The Unconditional Grace of God

The Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Philippians 1.21-30 – Matthew 20.1-16  

The Very Rev’d Bertrand Oliver, Dean and Rector of Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal

‘Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you’

If there is something that super activists and driven people, such as I am, find exceedingly difficult to grasp, it is this concept that we should all know by now, because we have heard it repeated often enough here at Christ Church Cathedral.  And it is this: the Grace and love of God are unconditional and are available to all.  There is really no need to do anything to qualify.

Yet however much we may believe this, there is always a doubt nagging in our head – perhaps I am not doing enough to really be loved by God, to really feel his presence and to really experience the full array of God’s gracefilled gifts.

Maybe if I ensure that I do this next project, this next task, work more, then maybe I can be a little more sure.

Our uncertainty may have a lot more to do with our own relationship with our fathers than the reality of our relationship with God. Or it may simply have to do with the way we are wired, and that is a life time’s work to undo.

Especially for those of us who work in or belong to institutions dedicated to spreading this Gospel message, the urgent drive for perfection can be so overwhelming that nothing will stop us to try and do God’s work, instead of seeing that God is often already well at work without us.  Nothing will stop us until life interrupts.

And that is the experience I had after a full day in the Cathedral on a beautiful sunny evening late in July.

It had been a day full of all sorts of things that needed to be done. I eventually turned my laptop off at the end of the afternoon, thinking about all that still needed to be done – as is the case every day for most of us – and got on my bike to go home.  The sun was still bright, the streets were quiet and it felt like the world was perfect as I was cycling down Ontario.

And the next moment, I was in an ambulance on my way to the ER, having lost consciousness.

The initial night in the ER was followed a week later by the operation on my elbow.  And still, I thought I was going to continue to work and carry on as if nothing had happened.

But the aftershock tiredness was overwhelming, and after my initial attempt to keep going, I had to give in – give in to my body, but also give in to God.  Because throughout all this, I had an overwhelming sense of the presence of God with me, willing me to simply stop and be and heal and take time to rest, and leave everything else in God’s care.  And the assurance that all would be well, even if I was not there.

So, even though it was not easy, I gave in.  And the world of the Cathedral did not collapse.

By a coincidence of the lectionary, the Gospel set for today speaks deeply of all this.  Because it is a text that has the capacity to push so many of our buttons, in a world where it is a given that successful work brings rewards, a world where we are judged and valued by the quantity of work that we do.

For most of us, the story of the landowners and the labourers is shocking.  It was already so to the disciples to whom Jesus told it, and it is still so to us as we hear it today.

How can it be just and equitable for someone having worked all day to be given the same pay as some others who only worked for part of it? What does that say about the value of work, what does that say about justice and equity. And given that these are words of Jesus, what does that say to us about God?

As we hear of the increasingly fraying tempers of those who worked all day as they see the late-comers being compensated equally, we may want to examine what our feelings are too.

Of course, the landowner is completely within his right, it is his money after all. Who are they to grumble, since they were paid what had been agreed. He is entitled to be generous beyond expectations.  And this is exactly the point that Jesus is making.

God’s grace is not earned by works, whatever the quantity, but simply by turning up, being there, whether from the beginning, or whenever we eventually encounter Love and Grace in the person of Jesus.

On seeing the largess of the landowner, those who were there at the start get excited at the idea that they may get more for their effort.  See how disappointed they are when they get ‘only’ what had been agreed: we might sympathize with them.

For those who follow Jesus of course, a similar problem arises.  We find it hard to believe that the ways in which we shape our lives to model them on Christ, the sacrifices we make, the ways in which we try to be good, to stick by the rules, and to live justly, might count for nothing more in the end.  Grossly unfair, we think – maybe unconsciously.  This Grace of God which does not rely on evidence or require effort disrupts our sense of merit, of human justice.  And that is the point.

Of course, if those who worked all day – and who now feel cheated – had been the recipients of the generosity, that Grace, that grace-filled way of bookkeeping, they would naturally have been overjoyed.  They simply cannot bear the idea that others have benefitted from something which they did not. They resent the gift made to others.

We hear that story in other parts of the Bible too.  As Jonah is cross with God for sparing Nineveh; as the older son lashes out at his father for welcoming the prodigal son back; as the pharisee passes judgement on the publican and thanks God for not being like him.

And of course throughout the history of the church too, as Christians passed judgements on others,  instead of celebrating the Grace of God which embraces all. And even as we struggle today – however inclusive we may be – to believe that people diametrically opposed to us – our siblings in Christ – are also given that Grace that God promises.

St Paul writes, in his letter to the Philippians: ‘Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit’.  And for him, the privilege that God has given us is not only to believe in Christ, but also to bear the cost on our lives of our service to God. This may be evidenced in many ways, from the martyrdom of early followers to actions for justice and peace, to quiet and steadfast lives of prayer and service.  In the end, these are different responses to the Grace we are given, not ways to achieve fast track salvation.

It can sometimes be dizzying to look at the Cathedral website and see the vast array of worship opportunities as well as activities and projects in which various segments of our community are engaged.  And it may be easy to feel you fall well short of what you think is expected, that you will never quite make the grade.

But today, Jesus reminds us of this truth again: we need do nothing to be worthy of God.  God loves us, and God is showering Grace in our life.  Let us be extremely glad and rejoice in it.




  1. Reply
    Valerie Bennett says:

    Welcome back, Dean Bertrand. Greta sermon!

Post a comment