Since our readership has rapidly expanded over the past few years, and especially during the past few months, we want to take some time this summer to draw attention to earlier articles for those who may have missed them. Today’s article was among our first articles published on Recovering Grace in August of 2011
Jesus must have enjoyed short stories. He used parables frequently. One of those stories appears in Matthew 20:1-16. It arrested my attention recently and I wondered how someone would tell the story in today’s world. Perhaps something like this:
The strangest bonus Jim ever received was for a large project he worked on for six months. Jim is a software developer. Sometimes customers require a large-scale project in a short time-frame. Jim’s company asked his team to begin working 30 hours of overtime per week, resulting in a 70-hour work-week. They were on salary which meant they did not receive extra pay for overtime. However, this customer was important to the CEO and he promised Jim’s team a bonus upon completion of the project. For six months the team worked hard, trusting the bonus would be fair. After three months, another developer was added to the team to help out. The final developer came on the project with only one week left in the project.
The project was completed with one day to spare. The developers breathed a sigh of relief as it passed testing and qualified for earning the bonus. One by one, their manager called the developers into his office and closed the door. He began with the one who had only worked one week. That guy came out of the office all smiles and when he mentioned the amount of his bonus, the other developers were all smiles, too! For his one week of work, he had been given a generous bonus indeed. It was a little surprising when he gave the guy who had worked for three months the exact same bonus amount as the guy who had only worked a week – no more, no less. That did seem unusual.
Finally it was Jim’s turn -
Frankly, Jim was disappointed and surprised when the manager revealed that it would be the SAME BONUS as he had given everyone else, from the guy who had worked only one week on up to the team who had worked for six months. Not wanting to be rude, Jim swallowed and quietly commented on his surprise that the team who had worked so much more would not receive extra. Unfazed, the manager pointed out that everyone on the final team had worked under the same contract and been rewarded exactly what had been agreed upon. The manager was not doing anyone wrong if he happened to be extra-generous to the guys who had worked less.
Usually you would assume that a bonus would be based on how much you worked or how much you delivered. The manager looked at it differently: he took the amount he was able to pay out in bonus and divided it up equally. This was a sweet deal for those guys who were not expecting it but in all honesty it could feel a little sour for those who worked the hardest.
In Jesus’ day, the people who worked the hardest at obeying God were the Pharisees and other expert law-keepers. People naturally assumed that this extra effort would earn something extra with God, including extra safety, blessing and success.
Today, some people still feel this way. They try to be extra disciplined for God, or to discern and obey hidden principles, hoping that he will give them something extra in return. Some expect that their children will have extra safety and protection from harm. Some expect blessing in business, that their business will prosper. Some hope for extra closeness to God. Some desire the result of a happy marriage and family. Some teachers cash in on this desire and offer books or seminars in what people should do in order to realize these blessings.
But in the end, it is like running on a broken treadmill. The harder people try to earn something extra, the more they realize the results are not connected to this effort. Their children experience a surprise attack, or their business flounders while their relationship to God and their spouse seems to experience the same ups and downs as other people, even those who do not try nearly as hard.
I am one who fell off that treadmill, completely frustrated and even bitter with God. How could he watch me run harder and harder, and sweat more and more, and refuse to reward my effort? Not only this, but there were times others mistreated me and took advantage of the fact that my efforts on the treadmill actually made me an easier target for them. God still did not respond based on my efforts.
However, God was not being unkind. In fact, there is a huge relief that comes when a person realizes that their connection with God does not depend on their effort in keeping principles or being disciplined. Our connection with God is based on an unfair bonus: God simply decided to be good to us. Somewhat like the generous manager, the less we deserve it, the more God enjoys pouring out his favor on us.