Beloved in Christ, God made us in His image. And for millennia now we have been returning the favor and trying to make God in our own image.
I don’t mean that as a compliment. When God created us in His image, He was bestowing upon us good gifts. He was endowing us with reason, so that we would not have to live purely by instinct. More importantly, He gave us holiness and righteousness, so that all our actions would be noble and praiseworthy and so that we would live a life of trust in Him. But what did we do? We threw away that gift. Instead of holiness we pursued sin. Rather than being governed by reason, we often follow our basest desires and do so unthinkingly. But to top it all off, we started trying to create God in our own image. We pretended that He was exactly like one of us—more powerful than us, to be sure—but otherwise indistinguishable from you and me.
We cut God down to our size by calling Him “the Man Upstairs,” as if He were a slightly older human being, but with all our foibles and quirks. We assume that He is as fickle as we are, and that He has basically the same moral outlook we do. Indeed, whatever we happen to think about a particular subject, we assume that it is His view as well, for we are smart, reasonable beings and God must certainly be like us if He is worthy of the name God.
But then we are confronted with those words from today’s Old Testament reading: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, declares the LORD.” We may try to get God to conform to our expectations and our way of doing things, but we won’t succeed. God will remain God, not a creation of our imagination.
Therefore, when we come to the Scriptures, we shouldn’t expect to see the LORD God confirming our preconceptions about Him. We are selfish people; the LORD God isn’t. We are tainted by sin; the LORD God is holy. We are limited in our understanding; the LORD God knows all things. Therefore, we should actually be expected to be surprised when we read the Scriptures and learn more about the LORD. This is especially true if we haven’t been Christians all that long or if we have read very little of the Scriptures or if we have read the Bible very superficially. We should expect that the LORD will surprise us when He tells us exactly what He is like.
And so we should expect that God will demand something greater of us in the way of morality than we would. After all, we are looking for the easiest way out. We are looking for ways to justify our selfish behavior. But if the LORD God is holy and wants us to be holy too, He will have to ask for more out of us. You see, we take the saying “no harm, no foul” and recraft it as “no blood, no sin,” as if you have to harm someone badly enough that they end up in the hospital before it counts as a sin. And since we haven’t done anything that horrible, or done so only very occasionally, we look pretty good.
But God tells us to get a deeper morality than that. Sure, He forbids us to murder others, but He also tells us not to be angry with them or call them names. Sure, He forbids us to commit adultery, but He also orders us not to look at others with lust in our eyes. Our words and our thoughts are as much subject to His scrutiny as the crassest of our deeds, and they must pass inspection no less than our actions.
But God’s thoughts are about more than mere morality. That is one of the ways that His thoughts are so much higher than ours. The best we can think to come up with is a mediocre morality. But God wants to establish a relationship with us that is based on something even better than morality: His love, mercy, and forgiveness.
We see that in today’s Gospel. There we see a man who hires a crew of workers at the beginning of the day and promises to pay them a denarius, which was more than fair pay for a day’s work. Three hours into the workday he realizes that he will need more workers and so he hires some more. He does so again at the sixth hour and the ninth hour. Finally, at the eleventh hour, one hour before quitting time, he hires a final batch of workers. He then pays everyone a denarius. The people who were hired first don’t like it. I suppose that neither would several federal agencies today. Sure, we would allow him to pay the last group of workers a denarius, but only if he upped the pay for the first group of workers to twelve denarii.
Why do we instinctively have a problem with what the man in the parable? It is because we do not understand grace, that is, when God gives us something that we don’t deserve and couldn’t in fact earn. We look at God as if He were our boss, and anything we get from Him as our wages. If we work hard, we expect to be highly compensated. If we are good people, living upright lives, we expect God to give us high-paying jobs, prestige in society, a great family, and a pleasant life. And if we or someone else messes up and violates one of God’s commandments in a serious way, we expect some misfortune to strike. When it comes to our salvation, we do things the old-fashioned way: we earn it.
And so we are scandalized by the idea that God would forgive sins, that He would give people something better than what they deserve. We ignore the fact that, if God truly paid people the wages they deserved, everyone would be condemned to hell, for all people have sinned against Him. But let’s say that we were able to live a perfect life and received as our due wages eternal fellowship with God in heavenly bliss. Now imagine that God gives the same gift of eternal life to someone who hasn’t been perfect. We would consider it grossly unfair, especially if that person wasn’t even close to our level of perfection. We would complain that we were being cheated somehow.
But the man in the parable asks some pertinent questions. He told the workers who worked all day, “Did you not agree with me for a denarius?” Whatever the man gave the other workers, he had not violated his agreement with them. By the same token, God promises that all who are perfectly obedient to Him will receive the rewards of heaven. That agreement is not violated simply because God decides to show mercy to sinners. The man in the parable goes on to ask, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” And that is what it boils down to: We have no right to begrudge God’s generosity. If He wants to show mercy, we have no right to complain, as if we were being robbed somehow or another.
Far from being cheated, we ought to realize exactly how generous God is, for even the best of us are more like the workers hired near the end of the day than those hired at the very beginning. We will enter heaven not based on our works, but as a free gift received from the LORD God, paid at the great cost of Christ’s suffering and death.
Now this parable usually leads people to ask the question: If we all can get the same free gift of salvation regardless of whether we trusted in Christ early in life or late in life, then why should we become a Christian early in life and take the faith seriously and strive to live a godly life, when we could turn to God on our deathbed and equally be saved? There are two answers. First of all, you might not have the chance to lie on your deathbed and mull over your life and consider returning to the LORD God. You might die quite suddenly, when you least expect it, without a chance to repent. That is why the Scriptures state repeatedly: “Today is the day of salvation.” There may not be a tomorrow. But there is another reason: we don’t want to miss out on fellowship with God. You see, we embrace the Christian faith not as something laborious but as a gift from God. Or more accurately: where God Himself is the gift.
It is not a burden to hear the invitation, “Seek the LORD while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near.” It is not a burden because we know that “He [will] have compassion on” us and “will abundantly pardon.” Therefore, beloved in the Lord, let us rejoice that God’s thoughts are higher than ours, and let us ponder what He has revealed about Himself. In Jesus’ name. Amen.