September 24, 2017
Scripture: Based on parts of Matthew Chapters 19 and 20:
And so a rich young ruler came to Jesus early in the day and asked him what he must do in order to inherit eternal life. Jesus told him to obey the commandments and to love his neighbor as himself. The rich young man assured Jesus that he had done all that the Law required and all that Jesus had asked him. Jesus said to him that just one more thing was needed, whereupon he told the young man to go and sell all of his possessions and to give the money to the poor, after which he was to come and follow him. At that the young man turned away sorrowful as he had many possessions. And as he left, Jesus noted that it was very hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven, to which his followers nervously responded by asking who then could be saved as they had already left pretty much everything behind in following after Jesus. Jesus responded telling them that in the kingdom of heaven the ‘first would be last and the last would be first’.
And then to further illustrate this point regarding the nature of God’s kingdom he began to tell them all a parable. “There was a certain wealthy landowner”, he began, “who went out early in the morning to hire laborers to work in his vineyard. After agreeing to pay them the usual daily wage he took them back to his home and sent them out to work in the vineyard. Several hours later, around nine o’clock in the morning he went back to where he had hired the laborers earlier. Seeing several of them there and still available he asked them to go and to work for him as well, promising that he would pay them whatever was right for their labor, and so off they went.
Later on, when he went back to the same place at about noon and again at 3 pm in the afternoon he found others as well who had not been able to secure labor for the day. Telling them he would pay them a fair wage they too went to his vineyards and began to labor. And then, about an hour before the end of the day the landowner went back and seeing yet still some more who had not found work that day, hired them as well and sent them out to toil alongside of the others.
When evening came and the laborers finished working, the owner of the vineyard called his manager and instructed him as to how to pay the laborers beginning with those who had been hired last, just an hour before the end of the day. And as the laborers came forward to receive their pay the manager paid those hired last a full day’s wage doing exactly the same for each group in turn.
Now when those who had been hired first, early in the morning came up to be paid they fully expected to be given more than the others, however they too received the same daily wage as had been promised. And after they had received it they began to complain and grumble against the landowner saying, ‘These last worked for only one hour and you have made them equal to us who have toiled all day long for you in the hot sun and scorching heat.’
But the landowner replied to one of them saying, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give these who came last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am being generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
This story has always been difficult for many to understand or to come to grips with. And that is probably due at least in part to the high value we place on the concept of being ‘fair’. From early on we all became acquainted with the notion that there were certain rules of fair play and refusing to abide by them would bring on all sorts of trouble. We expected to be rewarded or compensated for what we did in line with the size of the task or the amount of work required. ‘Fairness’, though not always defined clearly, was something we expected and a concept that was clear to all, particularly when we felt it had been violated. We had little trouble feeling we had not been treated fairly whenever we felt we were under compensated or unappreciated for our efforts.
We were taught that ‘being first’ was the result of doing everything we were asked or told to do…taught that by applying ourselves fully and honestly that we would be rewarded with proper compensation and recognition for our work. We were taught that being ‘first’ was in fact a good thing and a sign that we were living up to our potential and fully and appropriately utilizing our skills and talents. In short we were taught that fairness as we understood it, was most often associated with simply getting what was owed to us, either financially or otherwise…with getting whatever we felt we rightly deserved.
And then we read this story from Matthew which seems in many ways to put that understanding fully on its head. Jesus seems to be saying that those on the bottom, those who are last, for whatever reason, are the ones who will be rewarded in the kingdom of God. Yet again, as he did so often Jesus seems to be taking conventional wisdom and turning it upside down, causing us to wonder why those who we thought would be undeserving seemed to be rewarded in Jesus’ parable. Even though somewhere we obviously acknowledge that God has a right to do whatever God wants with anything that belongs to God…I am not sure we realize that God is actually saying that what we feel is ours, that what we feel we have earned and therefore have a right to…is actually subject to this same sort of upside down ‘kingdom of God’ interpretation.
And it is that understanding that I fear is most difficult to grasp or to accept. For over a lifetime we become pretty adept at judging what we think is and is not fair. We become pretty comfortable with being those who decide on fairness as well? And most likely, our answers regarding individual instances would be pretty darn close to being the same. And yet it seems from our passage at least as though Jesus might disagree.
So, how are we to best come to grips with this passage that seems annoying at best? Is it really about fairness at all? That seemed to be the comment from those who started early in the morning that was most easily dismissed by the landowner. Instead he seemed to focus on having kept his word to those first hired and his right to be as generous as he wished. The focus for Jesus seemed to be on teaching that grace and generosity would be given out however God wished, and that that grace and generosity might not follow the patterns we had developed for ourselves and had come to rely upon.
