Going back to prison–to hear my own music

I never thought I would be so excited to be back in prison. But then again, I never imagined that I might someday be listening to the world premiere of one of my own musical compositions from within the walls of a state correctional facility in Iowa.

I’m writing today from a coffee shop in bucolic Iowa City, a bustling university community with a storied history of inspiring some of the greatest literary minds of our time–and for good reason. The atmosphere here is rich with intellectual rigor and cultural sophistication. It also happens to be the home of the University of Iowa, where Dr. Mary Cohen is Associate Professor of Music and something of a local celebrity for her role as founder and director of the Oakdale Community Choir. (Those who have followed my blog will remember me discussing Dr. Cohen’s work with this group in an earlier posting.) I was invited here on the University’s dime for one of the most peculiar ethnographic experiences of my life: to go behind the walls of the Iowa Medical and Classification Center (aka Oakdale Prison) in nearby Coralville to hear the first-ever public performance of my unaccompanied choral piece titled “Life Within These Walls.”

Both the music and the text of this composition are my own:

Life within these walls:
Secret, dangerous game,
Death by institution.

Life within these walls:
Love, hope, compassion,
So far away,
Just a faint, luminous memory.

Stranger’s unseen grace:
Where the prisoner languishes
Dawns a new freedom.

Community mends broken hearts;
Souls move forward,
Dignity restored.

Stranger’s unseen grace:
Life within these walls.

Honestly, I’m still processing the experience of hearing those words come to life in the musicking of this ensemble. It would be impossible for me to articulate at this moment the paradigm-challenging events I witnessed in this three-hour encounter. So it’s too early for me to share my response. But I simply can’t wait to share these eloquently worded thoughts of one of the “inside singers”–a choir member presently serving sentence at Oakdale Prison–who introduced my composition on the program. As this man spoke these words, I knew God had used my music to touch the lives of these men and women in the choir.

This provocative banner is displayed on one of the walls of the Wesley Student Center in downtown Iowa City.

(NOTE: I’ve paraphrased my understanding of what this particular individual said in places demarcated by brackets, where the quality of the audio recording I used to transcribe this passage rendered his exact words unclear.)

The song is very meaningful and powerful to me. Everyone inside prison carries his own secret, dangerous experiences, which are the secret pain that a prisoner undergoes within these walls. And it doesn’t matter how different our experiences are. They all have a common denominator: fear. Fear for a future in the absence of love, hope, and compassion. “Death by institution,” as you will hear in the song, is a daring thing to say. But it is true. To me, it means disoriented and confused institutions that are struggling to find a remedy for the recovery of sons, fathers, grandfathers, and husbands from their society. Death is everywhere within these walls, filled with questions and expectations for a tomorrow that may not come for a prisoner. Will I have a fresh start? Will I be embraced […] when I re-enter society? Will I have a chance to build a future? These are questions that [trouble such souls]. But piercing the darkness are the unseen graces of the stranger, like what we are nurturing here as a choir. It’s proof of the beginning of new freedom. Love and compassion restore dignity to lost souls trying to heal where institutions fail. Life within these walls.

This was EXACTLY the message I hoped to convey in this text. And my hope–my prayer–is that anywhere “Life Within These Walls” may subsequently be performed, it will initiate fruitful conversations about the purpose for which we imprison the men and women of our society who are, as this man so aptly stated, more than the worst thing they have ever done.

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An example of why a second chance isn’t enough

As I was perusing the headlines today, I stumbled across the inevitable sad story I knew would eventually come sometime after Obama’s unprecedented use of his clemency power. And it happened right in my own backyard. A San Antonio man whose life sentence for a nonviolent drug conviction was commuted last year was arrested and jailed without bond for what appears to be his attempt to flee from another drug deal. In a nutshell: the man who petitioned for a second chance and, against all the odds, actually got one seems to have proven himself unworthy of it.

Or at least that’s how many will choose to interpret the facts.

