What We Deserve
February 1st/2nd, 2015
Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
In William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, a character named Antonio takes out a loan from his mortal enemy Shylock. Antonio takes out the loan in order to give the money to his friend who needs it as a dowry. Now, as you might expect with a story in need of a plot, the terms of this loan are fairly unique. The deal was that if Antonio didn’t pay back the entire loan on time, then his enemy Shylock would cut out a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Antonio is a wealthy man who has fallen on hard times, so he has a hard time getting a loan from anyone else. He is waiting for a ship to arrive in port so that he can sell the shipment, and he intends to use the cash from the shipment to repay the loan, so he agrees to the ridiculous terms. Well, as you can probably guess, due to circumstance beyond his control, Antonio isn’t able to pay back the loan. The ship is lost at sea, and when his enemy comes to collect his due, Antonio is forced to admit that he is without the liquid assets to repay the loan. The case goes to court, where Shylock sharpens his knife while demanding his due. He keeps repeating, “Give me what is owed me.” The judge pleads with Shylock to be merciful, but Shylock demands that he be treated justly, according to the law of the land, and according to the contract signed. He wants Antonio’s flesh.
Then, in a strange twist, combined with a bit of legal gymnastics, the judge tells Shylock that he may indeed cut a pound of flesh as stipulated in the loan agreement. But it must be exactly one pound, not an ounce more, not an ounce less, for those were the terms agreed upon. Additionally, he may not shed even a drop of Antonio’s blood while cutting away exactly one pound, for the loan didn’t say anything about blood, only flesh. If Shylock does shed even one drop of Antonio’s blood, he will be arrested and charged with attempted murder. Suddenly, Shylock is not demanding justice anymore, but is seeking mercy of his own. Suddenly, he sees that the law he so desired and demanded is holding him as a slave as well.
Shakespeare was a master at painting so vividly the emotions and experiences of everyday life. Here he portrays so skillfully a situation that we can all identify with, and emotion that we all feel: entitlement. We want what’s ours, what we feel we deserve, until we realize that what’s ours isn’t exactly what we expected.
That’s what happened with the workers from today’s Gospel lesson. The workers who were hired first thing in the morning felt entitled to more than those who were hired at the end of the day. For a certain perspective, I suppose they were right. They had worked longer hours. They had worked through the heat of the day while those hired later had only worked toward sundown. They had invested more time in the project than any of the other workers. From their perspective, the whole situation was unfair. I think most of us understand where they’re coming from. The problem is that they, like Shylock, like us, were victims of tunnel vision and selective amnesia. In their case, they were ignoring the simple reality that they had agreed to work for a specified wage, and when the time came, that wage is exactly what they were paid. When viewed in comparison to the workers around them it might have seemed unfair, but not when viewed from the perspective of their relationship to the owner. The owner’s relationship to each individual had nothing to do with his relationship to anyone else.
It’s a dangerously common temptation to evaluate ourselves and our standing before God by comparing ourselves to other people rather than comparing ourselves to God’s standard as set forth in his holy Law. It’s a common temptation because if we compare ourselves to other sinful people rather than against the standard set forth in our Lord’s Word, we can “stack the deck,” so to speak. We can choose the people with whom we will compare ourselves, and which ones we will forget. “Sure, I’m not better than the best people out there, but I’m definitely better than the worst, so I’ll just compare myself to them.” We can choose which of our own actions we will put forth as evidence in these comparisons, and which we will conveniently forget. “Sure I’m may have fudged the truth a little to my boss or had that hatred flare up toward my coworker or my lust for the woman in the elevator, but those don’t count. I choose to focus on the time I spend in prayer and at church.” We can easily explain away our sins by simply telling the judge in our head, “Yes, I did that, but everyone else does too. It’s really not that big of a deal.” Because the trial takes place in the courtroom of our own mind and is one of our own devising, we can control which witnesses will be called, whose testimony will be stricken from the record, and what the final verdict will ultimately be. The problem is, this is a courtroom of the mind. It is a verdict of the mind. While we may be able to convince ourselves it is right, it’s not reality. Reality is much different.
