On the evening of February 19, 1982, CBS Evening News correspondent, Bob Schieffer, reported many important stories of the day including President Reagan’s budget, the Polish Solidarity movement, human atrocities in El Salvador, and a nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island. However, a different story seemed to attract as much attention as any of these other stories.
“After a lot of hoopla and millions of tax dollars spent on commercials and other things to tell us why we needed to go metric, it is the metric system that’s about to go,”
Schieffer said the dismantling of the Metric Board, a board set up to guide America to changing their form of measurement to match the accepted system of most other nations..
You may remember that attempt to change the way we measure things in the early 1980s, or you may remember it from another attempt in the early 1960s, as well as many other moments in our nation’s history. The switch from a measurement of halves and quarters, and even thirds, is so engrained in our thinking that switching to a measurement system that uses tens to measure is just a too big of leap to make. The United States, along with Liberia and Myanmar are the only three nations in the world that still do not use the metric system of measurement.
Despite many business that have made the addition of the metric system to assist in their global trade and some remaining traces of our attempts to switch systems – such as the section of Interstate 19 connecting Tucson to Mexico – the only highway in the US to have distance signs in kilometers – we remain a nation that measures differently than most of the world.
While there was surely a measure of nationalistic pride at stake in the public’s refusal to make the switch, it was mainly because it is next to impossible, as human beings, to switch our ways of thinking. I admit, I am one of those humans, while I could adapt to seeing Coca Cola measured in liters, I found it impossible to make the switch to metrics when helping my kids with their third grade math. There could not be enough cheat sheets for me to be able to figure out the number of kilometers Joe was going to have to travel if his trip from Denver to Albuquerque was 449 miles.
As the close of Jesus earthly ministry was coming to a crescendo, and he was beginning to recognize the shadow of the cross looming a short distance ahead, he began to urgently focus on the things his disciples needed to fully understand. They were going to be the ones to lead the believers and there were certain things they needed grasp. Things like forgiveness and trust, things that would be essential elements of their teaching and leading, but even more, things that they would need to persevere and survive as leaders.
Grace was at the top of that list.
You may remember singing ‘Grace, grace, God’s grace, grace, grace that will pardon and cleanse within. Grace, grace, God’s grace, grace that is greater than all our sin.’ Even as we would sing it, a full understanding of Grace was, and is, a difficult concept to fully grasp. It is even a greater trait for us to absorb and practice.
The precipitating moment that led Jesus to share the parable about grace in our gospel passage for today, was a discussion with his disciples who inquired ‘What are we going to get for giving up everything to follow you?’
It was an extraordinarily blunt, and, I would think, inappropriate, question, yet it was met with no resistance from Jesus, he seemed to understand the measurement system these men automatically defaulted to. He understood it was difficult to change the measurement systems of our expectations.
He began, and ended, his response with a very odd and difficult to swallow, statement:
‘The first shall be last and the last shall be first.’
A statement that I am sure solicited the same response it would receive today,
‘Well, that’s not fair!’
If we are the first in line, we expect to be the first to enter.
If we are the first to work, we expect to be the first to be noticed.
If we are the first to raise our hand, we expect to be the first to receive praise.
If we are the first to be born, we expect to be the first to be blessed.
If we are the first, we do not expect to be last.
Even more, if we are last, we are not expecting to be first.
Let’s face it, it is a crazy system of measurement. It may work in heaven but it is preposterous here on earth. But still, it is the measurement system that God uses because it is the driving characteristic of God, it is his undeniable nature.
Jesus explained Grace by telling his disciple a parable. A parable of a system of measurement that was totally foreign to any system on earth. It was a system designed in heaven, for heaven.
The fact that this alien system was now being used on earth only made sense if you remember that Jesus told his disciples to pray that God’s will would be done on earth as it is the standard in heaven.
This is why it was essential that these men, who would be the leaders of Jesus’ followers, understood, it was their calling – they were to switch their system of measurement. They had to understand!
In this parable there was a farmer that had a field that was ready for workers. The farmer went to the community market square where workers who needed a field were waiting. The farmer found out the need of the workers, agreed on the measurement of addressing their need and took them to his field. Later that morning, the farmer recognized that his field had room for more workers so he returned to the market square where he loaded more workers needing a field, in the afternoon, he once again did the same. At five o clock in the afternoon, basically almost quitting time, as we was in the marketplace again, he noticed more workers standing in the square.
‘Why are you not working?’ He asked them.
“Because no one will hire us,’ they said.