I knew this story was coming because, while I applauded the former President’s efforts to repeal harshly punitive sentences and still support his commutations for all those drug offenders, I also recognized that simply letting the offenders go would never be enough. Second chances are, oh, so very important; and Obama’s commutations set an important precedent regarding the importance of assigning appropriate punishments in the first place. But second chances aren’t meaningful unless they come with the promise of rehabilitation. Simply opening the lifer’s prison doors one day and saying, “Okay, you’re free to go,” doesn’t repair the fragmented self-control of the addict or reform the lifestyle habits of the irresponsible. It doesn’t undo the years’ (or decades’) worth of institutionalized thought patterns that the offender has had to adopt in order to survive “on the inside.” It doesn’t rebuild a meaningful sense of self-esteem, nor can it create, ex nihilo, a new set of life circumstances for the returning offender–some wholly new platform from which he or she can leap to new heights previously unattainable.

A meaningful second chance is about so much more than just being set free. It’s about being equipped to move forward into a new future.

Understand what I mean here, though. I’m not excusing this offender’s behavior. As with the original offenses that lead to long prison sentences in the first place, recidivism is first and foremost a matter of individual responsibility. It’s a matter of making poor choices and suffering the consequences of those decisions. Nevertheless, those consequences have to do with more than just the offenders’ wellbeing, and as a society I hope we’re willing to own our share in the high calling of helping those who have been mercifully granted a second chance move forward in a way that honors the grace they have received.

In his letter of commutation to this offender, Obama wrote the following (emphases mine):

I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around. Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity. It will not be easy…. But remember that you have the capacity to make good choices. By doing so, you will affect not only your own life, but those close to you. You will also influence, through your example, the possibility that others in your circumstances get their own second chance in the future.

Those are powerful words, except only one part of that statement actually rings true to me. When an addict recidivates, people say, “He had his shot. He blew it.” And the next time an addict appeals for a second chance, they say, “hand-1331323_640Heck no! Look what happened the last time we tried that!” Obama’s statement of “potential” for offenders to turn their lives around is factually accurate; but only with the power of the Holy Spirit and the enabling influence of godly men and women can those offenders realistically make the “good choices” that Obama desires for them.

That’s why I’m appealing to all of us in the church. When these ex-offenders return to our communities, we need to be the ones to stand in the gap and connect them with the resources that help them move forward. They need concrete help, not simply devotional platitudes. They need people who are willing to not merely give them a second chance, but who will help them make the most out of that second chance–people who recognize that restoration requires sacrificial investment in those who don’t deserve it.

Not all those whom we help will succeed in overcoming their struggles. But God help us if we’re found standing idly by as those struggling to make good on their second chances are left to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. When I see a story like this in the news, my reaction is no longer, “I guess that proves he didn’t deserve a second chance.” Of course he didn’t. None of us ever do. And so my knowledge of that fact compels me to ask instead, “What can I do to prevent another story like this?”

Is incarceration cruel and unusual?

Some people assume that, because I’ve been locked up and know how dehumanizing our penal institutions can be, I’m one of the people who is vigorously opposed to incarceration…period. But actually, I’m not. I’ve written elsewhere about how our penal institutions don’t necessarily have to be the kinds of places that they are today to be effective. That is, they don’t have to amplify the misery of separation from loved ones with the misery of basically slum-like living conditions to do their job. But as a general rule, I wouldn’t say penal confinement and separation from the rest of the world is intrinsically “cruel and unusual.”

I hope I haven’t burst any restorative justice advocates’ bubbles with that statement.

The reason I’m thinking about this right now is that yesterday I published a rather forceful review of Ava DuVernay’s new documentary 13th, which is about the idea that our present situation of mass incarceration that disproportionately impacts people of color is, essentially, slavery redux. I agree with DuVernay, very strongly, because I’ve seen the inside of our jails and prisons, been subject to forced labor under harsh taskmasters in those institutions, and glimpsed something of the way the massive amount of security and other concerns that go into the maintenance of a prison facility fuel big business for others who don’t necessarily care whether inmates stay locked up for 3 months or 10 years. Or, heck, even if they’re guilty, so long as the beds are filled.

