Grace, Mercy, and Justice

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Throughout Lent, we’re exploring the parables of Jesus – the two dozen or so stories that were his chief means of describing the reality of God’s rule on earth. 

The late author and theologian R.C. Sproul was fond of telling about a particular time he was teaching an introductory college course on the Old Testament.  The class was populated by about 250 freshmen. 

Sproul announced that each student would be responsible for writing three short papers over the course of the semester.  These were to be the approximate length of book reports.  But they had to be submitted on time for credit to be received.  The first paper had to be on Sproul’s desk by noon on September 30; the second by noon on October 30; and the third by noon on November 30.  Papers submitted after those deadlines would automatically receive an F. 

“Do you all understand what I expect?” he asked the students.  They nodded enthusiastically.  “Simple stuff,” they agreed. 

But when September 30 arrived, 25 of those students were shaking in their shoes.  Their papers weren’t finished.  These were freshmen, still making the transition from high school to college.  “Please don’t give us an F on this paper!” they pleaded.  “Could you give us one more day?”

Sproul relented.  “Just don’t let it happen again,” he warned.  “Don’t worry,” they sighed, “we’ve learned our lesson.” 

But when the second deadline arrived, October 30, there were now 50 students gathered outside Sproul’s door.  Once again they were nervous.  “Please give us a break,” they pleaded.  “We’ve got midterms and projects that are due in other classes, and it’s homecoming, after all.  Could we have one more chance?”

Sproul gave in.  “I’ll grant an extension, but don’t let this happen again.”  For the next 30 days, Sproul would have won Most Popular Professor in a landslide.  His students sang, “We love you Dr. Sproul, oh yes, we do.” 

Then November 30 arrived.  This time a whopping 100 students were delinquent in submitting their reports, and their attitudes were strikingly cavalier.

Sproul asked, “Where are the term papers I requested?”  “Don’t worry, Prof,” they answered.  “We’ll have those in your hands in a couple of days.”  Sproul, however, took out his little black grading book. 

“Johnson, where’s your term paper?”  “I don’t have it, sir.”  So Sproul marked an F next to Johnson’s name.  “Greenwood, where’s your paper?”  Greenwood gulped and said, “It’s not finished yet, sir.”  So Sproul put an F next to his name, too.

Sproul recalls that the entire class came unglued.  “That’s not fair!”  Sproul looked up.  “What was that?” he asked.  “We said, ‘What you’re doing is completely unfair!’” 

Sproul looked over at the first student he had singled out and said, ‘Johnson, did I just hear you say that what I did was unfair?”  “Yes, sir,” said Johnson, who plainly was exasperated.

“Well, I don’t ever want to be thought of as an unfair or unjust professor.  I’ll be glad to give you justice.  As I recall, you were late the last time a paper was due, weren’t you?”  Johnson nodded.  “All right, then I’m going to go back and change that grade to an F, too.  Is there anybody else in the class who wants justice?”  Sproul looked around.  Amazingly, there was nobody else in the class who wanted justice.  But plenty of the students were nostalgic for his grace.

What had happened to those students over the course of the semester?  They had gradually come to assume that grace was something they deserved.  Remember what Henry Higgins sings in the musical My Fair Lady?  “I’ve grown accustomed to her face.”  Those students had grown accustomed to Sproul’s grace. 

That is precisely the experience of many people who contemplate the work of God in their own lives.  We are so used to hearing the good news about Jesus that it hardly moves us anymore.  We’ve adjusted ourselves to the miraculous way that God’s grace comes to the rescue, even at the last minute.

I never thought I would get over the wonder of being married to my wife.  But I did – although not nearly as fast as Mary Sue got over the wonder of being married to me.  I never thought I would stop being thankful for the first house we lived in.  But I did.  I became accustomed to the grace of having our loan approved, and my mortgage payment became a burden instead of a privilege.  I never thought, when I first made a commitment to Jesus, that I would ever get over the feeling of awe that God actually loves me and wants me.  But I did.  And there have been plenty of days in which I’ve thought, “Come on, God, can’t you answer my prayers a little faster?”

Three key biblical ideas are closely related to each other:  justice, mercy, and grace. 

Justice may be defined as getting what we deserve.  The world cries out for justice.  Abraham asked God, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25)  The implied answer is, “Of course.”  But when we plead for justice we must be wary of the consequences.  If we beg God to rid the world of every shred of evil at 9:00 pm today, not one of us would still be around at 9:01 pm. 

Mercy is not getting what we deserve.  Ephesians 2:4 tells us that God is “rich in mercy, because of his great love for us.”  Good health, good friends, and the fact that spring is less than three weeks away are reminders that “his compassions never fail.” (Lamentations 3:23) 

Grace is getting what we don’t deserve.  There’s a reason that we sing “Amazing Grace.”  Grace means that God’s presence, God’s love, and God’s forgiveness cannot be earned.  They cannot be deserved.  They can only be received.  No wonder the apostle Paul begins and ends all 13 of his New Testament letters with a reference to grace. 

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a world in which grace and mercy are the only considerations? 

At first blush, that sounds great.  But as anyone who has ever tried to advocate for the poor, referee a kids soccer game, or resolve conflicts between nations has discovered, we cannot live without justice.  Accountability matters.

Perhaps we should rephrase our question: Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a world in which all three of these realities are perfectly expressed in the actions of a gracious, just, and merciful God? 

Jesus says, “That’s the kind of world that really exists.  That’s the kind of God who’s really there.”

Jesus teases out these truths in a remarkable series of stories.  He capitalizes on everyday scenes in first century Israel – farmers casting seed, fishermen pulling in their nets, a woman kneading yeast into a batch of dough.  He then describes something that would have been familiar to everyone within the sound of his voice: day-laborers toiling in a vineyard at harvest time.  His listeners would know all the characters of such a setting by heart. 

But in the Parable of the Workers, in order to describe the incomprehensible depth of God’s grace, Jesus does something that none of his listeners would have expected. 

He blows up the rulebook for “the way things ought to be.”

If it’s been a while since you’ve encountered the story in Matthew 20:1-16, there’s a good chance it still has the capacity to blow your mind.

We’ll dig into it together tomorrow.