If we go to our Father in Heaven and lay the verdict of our imaginary trial at his feet for his blessing and approval, we will be as disappointed as the workers at the end of today’s parable. If we take our estimation of our own abilities to God and ask to be given what we deserve, we will be as frustrated as Shylock. For despite the lies we tell ourselves, like Shylock, the law is not ultimately on our side. By means of the law, no one will be made righteous, not even one. Reality is a harsh judge. Reality is that we have not trusted in God above all things. We instead trust in our careers and our bank accounts to provide for our future, and we trust in the bottle or some other self-medication to soothe our sin-sick souls. Reality is that we have not called upon God in prayer and thanksgiving as we ought, but rather to often treat him as a genie to be consulted only when we have exhausted all other options at our disposal. We have not worshiped as we ought, we don’t respect authority, and we’re almost never content with the lot in life that our Lord has given us. No, the law of reality is a harsh judge, and if at the end of the day we go complaining to our Lord demanding what we deserve, we won’t especially like what we get, for what we deserve is temporal and eternal punishment. All we are entitled to is judgment.
But look again at the master in the parable. When the workers come to him and tell him he is unfair, he doesn’t argue. Rather, his reply is, “Do you begrudge my generosity?” There is where we find our joy in the parable. The Master is unfair; he doesn’t want to give us what we deserve. He wants to be generous. It is a sign of our spiritual blindness that we so quickly identify with those who have been working the longest in the parable. In reality, we are the ones who have come last, the ones who don’t deserve anything, but who are given everything. We are the Israelites in the wilderness who receive manna from heaven and water from rocks out of the pure generosity of our Lord. As Jesus himself said, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. It was the love and generosity of the Father that sent Jesus into the world. It was the love and generosity of Jesus that led him to willingly submit to his Father’s will, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Love and generosity are the motivation behind our Lord’s actions to us. It is when we have rejected him as our gracious Lord that we get an auditor instead. It is when we reject the gift of forgiveness and demand that our Lord give us what we deserve that we actually get what we deserve: judgment.
And yet in spite of our continual demands that our Lord give us what we deserve, he continues to come to us in mercy and generosity. He is here today in his body and blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of our sins. Here is here in the proclamation of his law, reminding us of what we actually deserve, but also in the proclamation of his Gospel, reminding us that we receive forgiveness instead. Like Shylock from the Merchant of Venice, we are tempted to be so sure of ourselves. We are tempted to think we have all our bases covered, that we have it all under control. We are tempted to demand what we believe is ours, what we believe we’ve earned. But when we realize that the only thing we’ve earned is punishment, a one-way ticket to a place much hotter than the Caribbean, suddenly grace is what we desire.
But unlike Shylock, grace is what we receive, full payment for a day’s labor when we’ve only arrived an hour before closing. We receive that which is not rightfully ours. We receive the mercy and generosity of God himself. It goes against everything our culture has taught us, that God would be so compassionate. It is our nature to compare, to measure, to judge according to the standard of other people. We thrive off comparison.
But that is not how God works. God doesn’t work according to the standards we think are best. He doesn’t make such comparisons among his children. He sees us all through the blood of Christ. Through the blood of Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, early worker or late arrival. For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but the gift to all equally is eternal life through the same Christ Jesus our Lord. We don’t deserve it, but we still get it. Others don’t deserve it, but they still get it too. And Praise the Lord for that! God rewards all his children equally, with the same salvation.
This undeserved generosity gives us a new outlook on life. When we are jealous that someone else is receiving more than we got, or feel that we deserve more than we’re getting, we know we’re right. We do deserve so much more. We deserve death. We deserve hell. Similarly, when we think that someone else is receiving better than they deserve, we don’t have to get bitter, for we remember that we are too. We are receiving the very life of Christ himself. We are receiving the full measure of salvation when you’ve worked for none of it, when we deserve none of it.
We don’t get what we deserve. We don’t get what we’ve earned. And thanks be to God for that.