Part of the reason we imprison so many people is that we have this massive punitive machine that needs to be fed. To not use it is like having a really expensive (though really ugly) vehicle sitting in your garage that you’re making payments on but never actually driving. If we had fewer prisons, I dare say, perhaps we would be more open to exploring options that would reserve incarceration only for those especially heinous offenders who truly need to be separated for a period of time from the rest of the world. There are promising signs that we’re maybe starting to head in that direction. But I’m not holding my breath just yet for the era of mass incarceration to be over, especially when it looks like the prison-industrial complex is simply going to be replaced with the treatment-industrial complex, and we’ll keep criminalizing more and more of America.

One of the tchain_stretchedhings that DuVernay’s documentary got me thinking about is whether there’s something inherently cruel and unusual about imposing slavery as punishment for a crime. Did the 13th Amendment get it wrong? Did we authorize a form of punishment that we never should have?

Personally, I’m inclined to say no. We didn’t. We just took it in a very dark direction we never should have.

I think that the problem isn’t that we impose slavery as punishment, because that’s essentially what incarceration is–confinement, loss of freedom, limited movement, forced labor, stripped identity, involuntary servitude. If we hadn’t left that clause in the 13th Amendment, some litigious person would invariably have argued that the idea of imprisonment, even for a crime, is unconstitutional. And I, for one, see nothing wrong with incarceration per se, nor with forcing offenders to shoulder a portion of the taxpayers’ burden for their custody. For all my reservations about what institutional justice looks like right now–and it isn’t pretty–I’m not quite ready to say that the solution is to abolish prisons altogether. (What I do think, for the record, is that we need to reform our penal institutions to make them more humane, and we need to limit penal labor strictly to that which reduces the state’s costs without providing surplus revenue.)

One of the distinctions I’ve found helpful is to think in terms of since viewing DuVernay’s film is this: slavery that punishes vs. punishment that enslaves. Punitive confinement and penal labor are examples of the former. But what we have with our massive prison system and the criminal justice system that fuels it today is more like the latter. We impose incarceration on people, but then they become hopelessly trapped in a vicious cycle of punitive separation that exacerbates their criminal tendencies and fuels their wrath without any relief from bona fide rehabilitative efforts. Then we turn them loose on the streets with criminal records that follow them everywhere they go, impose all kinds of restrictions on the level and kinds of citizenship they’ll be allowed to enjoy again, and then invariably lock them back up when they turn once more to the criminal trajectories their punishment has done little or nothing to help them avoid a second time. Only this time we punish them even more harshly because they’re “repeat offenders.” Three strikes, and you’re out.

That’s punishment that enslaves, and it’s above and beyond what the 13th Amendment ever intended.

Bittersweet memories of a white mesh bag

There I am, enjoying my Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger at Wendy’s, when something catches my attention. Two 30-something Hispanic men have just walked in, one of them carrying a white mesh bag stuffed to capacity with personal belongings.

Instantly, I know this man has just gotten out of prison. I have two mesh bags just like his at home, bittersweet tokens of a time when all my most precious belongings fit into two cubic feet of locker space. My family was there to meet me across the street when I walked out lugging those bags at the Huntsville release unit. This man apparently tasted freedom by himself this morning, but at least he had someone waiting for him on the receiving end of his complimentary bus ride to the nearby Greyhound terminal.

The memories his belongings conjure are palpable.

His jersey shorts are commissary-issue, commisary bagmanufactured in one of the unit garment factories and available for purchase (if you were lucky enough to get there before they sold out) for those who wanted something other than their “tight whites” to sweat into during the sweltering Texas evenings with no air conditioning. (How ironic: the restaurant’s air conditioner isn’t working this afternoon. He’s probably the only one there who doesn’t notice.) His bright white tennis shoes tell me someone has been putting money on his books. Only “rich” offenders have the $25 it costs to buy those, and they’re highly prized on the rec yard as an alternative to the blistering work boots and laughably flimsy canvas slippers the state provides. I saw more than one fistfight escalate out of someone accidentally scuffing of a pair of shoes just like those.

