On Grace

Day 29, 500 words, 31 days.

We began our final day of Lunar New Year weekend at church.

As expected, the service at Georgetown Baptist Church was far less attended than the first time we had gone. I assume everyone was either out of town or stayed in with visiting family. We strolled in about 15 minutes after service had started. Turns out worship wouldn’t end until an hour later, so we didn’t miss much.

I haven’t written much about faith during this entire project, and I don’t really know the reason. That’s a part of my life that I don’t intentionally hide from anyone, not even in a Muslim country like this one. I don’t ever get preachy anyway, so I don’t fear ever getting “found out”.

So, it’s a curious thing that it’s never come up. But better late than never, I suppose. This project reads like an open book anyway.

The preaching today had to do with the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard from the Book of Matthew. In sum, Jesus tells his disciples a story about a landowner who agrees to pay his workers a ‘denarius’ for their labor on his vineyard. As the story goes on, we’re introduced to more workers without work that the landowner chooses to employ as the day progresses. At nine in the morning, noon, and three in the afternoon, he adds on more workers to his vineyard. By the end of the day, the landowner decides to pay the last batch of workers the same amount as he promised his first set of workers – a ‘denarius’. In the story, the earliest group of workers complained at the injustice of the landowner’s decision, wondering why those who worked far less still earned the same, and yet, they didn’t receive more. The landlord then tells the disgruntled laborers that he paid them as they agreed, that he wanted to pay the rest of the workers as he wished, and that it was his right to do so.

Jesus ends the story with a familiar sentiment He repeats elsewhere in the gospels: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

This isn’t going to be a theological exposition on the true meaning behind this parable. But I want to note something in the very beginning that changes how I receive the story dramatically.

Jesus begins the parable by saying, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.”

The metaphor here is between the kingdom of heaven, and the landowner, or more specifically, what the landowner does. I presume, the landowner is God, we, the workers, and the vineyard, this world.

The pastor today preached about how this story in Matthew teaches us about undeserved blessing by God’s grace. He urged us to be grateful, regardless of what we’ve been given, and not to envy others of what we do not have.

He talked about fairness, and how God operates differently than us – how He gives as he chooses, regardless of what we believe we’ve earned.

I agree, wholeheartedly, with all of this.

But I take exception to one thing – and really, it has more to do with what the pastor didn’t say, than what he did.

I was left wondering, “What about the workers?” I wanted to relate to the characters of the story, and of course – the plight of the workers felt most relevant. What about what they deserved?

I started to think about day laborers who often avail of themselves to do the sort of jobs no one else would voluntarily take, for pay that’s far less the value of their toiling. I thought about women who agree to leave their countries to serve as domestic workers elsewhere, only to be tricked into working more hours for less pay. Or even the cart-pusher selling food on the street, charging a measly three ringgit for a full plate of noodles or Nasi Lemak. Is that all they’re really getting for their work? There doesn’t seem to be anything fair about their situations at all.

It wouldn’t have hurt to spend a little more time examining the “us” and “them” that make up the collective “worker”. To recognize the reality of their plight, the hardship of their toiling, and the injustice many experience when all they desired was what they deserved.

Because wherever the Kingdom of God “isn’t” – suffering, exploitation, and pain, will be. Can we realistically expect that those who experience injustice from their labor remain grateful anyway for the little they are given? Is it reasonable for us to discourage envy when they aren’t even given what they humbly deserve?

This was my knee-jerk reaction to a sermon that felt a little too simple and good-feeling (though probably appropriate for the “new year”) and a service that ran a little too long for my hunger to handle.

What I missed, and perhaps what the pastor failed to emphasize – was what this story was really about. Or rather, whom.

For all the emphasis I wanted on the workers, I realize after examining the beginning of the story, that it isn’t really about them.

It’s about the landowner – about God. I relate far more with the workers than I do the landowner, of course, and perhaps this is why I missed the point.

I forgot about the analogy Jesus was actually making. The story was explaining what the Kingdom of God was like. Not what we were like, what we earned, or what we did or didn’t deserve.

The injustice of this world, the world we know – the unfair one with all the broken, rigged systems in place – persists. It shouldn’t, and yet, it does, and for many, this is the most discouraging thing. It is enough reason to lose faith in ourselves – the whole lot of us with our own twisted agendas and perverse versions of what’s fair and what isn’t.

