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11.16.14 Preparations for the Judgment Matthew 25:14-30 Sermon Summary

There are a lot of different ways to think about God, and the source of this diversity comes from none other than the Bible.

Summary Points

  • Why the Lectionary is focused on judgment just now
  • Images of God in the judgment scenes and what they tell us
  • A helpful clue to dealing with God’s diversity in the Bible
  • How our perception of God determines our life
  • The lesson of the parable in our lives now and at the judgment
  • Questions for discussion and reflection

The existence of different religions is evidence enough that there are various ways to think about God. But even within a religion, like Christianity, variety exists. And it comes as a surprise to some that even within the sourcebook of Christianity, the Bible, there are many depictions of God.

At this time of year, the Revised Common Lectionary is walking us through passages related to God’s judgment. It is leading up to the end of the liturgical year with the celebration of Christ the King Sunday. And it is preparing us to enter the new year with Advent, when we focus on the coming of Jesus. Another way of looking at it is that it is preparing us for the end of our lives, and thus for the rest of our lives.

Today’s readings offer us various images of God in the last days. From the prophet Zephaniah we see a Warrior who plunders us. Zephaniah sees God conquering both our luxurious living and our idolatrous religion. This is a good image to have in mind as we approach Christmas. . .

Paul offers us two images: A thief who surprises us and a pregnant woman going into labor. The thief exposes our complacency; the laboring woman suggests that even when we might expect it, God’s arrival still comes as a disruptive surprise.

The image of God in judgment from the psalm is of an endurance athlete. God’s judgment can be experienced our whole lives long. By comparison to God’s judgment, our lives are short. In all these depictions, God’s judgment is certain, but it is also unpredictable.

Some people get nervous with so many images of God. They had hoped God could be understood in one simple way. But that’s not the biblical revelation, nor is it our experience. So how shall we think about various perceptions of God?

One helpful path is to recognize that some biblical depictions of God reflect truths about God, others reveal something of God’s actual nature. In both cases, the Bible’s intention is that we orient our lives around the presence of this God.

So, for example, from Zephaniah, where God is the Plundering Warrior, we are called to trust not in riches, nor in religion, but only in God. From Paul’s Thief and Laboring Mother, we are called to watch for God, live in the light, and endure trials with the hope of new life. The psalm’s final verse urges us to, “Count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” In other words, to keep the long view in mind.

In all these images of judgment, Paul’s words give us a comforting assurance: “God has destined us not for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thessalonians 5.9) This is a passage that, in my opinion, does not merely reflect a truth about God, but reveals God’s very nature. God is a Savior.

All of this leads us to Jesus’ parable about the slaves and the talents. Even within this single parable, the image of God is diverse. If Paul’s statement is true, that our destiny is to “obtain salvation through Jesus Christ,” what might that look like? According to Jesus, it is, “As if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves, and entrusted his property to them.”

There are two technical facts that are helpful to know. First, a talent was equal to about 15 years’ wages for a common laborer. We’re talking about entrusting a fortune to the slaves. And second, to bury treasure in the ancient world was common, acceptable, and prudent.

In this parable, there really are only two storylines: the one following the slaves who received five and two talents, and the one following the slave who received one talent. Common to both storylines is that the master entrusts property to the slaves. The story hinges on the differing perceptions of the slaves.

These are revealed in the storyline of the one-talent slave. I contrast to the other slaves, this one says, “I knew you were a harsh man, so I was afraid, and I hid.” And the master validates that perception: “You knew, did you? . . . Then should have invested.”

Remember that the third slave was justified in his action. What he did, burying the treasure, was a completely legitimate course of action to take with a treasure. What condemned him was his perception of the master. In Luke’s version of this parable, the master says, “I will condemn you using your own words.”

This parable contributes its diverse images of God and discloses two fundamental truths. First, we have some freedom to choose how we envision God, and how we envision God is how we will experience God. Second, how we envision God will determine how we will live our lives.

The first two slaves envisioned God as entrusting and abundant. They went and traded the talents, multiplying them, and as a result, entered into God’s joy. The third slave envisioned God as entrusting and exacting. He hid the talent because he was paralyzed by fear.

The truth about God is that God is entrusting and abundant. We’ve all been entrusted with something. It doesn’t matter whether it is five talents or two or one. What matters is our perception and our response. That’s how we realize God’s “destiny” for us. That’s how we endure God’s judgment upon our lives. That’s how we “obtain salvation through Jesus Christ.”