For those unfamiliar with prison prices, $25 seems like an affordable price tag for a pair of athletic sneakers. And indeed, it is. Mercifully, prison “store” prices are kept low so that outsiders can help shoulder the cost of basic food and hygiene supplies for their loved ones without having to break the bank. Yet to the inmates who receive those goods, value is a very different thing. In Texas, at least, prison labor earns you nothing more than smart remarks from your custodians. In such an environment, there is no correspondence between hard work and standard of living; it’s all grace and unmerited generosity. And so dollars mean nothing. Here, the cost of goods and services is measured in terms of postage stamps and Ramen noodles. That pair of shoes is worth more than 50 precious letters home, or roughly three dozen in-cell meals with one’s companions (what we used to call “spreads”)–a veritable smorgasbord to those who just can’t stomach bland pork noodle casserole for the fourth time in the same week.

I watch as the man fumbles with the touchscreen on the Coke Freestyle machine, realizing he’s probably never seen a digital soda fountain before. I was bewildered, too, when my wife suggested renting a movie from something called a Redbox on the way home from Huntsville. He seems frustrated and embarrassed as he tries dispensing his drink. Still, at least this time he’ll get to enjoy it over ice.

I know absolutely nothing about this man, yet I feel a strange kinship with him.

Suddenly realizing that I’m staring, I abruptly return to my cheeseburger.

Interesting. The food tastes better than it did a few minutes ago.

Can choral music behind bars really reduce recidivism?

Can music-making have a transformative effect on inmates? According to a growing body of research, it seems the answer is a resounding yes, and I couldn’t possibly be more excited about it.

Recently, after stumbling across an intriguing Prison Fellowship profile on the subject, I reached out to Dr. Mary Cohen of the University of Iowa. Since 2009, Dr. Cohen has directed the Oakdale Community Choir, one of the coolest restorative justice initiatives I’ve ever heard about. This is not your typical community ensemble. It doesn’t perform in concert halls or church sanctuaries, and many of its members probably never imagined they would become serious musicians at all. The group rehearses and performs at the Oakdale Prison in Coralville, Iowa; and its five dozen or so members are comprised of “inside” singers–men currently serving sentences at Oakdale–and “outside” singers–community volunteers who come into the prison once weekly to work alongside these men. Together, they prepare a diverse body of repertoire for community concerts in the prison gym, often featuring inmates’ original songs. There’s much more to it than just music, though. Many of the singers participate in a writing program that Dr. Cohen developed to extend the limited interactions during rehearsal time throughout the week between rehearsals. As a result, the “inside” and “outside” singers are having an ongoing, thoughtful conversation all semester long, even as they’re making beautiful music together. (KCRG has a great news spot on the choir’s most recent concert, and microphonesDr. Cohen’s fascinating research on the group appears here and here, for those who would like to learn more.)

Dr. Cohen credits her decision to explore the transformative potential of music in prison to attending a public concert of the East Hill Singers, a men’s chorus comprised of minimum security offenders and community volunteers who perform outside the prison walls and help bring attention to the rehabilitative possibilities of the arts. During a recent conversation, Dr. Cohen brought my attention to a similar program involving music right in my own backyard at the Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center, sponsored by the Austin Classical Guitar Society. I simply had no idea that there were so many people already exploring serious rehabilitative opportunities for music and the arts behind bars like this.

We don’t have space here for me to talk about the many fascinating insights Dr. Cohen has gleaned from her work with the Oakdale Community Choir, but one thing is abundantly clear as your read the material in the links above. Music-making in community with outside volunteers is peculiarly powerful in tapping the best of inmates’ potential and inspiring them to become something better than what the prison system consigns them to be on their own. It’s not difficult for me to imagine why choral music, in particular, is so effective.

