Part of the Family Business

To the one who works, wages are not given as a gift but as an obligation.

Will Ryan / 3.7.23

When I was growing up, I often worked for my grandfather. He owned an interior construction company, so you would find me helping out where I could.

First I cleaned up job sites after all the work had been done. This meant sweeping, vacuuming, dusting, washing windows, walking around with a magnet to pick up stray nails and screws. The kind of entry-level work you can maybe trust a pre-teen with. Then I graduated to helping out with demolition: busting down walls, sawing off studs, and hauling stuff to the dumpster. Grunt work that is difficult to mess up. Then I grew up and gained enough ability to help with the construction and finishing stage: staining doors, making drywall deliveries, throwing up studs and walls, and whatever else needed to be done.

All along the way, I was paid. It was most certainly a way for my grandfather to show his love for me (I wasn’t the most skilled worker, though I learned and got better), but I earned that money during breaks from school. I clocked in at 7 AM and clocked out with the rest of the crew when the work was done. Of course, I always expected my paycheck, delivered promptly every other Friday.

This is what we expect when we work: wages. Whether you’re running the drive through at Global Coffee Chain or dropping three pointers for the Lakers. It’s an agreement, I work for you and am paid. Paul gets at this when he says, Workers’ salaries aren’t credited to them on the basis of an employer’s grace but rather on the basis of what they deserve. (Rom 4:4) Even though my job was an extension of the love my grandfather had for me, I was still expected to work, to try hard, to not mess up (too bad), and to be on time. I expected to be paid because I held up my end of the bargain.

I bet you feel the same way.

A lot of people approach faith and God this way, treating God as a sort of benevolent (or perhaps dispassionate) employer dolling out kingdom coins for the work we do. In this equation, sins are demerits on the ledger and good works are the gold stars that improve our stock. Call out sick too many times and you might just lose your job. Do what is expected and you’ll work your way into God’s good graces. Gold stars all the way to heaven.

God, however, isn’t your boss (benevolent or otherwise). He gives “righteousness to those who don’t work” because God is the one who makes the ungodly righteous (Rom 4:5). We are made righteous, or good, simply by trusting God does this work on our behalf. It isn’t done by our half-hearted attempts at good works, our stutter-starting ways of loving our neighbors, our grudge-filled avenues of grace — it’s done by believing we have been saved by God’s action on our behalf. Faith means simply trusting God keeps God’s promises.

For Paul, the equation of faith and goodness is based upon his understanding of the universality of human sin and the equally universality of God’s grace. All have fallen short, and yet righteousness comes by faith in the one whose death provides mercy (Rom 3:22-25). What makes us righteous isn’t our works (whether impious or noble), but our faith in Jesus’ redemptive work of mercy.

That sounds good in theory, but often we don’t really like to go the whole way. This really comes out when it comes to other people. We like grace for us, but for “those” people (we all have a category of people we see as an enemy), not so much. Let them be judged, condemned, and thrown into the place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Or at the very least make them have to work more to become worthy of such an inestimable gift.

If we find such lavish gratuity offensive, that’s sort of par for the course. Jesus once told a parable in which workers who were out in the field for various amounts of time were all paid the same wage. The ones who worked the longest were upset because they thought they deserved more in comparison to those who worked little. To them, Jesus said: “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you resentful because I’m generous? So those who are last will be first. And those who are first will be last” (Mt. 20:15-16).

God has chosen to be in the grace business, showing generosity to those who don’t deserve it. Showing more generosity than we probably care for. But perhaps the sure mark of faith’s growth is getting use to God’s impractical payroll practices, seeing ourselves more as workers getting a paycheck we didn’t earn in the first place. When the whistle blows as the night draws near, who cares if you’re first or last? Because at least, like my grandfather did for me, we’re in the family business — regardless of how faithful or listless a worker we might be.

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