This parable calls us to find our talent, to go and play with it, and to enter God’s joy.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • What images do you have of the “last days” and God’s judgment? How many of those images are biblically formed, and how many come from popular depictions? How do you think you will fare under God’s judgment?
  • What do the various images of God found in the lectionary readings for this day speak to you? Are there other ways you envision God as you think about God’s judgment in your life?
  • Does the invitation to see a distinction between reflection and revelation help you in understanding the Bible, or frustrate you? Why is that?
  • What are some of the talents with which God has entrusted you? Are you playing with them or hiding them? Do you think God wants you to enjoy them or will God be “a harsh man” when he summons you to account for them?

 

 

 

11.09.14 Waiting For God, Matthew 25:1-13, Sermon Summary

There are three obstacles to hearing this parable of Jesus, but the one main point is even more important today than ever.

Summary Points

  • How meaning can be lost by over-analyzing
  • How meaning can be lost because of our presumption
  • How meaning can be lost through anxiety
  • The simple and transforming point of this parable
  • Questions for discussion and reflection

Hearing the parables of Jesus today is difficult as a rule, since they are metaphors from another time and culture. But if we can sort through some of the challenges, we may still benefit from Jesus’ wisdom. The parable of the Ten Bridesmaids is an excellent example.

One of the obstacles we have is that we tend to allegorize the parables into an incomprehensible complexity. We are tempted to make associations and then predictions about the future. It’s reasonable enough to identify the Bridegroom in this parable as Jesus given the context of the parable from the previous chapter. But then we are faced with a number of rabbit trails.

Who are the Bridesmaids? Why are there ten? What is the oil? And what then would the flasks be? Why is the Bridegroom so delayed? Why won’t the wise Bridesmaids share? What Dealer is open at midnight? Why not open the door? Why does the parable say, “Keep awake” instead of “have enough oil”?

Questions like these cause biblical scholars to wonder how much of this parable as we have in the gospel of Matthew goes all the way back to Jesus. How much has the gospel author added? Is the original understanding and meaning irrevocably lost?

Another challenge to hearing the parable today is that we think it doesn’t apply to us. We simply assume we are among the wise Bridesmaids. Whatever else the parable means—in the end we’ll be inside the wedding banquet.

After all, we’ve confessed Jesus as Lord, and “accepted” him into our hearts (a concept found nowhere in the Bible). We worship on Sunday; we have a goal to tithe. But we could very well be like the people of Amos’ day–highly religious with our worship days and present day ”sacrifices.” But the question from Amos confronts us also: does “Justice roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream”?

We forget that like Amos, Jesus and Matthew’s original audience were the faithful of their day. They aren’t preaching to those outside the faith community, but to those on the inside. Amos warns that when God comes, it will be like running from a lion only to meet a bear, only to retreat to one’s house and be bitten by a snake. Jesus warns us not to be surprised by arriving late to the party. These are warnings for us, the church.

Given that, a third obstacle for not hearing the parable is that it paralyzes us with fear. We hear it like the bumper sticker, “Jesus is coming, look busy!” We are anxious that maybe we’re not busy with the right things. What if we’re not living right way? What if we die in a state of sin and are locked out?

These questions have a parallel in the church of the Thessalonians. They expected Jesus’ return to be imminent, within their generation. But as it drew out longer and longer, and some among their fellowship died, they wondered what happens to them in the second coming. After all, the dead aren’t just sleeping like bridesmaids. They can’t hear the “cry of command” or “trumpet blast.” They’re dead!

Paul’s answer is that the dead rise first. How appropriate that those who have no hope of hearing respond to God’s call. Paul’s conviction that God’s grace is effective even among the dead is completely consistent with the resurrection of Christ and Paul’s own encounter with the risen Lord. Paul’s confidence is warranted because the dead are “in Christ.”

Being “in Christ” is symbolized best by baptism. In baptism we dying with Christ in order that we may be raised with Christ and live a new life. It begins now in this life. It is characterized by hoping according to Jesus’ teaching, and following Christ as we seek and are led by his Spirit. Paul’s answer to the anxiety about our lives is that if there is hope for the dead, there is hope for us.

After we remove these obstacles to understanding Jesus’ parable today, we are left with an echo of the words of Psalm 70: “Let all who seek God rejoice . . . Help me for I am weak. . . You are my help and my deliverer, O LORD, do not delay.” The point of the parable, it seems, is this: To us who are weak and weary, Jesus says, “Keep awake, keep watching, don’t lose hope. I am coming.”