  • First, any music-making ensemble is an outlet for esteem-boosting hard work. Most of us know that a job well done can be a gratifying reward in itself, especially when the tangible product of that hard work is something as beautiful as a musical concert. This sense of having contributed to something meaningful is positive reinforcement for the inmate to discover outlets for his other gifts and talents as well.
  • Second, there’s something about vocal music that is peculiarly personal. Being a good trumpet player is one thing; being a good singer is something else. You can always upgrade your instrument, learn new techniques, and even change instruments to suit your preferences as a player. Not so with your voice. You’re stuck with whatever voice God gave you–be it a rich baritone or a squeaky tenor. Choral music trains even novice singers to fall in love with their voices and the voices of others. They feel better about who they are as they realize that God has gifted them with a beautiful “instrument,” and they learn to appreciate the uniqueness of others’ “instruments,” too. This must surely prepare them to recognize other gifts they bring to the table in their communities, even as it helps them appreciate how their gifts are different from others’.
  • Third, choral music emphasizes the power of working as an ensemble. The word “ensemble” means “together,” and it refers to a process whereby component parts are brought together in a product that is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Ensemble participation means not only knowing your own part (and knowing it well), but also respecting the fact that your part may or may not be the most important thing going on in the score at a particular moment in time. Sometimes you have to back off. Other times you have to take the lead. Learning to sing from a choral score is particularly enlightening on this point, too, because unlike instrumental parts, a vocal score shows all four vocal parts together on the same page, often with a reduction of the instrumental accompaniment beneath. So vocal musicians are accustomed to seeing the “whole” picture of what’s going on–their own parts plus their peers’–which tends to promote the musicians’ interest not only in their own part, but in what others are doing around them. That’s a valuable life skill. Learning to know one’s place in society–when to take the lead and when to back off, what to spend more time practicing and what you can help others do better, seeing the big picture and appreciating how all the different parts weave together to make it happen–these are skills that choral music-making can teach in a peculiarly tangible way. I would be shocked to think that inmates who learn to sing together as well as the Oakdale singers do could walk away from that experience without a sense of balanced humility regarding their place in the world.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, choral music breaks down boundaries between musicians. There’s a world of difference between what it takes to produce good oboe timbre and what it takes to play the timpani well in an orchestra. They’re different skill sets, and they require differently trained musicians. Even vocalists who perform solo tend to have different timbres that are unique to them and which vocal coaches do well to cultivate in their students. But when it comes to singing in the choir, the goal is a unity of sound that has the effect of minimizing individuality in order to amplify community. You don’t want to hear individuals’ voices; you want to hear a chorus. That may seem obvious enough, but imagine the psychological ramifications. No voice is more or less important than the one next to it. You can have an operatic bass perfect for playing Rigoletto in the concert hall, but if you’re singing in the choir next to a novice baritone, you need to find the common ground between your voices so that you can match one another. Likewise, if you have a decent-but-not-great voice like me, you get the privilege of sharing parts–and credit–with others who have tremendous talent. That psychological boost must penetrate especially deeply for inmates who are joining their voices with those of community volunteers. They find that the “outside” singers are no more important than they are, and they’re no more important than any of them are. All are necessary, and all have a meaningful role to play. All have something to offer, and all have something to learn from one another. If that doesn’t help restore transformative dignity to the inmate’s life, I can’t imagine what else would.

For these reasons and many others, it seems abundantly obvious to me that music is a powerful restorative tool. I applaud the work of people like Dr. Cohen and her community volunteers for having the humble courage to venture behind bars for the sake of the least, the last, and the lost.

Fond memories of prison music-making

I have a degree in music from a prestigious undergraduate university. I don’t talk about it much these days because my life has definitely gone in a different direction since those years when I dedicated myself so diligently to studying voice, choral conducting, and musical composition in a conservatory-style setting. When I was performing as a bright-eyed undergrad with some of the state’s premiere ensembles, I never imagined that the most formative years of my musical life would come only shortly after I finished my music degree, when the sin in my life landed me in a state prison instead of a professional orchestra.

For about fourteen months, while I was assigned to a transfer facility in east Texas, I had the tremendous privilege of participating in the inmate chapel music team. I earned this opportunity, in part, by auditioning to sing with the choir. Ours was not a robed bunch of well-rehearsed individuals, though. We were just a half dozen grown men who happened to be able to carry a tune well enough to not sound awful together. And all of us were either too proud or too humble to care about singing church music in front of about ten dozen other men in a setting where even the slightest impression of being a “choir boy” could potentially get you in trouble.

It was in that context that I received a kind of musical training none of my college professors could offer. I could share any of a number of stories about our experiences as an ensemble–and perhaps I will in future posts–but this much has stuck with me ever since: we were a family behind the walls, united by a love for music and the discipline of learning from each other in a sort of hard-knocks conservatory.