Which of course is the point at which our ways begin to move away from those of God. For deciding what seems ‘fair’ is much easier than daring to place ourselves in a position of deciding who is worthy or deserving of God’s favor and grace. Isn’t that God’s work after all? Yes…and no, for indeed it is God’s to offer grace and mercy to begin with…and it is God’s to offer that grace as generously or undeservedly as God so wishes…however, it is ours to extend and to witness that grace offered. For we are not only called to follow after our Lord, but to imitate the Lord as well. Therefore as God so offers grace and love generously and seemingly without condition, so too are we called to do the same, to be the eyes, the ears, the voices, hands and feet that lift up and carry the good news of God’s great love and mercy to a world so in need of hope and promise.
We are not given free license to judge another unworthy or to think ill of God’s choice to bless one we may not see as deserving. We are not given the task of determining who it is that is worthy of God’s care or attention. We are not the ones called to make the judgement as to what is fair and not fair in the kingdom-ways of our Lord. Rather we are called to stand up for one another, every one another, and to gladly and with great joy welcome every opportunity to witness the generosity of God and the love of God to another.
We are called to leave the judging to those not yet aware of God’s great love for and forgiveness of themselves. We are called to be generous in love and abounding in mercy to our fellow sisters and brothers regardless of the conditions we often would like to include along with that blessing. We are allowed to be unexpectedly generous, caring, and gracious to all.
This past Tuesday I went down to Westchester in order to attend the regular meeting of our larger church assembly. The meeting order was reversed from the usual as we began our time in worship rather than in small group meetings discussing topics of interest prior to lunch all of which is then followed by the afternoon business portion of the meeting.
And all seemed to go pretty as usual, with lots of networking and catching up with fellow ministers until we came to the portion of the business meeting in the afternoon where we heard from the committee in charge of ministry matters of their request to complete the work of a special commission that had been assigned to oversee a Westchester church’s request to be released from our denomination and to go over to a more conservative evangelical branch of our faith.
Much of the work on this issue had been done in the past and court dates had been set up to work out the arrangements financially regarding the property transfers and so on. Basically, although the assembly was sad to see the congregation go they had honored their request in a previous meeting to let them go on and worship the Lord in this fashion they all felt led to follow. The problem, or at least the problem that became one very quickly in the meeting was the committee’s request to have the assembly release the Pastor as well at the same time, so that he could remain with the congregation whom he had served faithfully for the past nineteen years.
And as I sat and listened to the increasingly rancorous debate over what to do with this minister who was seeking to be released to a denomination with whom our ‘own’ was not in ‘full communion’, I became distressed at the seeming lack of grace and love being shown to this brother in Christ.
At the heart of the matter, many spoke against the recommendation to let him leave saying that unless and until this colleague renounced and repudiated his membership in and authority of our denomination he could not be allowed to go and serve in this new capacity. Many took the floor and spoke up, mostly speaking out in defense of the established rules and guidelines governing our denomination. A few spoke on behalf of the minister himself saying that as a friend and fellow shepherd for many years they felt that this was not the ‘mountain’ many were seemingly trying to make it.
Personally, I grew increasingly distressed at what seemed to be an absolute lack of grace or extension of love towards this one who had literally served alongside of many of them for years. In the end, after much procedural haggling and far more discussion than seemed needed a vote was taken and the request to allow this minister to leave along with his congregation was denied and the committee was asked to go back to the drawing board and to find a better solution, which many hinted should be that the minister should just leave and go, and in that way automatically renounce our denomination. Personally I found that just, if not more so, offensive and unloving.
And as I read today’s passage I wonder what our Lord would have said or done. Would he have been more generous once again with his love towards this one whose sole desire was to find a more authentic way personally, along with his congregation to worship our God? Would Jesus have had much patience with all of the theologically sound and dogmatically correct arguments levied against this individual? Or would he have simply gone up to him and offered to pray for him in this new stage of his journey with and towards Christ, laying hands on and blessing him before bidding him farewell?
I am not sure, but I do feel that Christ was not witnessed whatsoever in the actions of the Presbytery on this topic on Tuesday afternoon. And after the vote the man quietly left out the back door, which is where I caught up to him. I told him that he did not know me personally but that I felt I had to deeply apologize for the action many of my brothers and sisters had just taken. I wished him well in his new journey and told him I just wanted him to know that there were those of us in the room who felt the cause of Christ had not been advanced through the decision. He thanked me and looked deeply into my eyes, and in that moment I knew that this brother of mine would continue to serve our Lord as an effective and loving servant.
…gracious or not…
…loving without condition…or not so much…
…generous in love regardless of our worthiness or not…
Truly our God is at the first; forgiving, loving, and gracious…let us find the way to show that to others…