The Puzzle of Grace

“So the last will be first, and the first last.” Matthew 20:16

Many words describe grace, and all of them are appropriate. Amazing, wonderful, infinite, sustaining, even scandalous, are a few. But I believe the first word that applies to grace is “puzzling.”

When you begin to look into the nature of grace, it makes no sense. Jesus highlighted grace’s puzzling nature again and again in some of His most memorable parables. The text for this week’s GraceWaves comes at the end of the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. The owner hired five sets of workers. The first group worked all day, and the last group worked only 1 hour. Every worker received the same pay.

Quite naturally, from the world’s point of view, the workers who had labored longer expected more, even though they received precisely what the owner had promised. “You have made them equal to us!” That’s a very telling line.

And most of us would agree with them. In fact, if I invite responses from an audience someone will say “I don’t blame them!” Often someone will say the same thing about the elder son’s complaint in the parable of the prodigal son. Vague feelings of “unfairness” also greet the text, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Puzzling. It does not seem right.

The key to solving at least part of the puzzle comes in Jesus introduction to the parable, “For the kingdom of heaven is like . . .” (Matt. 20:1). The kingdom of heaven, or the life where God’s kingdom has come, is fundamentally different from the world. Grace is not like the world. The kingdom of heaven operates by grace, and its citizens are to live by grace. A sad truth is that most Christians don’t trust grace, and thus don’t live by it. Grace does not have to make sense, you just need to accept its reality! When you do, you step further into the kingdom and begin to realize that grace is the only thing that does make sense.

One of the main ways to start this journey is to identify with the late workers and the prodigal son. They are you! The sooner you accept that, the more you trust the grace you have received from God, and most importantly, the more likely you are to share this grace with others. “Others” probably don’t deserve it. Neither do you! That’s the puzzle. Grace draws and keeps us all together as we allow it. Still puzzling, but it’s so much easier to live the way God created you. You were created to live by grace, not to worry about whether you are first or last or being treated fairly.

So breathe a prayer of gratitude now for God’s grace, and watch for it as He washes it over you throughout today. He surely will, for He does delight in you! Then look for ways to awaken others to grace. It might be “an undeserving person” who has worked only one hour, or who has wasted time, money, and opportunity, or whose name is Gomer (can’t leave out Hosea’s story as an illustration of puzzling grace!). It won’t “make sense” to share grace in the world, but it makes perfect sense in the kingdom, and now it makes more sense to you.


Dr. Terry Ellis