The first time I ever saw Ricky Garin he was standing on the rotting porch of a shabby rental house where he had lived since he was a child. He was then in his mid-twenties, a slightly built man with a shy smile and a boyish face that made him look much younger than he actually was. He didn't speak to me at all at first, and when he finally did begin to warm up, he mumbled so softly under his red mustache that I had difficulty understanding him. That was when I first moved onto the street, before I became comfortable sitting with family members on the front porch. In Ricky's home there was plenty of pathology to go around. He was the youngest of six children, three of whom still lived in the house with various of their partners and offspring, along with alcoholic Uncle Roy whose mind had long-ago been cooked by too much cheap booze. Ricky's father, Harold, whose legs had been amputated near the hip, spent his days in a wheel chair at the porch railing hollering greetings and obscenities at passers-by. Ricky and his buddies became remarkably friendly with Roy and Harold every month around check time, graciously making runs to the local package store until the old men drank themselves into senseless stupors. The howls and bellows that erupted when the old men awoke to find their pockets picked clean were as predictable as the vehement denials of Ricky and friends. One of Ricky's older sisters, whose Christmas gifts he had stolen out of the house at night and sold for drugs, was so infuriated that she had him arrested and thrown in jail. But she eventually caved into pressure from "mama" and didn't show up for court. Ricky had always been the apple of his mother's eye and his drug use, deceptions and inability to hold down a job never seemed to alter that.
Ricky was an agreeable, gentle-spirited (though altogether untrustworthy) young man who I found easy to like. I hired him once in a business FCS had started with high hopes that he would seize the opportunity to make new friends and begin a new lifestyle. But the morning devotionals, the counseling and the affirming, structured work environment had little impact. He was gone in two weeks.
I eventually lost track of Ricky. Harold and Roy died and the household gradually disintegrated and drifted away. The house was finally sold. Where Ricky went I never really knew. Family members who stayed in touch with us said his drug habit made him dangerous to have around. The last time I saw him on the street - several years ago now - he looked like an old man. Most of his hair was gone, his red beard was long and straggly, and his eyes had sunk deep into their sockets. I said to myself almost audibly, "What an incredible waste!"
Then a few days ago we received a phone call from one of Ricky's sisters. Ricky had just died. He had been in a hospice down in Savannah for some weeks suffering from a drug-related infection that sapped much of the life from his body. He gradually slipped into a coma and never resurfaced. The family was wondering if we could help out with funeral costs. And then his sister added a most remarkable comment: "Ricky got saved!"
It turns out that Melody, one of Ricky's nieces who was a small child in the household when the family lived on our street, visited him in the hospice while he was still conscious. Somehow Melody's sweet spirit and simple faith had emerged intact from the tangle of co-dependency and malevolence in which she was raised. It was that same caring spirit that now prompted her to visit her sick uncle, the same tender heart that told a man of 46 years who had squandered an entire lifetime that Jesus still loved him. And in the closing moments of Ricky's wasted life he opened himself to the embrace of a Savior who had never given up on him.
My thoughts turned to a parable that Jesus told when He was among us about some day-laborers who were hired one morning to work in a farmer's fields. A second crew who had straggled in late was also hired on at mid-day. But a third group who hadn't even showed up at the labor pool until late in the day was hired by the master to work the one remaining hour of daylight. Perhaps it was not so remarkable that all the available workers were eventually hired, given that it was the peak of harvest season. But that the master paid all the men the same full day's wage - now that was scandalous! And yet this is the story Jesus uses to explain to us how His Kingdom works. Ricky gets a full reward!
It is sometimes hard for us fair-minded people to grasp the extravagance of this kind of grace. Faithful servants who sweat and toil from early morning 'til sundown, enduring the blazing sun and aching muscles, will surely receive their reward and the long awaited affirmation: "Well done, thou good and faithful servant!" That we understand. But when a self-indulgent slacker who has laid up under a shade tree all day gets the same generous reward for his last minute appearance, this is more than exorbitant. It is outrageous! Ricky is now experiencing just how amazing that grace really is!
Joy to the world… the Lord is come. Joy to all the faithful who have anticipated His coming. And joy unimaginable to those who discover in their darkest hour that He comes bearing the gift of outrageous grace.