He looked at them, this was not an uncommon collection of people to still be looking for work. They were seldom taken to a field. For all sorts of reasons, these people could never get to a field. Some talked to much while some didn’t talk at all, some didn’t understand, some couldn’t be understood, some looked weird, some were not from around there, some smelled bad, some were just plain odd, some were the wrong gender, while the gender of some was not identifiable, some didn’t fit in, some were trying too hard to fit in, none of these workers met the measurements of the hiring system for being taken to the fields.
This farmer used a different system. These people wanted to go to a field, that was his measurement criteria, so this farmer loaded them up and took them to his field.
At the end of the day, the farmer paid the workers. As the original workers watched the system of payment, they were liking this system, it surely meant that they were going to be paid more than they had been promised. They saw that these undesirable workers were paid what they had expected to be paid. These all day, original workers were shocked, then, at the injustice when they discovered that they were being paid the same as the five pm workers.
“That is not fair, that is not just!’ They loudly complained.
“Are you upset because I am generous?’ The farmer asked, ‘Have I not paid you exactly what I promised?’
Quite honestly, the workers were correct, according to our earthy forms of measurement, the system of this farmer was unjust, it was unfair.
This was Jesus’ explanation of grace. This was the heavenly measurement that was demanded by grace. A measurement that was not dependent on an amount, a numerical figure, it was about entry into the field. It was about the need to be in the field.
Much like when Peter wanted to know a number for forgiveness, numbers are our system of measurement. Now, once again, Jesus is teaching a system that does not depend on numbers, it cannot even be calculated through addition or subtraction.
When the Hebrews were liberated from slavery, they were heading to their field – the field they had been promised through Abraham. They had been enslaved subtly over generations until the ever increasing brutality of their existence had become their normal. They did not recognize life outside of Egypt, they didn’t expect freedom to be so difficult, they never imagined that they would think fondly on their lives in slavery, they had not realized that they didn’t really know their God, the God of Joseph, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham.
Outside of Egypt, however, they were getting a crash course in ‘God’. They saw his power as he parted the waters for them to escape Pharoah and his armies. They began to see God, to really know God, not in his power, but in his grace. It was in God’s grace that he became personal – he began to be known.
This is the principle of provision, it is not in God’s power that we know & trust him, it is in his grace.
Oddly, it was because of their complaining that they became acutely aware of God’s presence daily. It was in his response to their complaining about him that he revealed himself to them.
God met them where they had to be met, where they were able to see their need. Only there would they be able to begin to receive. Only then, could they be able to begin their journey of knowing him.
Grace is a singular trait that governs from within. Grace and pride cannot mutually exist. Grace fuels God’s pursuit of us as long as we are pursuable.
‘We are hungry, at least in Egypt we had food. We are tired, at least in Egypt we had rest. We don’t know what to expect, at least in Egypt we knew what was happening. We are afraid the unknown ahead, at least in Egypt we knew what we had to fear.”
Moses was frustrated, Aaron was tired of dealing with their complaining, God, however, showed his grace through his patience and provision. He provided them what they needed while giving them a lesson in who he is. Everyday, their food would be there for them, enough for that day. It would be there again the next day, and on weekends, he would give them enough on Friday for two days, to cover the Sabbath, on that day he would give them rest.
This was God’s way of measuring out his provision. God didn’t have a set template of how to respond to needs, nor did he have a set pattern of how to deal with those who were ungrateful. He didn’t respond with a earthly system of screaming, “I delivered you, I gave you freedom, I welcomed you into the field, I protected you…and still, you are complaining. I am washing my hands of you ingrates!”
Instead, he recognized their cognitive, emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual level of development and began there. He did not say ‘quit complaining’, instead he said, ‘I am going to help you know me, everyday when your food is there, remember, I gave it to you. That is what I do, that is who I am. I see your needs and will meet them. Trust me, for you will need to know me in the fields where I am placing you.’
Grace takes a lot of unlearning, and then re-learning, and it takes open eyes to understand. The disciples were not the only ones that need to understand grace. It is only when we understand grace that we can then begin to grasp God’s presence in our lives. Understanding life in God’s field is dependent on understanding the grace character and grace nature of God.
Jonah missed the full immersion into God’s grace and therefore missed God while he was measuring who should not be benefactors of grace. His judgement, born out of hatred of a people, replaced the grace of God in his own life. He missed the joy of being in the field.
God is grace, to not know that grace, to not fully ascribe to that grace, to not seek to live in that grace, to not approve of the moments of that grace, to judge who should be in the field of grace, restricts our own immersion in God’s grace.
“I do not at all understand the mystery of grace–only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us. I can be received gladly or grudgingly, in big gulps or in tiny tastes, like a deer at the salt.”
Imagine the world if we were to see with the grace vision of God.
Don’t miss grace all around you.