Most of the music we performed was very different from–and considerably less sophisticated than–the art music I had been exposed to in college. At first, this was a source of misplaced pride, but I soon found myself desperately trying to “keep up” with my non-music-reading friends wPianoho had done plenty of session work with popular musicians but who lacked my classical training. I found myself begging for lessons from the guitarist who could improvise riffs in about a dozen different complex chord progressions on the spot. I envied my black chorister peers who seemed to just “get” the harmonies of the songs without having to be handed an octavo with their parts defined by the composer. In so many ways, I came to realize, these men were my superiors, despite their lack of formal training. Yet they welcomed and admired my ability to score the music they could only intuitively play. They sought my input in crafting new harmonies for the choir and respected my knowledge of proper vocal technique.

And so there, in the unlikely bonds of incarceration, a rag-tag group of musicians found spiritual kinship in the creative process of music-making–in its signature frustrations and unrivaled triumphs. We were never Grammy material, but we managed to work up a core of standards for worship services that our peers responded to, and we treasured our time together each week. I sometimes tell people that rehearsing with that group was every bit as demanding for me as working with the University Chorale was in college. But in spite of the amazing performance opportunities they afforded me, Chorale rehearsals always seemed like a chore, something keeping me from other things I would much rather be doing. My prison rehearsals, on the other hand, were something I looked forward to (most of the time). They lent meaning to an endless stream of hours in a miserable place.

It all came home for me one night about ten months into my participation with the group. We used to open the worship services each week for a local volunteer preacher who was a very well-trained gospel musician himself. We did a lot of the same songs from one week to the next because, in prison, rehearsal time comes at a premium. (We had many, many weeks’ rehearsals summarily cancelled for security reasons at the last minute.) One of our standards was the MercyMe favorite “I Can Only Imagine.” But we did it a little differently. Our version was a peculiar fusion of gospel soul and soft rock–a blend organically born of the diversity of musicians that were thrown together in that particular place at that particular time (not to mention the limitations of the built-in ‘beat box’ on our keyboard’s drum kit). One night, after we had finished our opening set, the pastor asked us to do “I Can Only Imagine” a second time. When we finished, he quietly told the inmates gathered together that night about how he had recently attended a concert where MercyMe was performing. He said that, as much as he enjoyed getting to hear them sing “I Can Only Imagine” in person, all he could think about was how much he looked forward to the next time he got to hear us sing it.

That made us feel like human beings. For a moment in time, we were musicians before we were inmates. Suddenly I realized how in all my formal training I had missed the grand point that, at its best, music-making isn’t about impressive sounds and wowing audiences. It’s about working together in community to make an impact on others. It’s about being part of something bigger than ourselves, getting caught up in the thrill of making something beautiful and then sharing that gift with others.

That’s why I’m convinced that music-making behind bars is a source of tremendous power for restorative justice–for helping broken people discover a sense of worth in community. I’m telling this story to set the stage for a more focused discussion of something I recently learned about. It seems that a growing number of creative thinkers are discovering the transformative potential of music-making in prison and are channeling their efforts into programs that offer inmates a meaningful opportunity to collaborate with community volunteers in the production of beautiful works of art. I want to talk about one of those efforts that I’ve come to know about in recent months, but that will have to be a subject for a new post.

Stay tuned.

Why the prerogative of mercy is the stumbling block of God’s justice

I’m part of a weekly community Bible study program, and this year we’re making our way through Matthew’s gospel. It’s fascinating to read familiar stories about Jesus and see them through new eyes. The other night, we came to one of my favorite of Jesus’ parables, where Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a master who hires workers to tend his vineyard at different times of day. When it’s time to pay the workers their wages, he starts with those who were hired late in the afternoon and pays them the same as those who were hired first thing in the morning. In other words, everyone gets the same pay, regardless of how many hours they spent toiling in the sun for the master.

The workers who were hired first get excited, thinking they’re actually going to get more money than they bargained for. But when they receive exactly the same as thscissors-1168640_960_720e others, their objection is palpable. “You have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day,” they complain. Nevertheless, the master insists he has done them no wrong. They agreed to work for a day’s wages, and that’s what they were paid. He has dealt justly with them and kept his promise.

