son’s reaction?
The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him! ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found’ (Luke 15:28-32).
Here’s one more. Jesus hangs on the cross surrounded by some of the most pious, religious people of his time. These leaders lived their entire life obeying the law and following the strict rules of their faith. Yet Jesus prays to his Father saying, “Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” They were indignant, this criminal praying forgiveness for them. In their eyes, they were already justified, it was the malefactor on the cross that needed forgiveness, and they were not about to give it. But then a thief hanging next to Jesus cries out, “this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:41-43).
In Jesus’ kingdom, the first is last, the rebel is redeemed, and the criminal is saved. And surrounding these recipients of grace we have the hard-working field hands who feel wronged, faithful siblings who are offended and pious religious leaders who are angered. To them, when justice was denied, grace became an offense.
Through these stories and so many more throughout Scripture, we see that God defines what is just, because God alone is truly just. And for God, grace is not a displacement of his justice, it is his realignment of our understanding of justice. This realignment changes our perspective from a self-righteousness based on our works, where we believe we are the ones deserving justice (working all day, faithfully serving our father, living a pious life) to trust in the act of one who defines justice (the vineyard owner, the father and the crucified savior).
Put another way, grace toward the person fulfills all requirements for justice because of the stature and nature of the one who is able both to execute justice and grant grace. Our understanding of justice must be modified by the way God acts towards us, and that involves acts of both justice and grace.
The Psalmist said it perhaps the best,
he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
Praise be to God for his amazing gift of grace. It is convicting, it is undeserved, and it is just.