The hope, however, is in this other reality, this promise of a better “world” that God introduces, in which He is king, and His justice rules. And it’ll make very little sense to us, most of the time. Probably similar to the way things were with the disciples.

But the hope continues – because the promise isn’t just this strange sense of justice we experience, but this immediate inheritance of abundance, of grace. And these, too, often times, will make little sense. I doubt we can truly ever fathom what God’s abundance feels like for it is probably beyond measure, and certainly not His grace, which is beyond what we can ever earn.

Maybe this sounds a bit dissatisfying – how, as characters in a the story of life, human beings play the part of toiling laborers, subject only to whatever we are given, regardless of whether it’s fair. But we hope for more, so we work more, to get what we feel we deserve. This is a very basic principle that seems to stir a very natural motor within us to want to earn our keep, and then some.

I understand so little, of God’s ways. I can barely even grasp how my little life is unfolding before me. I only know, to toil on.

And yet, this peculiar story seems to point to an even bigger, better thing worth putting our hope in, something beyond all that I can ever earn, should I even try to. This grace promised to us, this thing that only the “Landowner” can give – might be the most undeserved thing I want most. The thing none of us, good workers and bad ones, could ever attain on our own accord. It will always be more than everything we’ve given, and never too little for those who have given none.

That is a profound mystery to me, still – the “justice” of that gift. And the only consolation I can find, dissatisfying as it might be, is that to us, it’s always free.

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A Revelatory Morning

I was having coffee with a friend this morning and we quickly got to talking about serious matters before our mochas could get cold.

But first, a little backstory. Growing up in church, I’d always thought that “choosing God” was the best choice. It appeared to be a no-brainer, in my finite little mind. By the time I got to college, I learned that my burgeoning activism was so nicely supported by this radical picture of Jesus turning over tables, giving free education for all, and eating and drinking with the social pariahs of His day.

I am now a full-fledged, voting adult, a married man, and still a regular churchgoer. But often times I find myself wondering what all of that meant for me – subscribing my entire life to this belief that God and Jesus, were somehow more important to me than someone like Barack Obama, Michael Jordan, or Bill Simmons.

Maybe I could be living just as similar a life as I do now, married, surrounded by community, “activist-ing” of sorts (I actually have come to despise this word – I realize it’s made up), but without God all that….involved.

I have no answers for that question quite yet, but the thought that did come to me today was this: all this time, it was as though I were choosing for God as if I were simply choosing for the rest of those people I mentioned – evaluating whether He was in fact the “right” choice to earn my vote in the cosmic election of the faiths, or concluding that Christianity happened to cater nicely to my lifestyle preferences and existing worldview about humanity and justice.

Today, I imagined God interjecting, “You still don’t understand. You actually need me.” I imagined God repeating this to me over and over, cutting me off at my every rebuttal. “You might not know why you do, but believe me, you do. And not for the reasons you think, either. In fact, the reasons you might have for choosing Me have little to do with why you actually need me.”

I likely won’t be making any friends with any atheists any time soon, but not because I wouldn’t want to. It’s just that, I find myself still wanting to subscribe to this notion that I actually need God, more than I know, or even care to admit. That everything in life would be inconsequential, or insignificant, without Him. For me, all the reasons I’ve constructed to justify why I’ve bothered holding onto my faith, the little that’s left, for so long, hardly matter.

As a teen, it certainly wasn’t the popular choice, choosing faith. But by the time I had become a reasonable, thinking adult, it turned out to be rather convenient. It was comforting, finding a faith that seemed to affirm and support my very core beliefs about doing good in this world for my fellow human beings.

But at this point in my life, faith has become something different. It feels elusive, and therefore frustrating, and thus, tiresome to bother even keeping around.

And yet, here I am, bothering anyway, talking myself into believing it’s worthwhile to still believe, at all, despite finding fewer reasons to imagine my life feeling any different if it were without it. (Again, a question I’ll answer for another day)

But this morning, over cold mochas, listening to my friend remind me that I wasn’t alone in my doubt, my strange revelation came.

My need for God still remains far greater than all the reasons I could ever come up with, for having held onto Him at all. Frankly, God might not care for any of my reasons. God loves, despite why I ever choose for or against Him.

Perhaps that why I need Him the most.