Yet all of us intuitively sympathize with those workers. The situation may be just, but it’s still not fair.

It all really comes down to what the master says in verse 15: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” The implicit answer to such a rhetorical question is “Yes.” It’s his money; let him do with it as he pleases. Right?

Though this silences the workers’ objection, it doesn’t make their resentment go away. That’s because the real substance of their objection is that, at least this time, they’re not the most abundant beneficiaries of the master’s generosity. They saw others treated with generosity, while they got only what they earned and no more. In a sense, they got the lowest hourly wage, and as they compare that to the value they brought to the master in terms of actual labor, they feel insulted and cheated. At the beginning of the day theirs was the happiest lot, because they had a chance to work while others did not. But now here at the end of the day their lot is quite unhappy because they’ve been shown that the work they’ve done is apparently no more valuable to the master than the work others did for him late in the day.

But that’s not what the master says. He simply reminds them that his money is his to give away as he sees fit. He only contracted to pay the workers hired later in the day “whatever is right” (verse 4). That means it was left to the master’s prerogative to decide “whatever is right” for the workers to earn, and in this case, he ensured that no worker he had employed would go home that night unable to provide bread for his family the next day.

But let’s get honest with ourselves. We don’t really like this aspect of God’s sovereignty. Sure, we like to accept God’s unmerited blessings because we’re the ones getting all the goods. But when it comes to watching others get something they didn’t earn–when they seem to get it easier in life than we “hardworking” believers do–we resent Him for his grace.

One of the things that this parable reminds us is that retributive justice–that part of our nature that demands tit for tat, as it were–has to do with more than just “an eye for an eye” in punishment. It has has to do with the doling out of rewards according to merit. Just as we get upset when a serious offense is punished with a mere “slap of the wrist,” we don’t like it when someone gets more of a good thing than they’ve actually earned. We desperately want there to be a one-to-one correspondence between our merits and our rewards, between our offenses and our punishments.

But that’s not the way God runs things. He’s sovereign over the good things we desire, and He’s a generous God. And one of the good things that falls under the purview of a sovereign is the prerogative of mercy. Indeed, this is intrinsic to God’s basic goodness, as He explains to Moses:

“I will make my goodness pass before and will proclaim before you my name, ‘The LORD’ [lit. YHWH]. And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.

It’s essentially the indicative form of the master’s question: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”

When God elected not to destroy the evil city Nineveh after the people repented in response to Jonah’s teaching, the prophet complained bitterly–a sobering reminder that even the most servant-hearted of us resent this aspect of God’s character. Jonah knew enough of God’s character to understand that preaching repentance would open an opportunity for God to deal mercifully with the wicked–to offer an opportunity for restoration where Jonah preferred to see swift and utterly destructive retribution meted out instead. Jonah didn’t like that, and so he didn’t want to be an instrument in the hands of a God with the prerogative of mercy.

So the other night, as my Bible study group pondered the meaning of this parable, I found myself getting fired up. I felt convicted, recognizing how much of a Christian truism we’ve made this aspect of God’s grace. We preach God’s love and forgiveness, but when it’s our turn to show mercy on those who don’t deserve it, we falter. When we have an opportunity to “make others equal” through our generosity, we protest, “It’s not fair.” Despite the extravagant measures God endured in Christ to make us equals in His grace, we cling to our own prerogatives of retribution, caring not that in so doing we betray the inbreaking Kingdom whose upside-down principles ought to rule our hearts as we anticipate its consumption at the Master’s return.

It’s not fair. It’s most definitely not fair. But that’s what grace is: it’s not fair. And if it weren’t for grace, none of us would have a chance to enter the Master’s vineyard.

I don’t want to be a Jonah. Maybe it’s because I’ve been convicted of a horrible crime and experienced the unsavory side of just desserts that I’m fired up over this parable tonight. But I hope it’s a fire I never lose–and I hope it’s a fire that spreads to others. If someone like me can be made worthy to share the Kingdom, then I dare not protest the Master’s prerogative to welcome in others who don’t deserve to be there any more than I do.