As many of you know, I just got back from a trip to Germany. It was part fun, but then also part work: I represented St. Matthew’s at the Reformation World Exhibition in Wittenberg for one week. And it was a wonderful experience! It was a truly international crowd that gathered there, new friendships were made, and it was good to see how much the ideas of grace and forgiveness for all had spread way beyond this little town in the heart of Germany, into the world. Then I traveled to more Luther sites, like Eisenach and the Wartburg, places that, for many years, I could not see, because they happened to be beyond the border, in the ‘other’ Germany.
Now the Reformation had an impact on many different aspects of life: sociology, economy, music, education, spirituality. But for us as Christians, Martin Luther’s discovery that our life as followers of Christ is not about our merits, but about God’s amazing grace, freely offered to all, is at the heart of the Reformation. As human beings, we are prone to mess up in life, however, God forgives us and embraces us regardless. I don’t know about you, but I think this is immensely liberating.
But what does grace mean, exactly? Well, as I was traveling in Saxony and Saxony Anhalt, states that formerly were under socialist rule and which were inaccessible to me until the wall came down, I was reflecting on how amazing it is that now, Germany is united again and that all German citizens are free to go wherever they want. Several time I crossed what used to be the German-German border, and I felt almost giddy, thinking about how, not too long ago, there still was an almost impenetrable wall. But even though there theoretically is not difference between Germans today, the memory of two German states is still fresh on people’s minds. One could argue that the unification is still going on, today, almost 30 years later. It hasn’t been a smooth ride. And part of it has to do with the difficulty of accepting grace.
Let me explain. Let’s go back the year 1989. The border that had divided Germany for more than 40 years finally tumbled. The Berlin Wall came down. I don’t know if you remember images of this; we in Germany of course tried to keep up with the news, we stood baffled at what many of us thought would never happen. People celebrated, strangers hugged one another, David Hasselhoff was singing “I’ve been looking for freedom” on top of the Berlin wall, there was joy and dancing and drinking. We have a great German word, Freudentaumel, which translated to something like “joyous tumble”, and that’s what it was.
Then reality set in, and what had been a gentle yet powerful grassroots revolution now had to be formalized, organized, and governed. And that was much more difficult than anticipated. People in Eastern Germany had a really weak currency, it was called Mark as well, but not be compared with the solid Deutschmark. One of the first major reforms was to introduce the Deutschmark to the Eastern Germans. It was decided that each Eastmark was to be exchanged at a 1:1 rate, up to a certain amount. Now the thing was that, like in most of the other socialist countries, goods had been hard to come by during the 40+ years of socialist rule. People earned their money, but didn’t really have an opportunity to spend it. Even the simple car models that were available were not easy to come by, but had to be ordered years in advance.
Now what do you do with money you can’t spend? You put it into a bank account. So most East Germans had put aside quite a bit of money over the years. So all of a sudden, people in former East Germany had not only thousands and thousands of Deutschmark at their discretion – they also could spend it. And so all of a sudden, East Germans were able to buy nice Western cars, besides other goods that previously had not been available to them.
And there was a grumble and an outcry of protest throughout Western Germany: that’s not fair! I have never been able to afford a new car. I worked hard for the last 40 years, and there never was much money for luxuries. And now those in the East, who haven’t paid into our Social Security System, who didn’t contribute to our GPA, reap the same benefits, they got all the money, they live better than many of us do! Of course many Western Germans did not take into account that, for more than 40 years, they were privileged to live with something money cannot buy: freedom to say what and to go to where they want.
I experienced it first hand, there was a lot of talk like that in my working class family. That’s not fair!
The joyous tumble ended with a rude awakening. The physical wall was down, but new walls were erected in the hearts and minds of the people. There was so much envy, so much bitterness instead of a genuine feeling of joy for the new fortune of others, instead of a feeling of gratitude and generosity. And the question was all about who deserves what. Quid pro quo, this is how the world works, isn’t it? It’s just deserts, everybody receives according to their actions. This is how we would like to define justice, and if we don’t get what we think we deserve, we get bitter and cranky.
The people of Niniveh should get what they deserve, Jonah thought. They messed up, they were wicked to the point that God wanted to eradicate them. Jonah got the unthankful task of proclaiming destruction to the people of Niniveh. I think we all remember the story from Sunday school, how at first Jonah refused to go, tried to run away, but God caught up with him at sea, there was a storm, the fish that swallowed Jonah, Jonah’s pledge to go to Niniveh after all if God only gets him out of that mess. And what happens when Jonah proclaimed doom over the city? People turned around, repented from their hearts. And God changes his mind, we read. God changed his mind and decided to spare the people of Niniveh. Apparently the quid pro quo, the just deserts principle doesn’t apply to God, God’s sense of justice is not what we would call fair.
Jonah, of course, is angry. Why did he go through all the trouble if God doesn’t stick to God’s plan? Jonah is so caught up in his own little world, in his pride, that he thinks it’s more important that he doesn’t lose face than a whole big city being saved. But can’t we all identify with Jonah to a point? Don’t we all know the feeling that we get treated unfairly? Don’t we all know the feeling that we don’t get what we deserve, and others get more than they deserve?
The last will be first, and the first will be last. Beautiful words, but if you think about it, those words turn our worldview, our understanding of justice upside down. Because it means that there are those who, we think, we get much more than they deserve, and we, who have tried so hard for such a long time to be good Christians, and go to church, and do all the volunteer jobs, may not quite get what we think we deserve: acknowledgment. The “church member of the month” award. A pat on the shoulder and the reassurance that we are so much better than other people. A special place at the table in the kingdom of God.
No. Jesus points out in the parable of the workers in the vineyard: all get the same, no matter, how involved and dedicated, no matter, how gifted, no matter, how old, no matter, how long they’ve been on board for the Lord, all get what God has promised: grace and forgiveness, and a peaceable kingdom to which all are invited. How could you ever measure those? What if someone gets “more” forgiveness than we do, because they need it, although they may not deserve it? Do we rejoice in that? Or do we grumble, like those early birds in the vineyard, like Jonah, like the some Western Germans after the Reunification?
Do we see our service to God in this world as a chore, something we should be paid for in the end, or do we see it as a gift which brings us fulfillment and purpose and a sense of peace on earth?
New Testament scholar Robert Smith makes a good point. He states, “It is simply a fact that people regularly understand and appreciate God’s strange calculus of grace as applied to themselves but fear and resent seeing it applied to others.”
But grace is not just individual grace. It is not about my or your personal salvation. When you read through the Bible, and if you listen to Martin Luther’s teachings, you will realize that it is always about cosmic grace, extended to all. And, yes, within this grace, some will seemingly get more than we think they deserve.
But, as Luther also pointed out: in the end, nobody is deserving. We all depend on the mercy and grace of God. We’re only human, after all. And we should rejoice that our brother or sister is saved by God’s grace as well. That’s what Christ died and rose for. The end game, after all, is God’s kingdom, where everyone is reconciled with God and each other. A kingdom of peace. A place where we all are in a joyous tumble. We can’t get there if we carry envy in our hearts.
This post is also available in: German