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • What are some other parables whose meaning is jeopardized when we over-allegorize, identifying too many characters and events in the parable to contemporary people and events?
  • Given that these warnings are addressed to you and the church today, how should we respond?
  • If hope never dies, not even with death, how are you willing to risk your life to follow Christ today and be prepared for the arrival of the Bridegroom?
  • What kinds of distractions are in your life right now that jeopardize your preparedness for Christ’s return?

11.02.14 Coming to Jesus Matthew 5.1-12 Sermon Summary

Jesus’ famous opening of the “Sermon on the Mount” clarifies our vision of life here and life hereafter. On All Saints’ Weekend, when we think about those who have died, it is appropriate to reflect upon our shared destiny in Christ.

Summary Points

  • What it means to be poor in spirit
  • How being poor in spirit is a blessing
  • How our promised destiny can form our life today
  • Questions for discussion and reflection

This is the weekend when we celebrate All Saints’ Day, preceded the night before with Halloween, and the day following by All Souls’ Day. The lectionary passages assigned to All Saints’ Day help us to reflect upon our common life in Christ.

So the passage from Revelation reminds us of God’s universal salvation which culminates in a vision of truly multicultural worship. The Psalm calls us to put our trust in God’s deliverance now and for the life to come. First John reminds us that our full redemption is yet to be seen, though God’s faithfulness makes it sure. And finally Matthew’s version of the “Sermon on the Mount” focuses our attention.

Luke’s version of this apparently stock-sermon of Jesus begins “blessed are the poor.” Matthew’s more well-known version adds “in spirit.” Of course Jesus’ original audience was poor—to a level few of us have experienced. But being poor “in spirit” is something to which we can all relate.

In the words of Psalm 42-43, it is described as having a “downcast soul.” There the author mourns being oppressed by an enemy, by some deceitful and wicked person. All of us are subject to oppression at times. For us it may be fear, anxiety, or work. It might be social pressures, deteriorating health, or bad relationships. Whatever our “enemy” which causes us to be poor in spirit and to mourn, Jesus says we will be comforted, and therefore we are blessed.

Poverty of spirit can result from all the Beatitudes. So, for example, meekness, which is refusing to resort to retributive violence, can cause poverty of spirit. So can hungering and thirsting for righteousness, which is the soul-deep desire for just and right relationships among all people. Being merciful, instead of “just” in the legal sense, certainly can cause poverty of spirit. As can purity of heart, which Kierkegaard defined as “to will one thing.” Being a peacemaker in a world of violence, rights, and war exhausts one’s spirit. And of course real live persecution (which does not include hearing “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”) drains the spirit.

And yet, all of these conditions and the resulting poverty of spirit are “blessed” according to Jesus. What a strange definition. “Blessed” refers to the supreme happiness that can only be found in God. The reason it is a blessing to be poor in spirit is because only then do we realize that our ultimate and lasting supreme happiness is rooted in God.

To say it another way, we are blessed the more we are like God. God is meek, desires righteousness, merciful, and peaceable. And God has promised such blessedness to us. This is why Matthew tells us that Jesus went up to the mountain, and only after “sitting down” do the disciples gather around him. It is a foreshadow of Jesus resurrection and ascension, a depiction of the glorified Christ sitting on the mountain of God at God’s right hand. This, Matthew is reminding us, is our destiny in Christ—participation in God. Blessedness.

This reminder is God’s promise to us. And in the meantime, the promises are our assurances. Not only are we blessed because we end up with and like God, but even now, when we act like God, we experience God’s blessings. So when we pursue righteousness, meekness, mercy, and peace, we are blessed. Should we ever experience persecution, we are blessed. When we feel poverty of spirit, when we mourn, and as we become more pure in heart, we are blessed.

For all of these experiences are the foretaste of our perfection in Christ. This is the hope we have not only for those who have died whom we remember today, but for ourselves as well. And as we live according to this hope, it is the hope of the world as well.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • Who are some people who have inspired your spiritual life? What qualities did they exhibit? How do these qualities related to the Beatitudes? How can you begin to emulate them?
  • In what other ways do we experience poverty of spirit? Does this occur, as with the Beatitudes, because they reflect the values of God’s kingdom?
  • How are you growing as a child of God who demonstrates the Beatitudes in your life? What next step might you take to cultivate just one of these spiritual qualities?

 

10.19.14 What Good Are Taxes? Matthew 22:15-22 Sermon Summary

Calendar - Tax Day Circled

This is one of Jesus’ most powerful sound bites. And like all sound bites, it is easy to misunderstand.

Summary Points

  • When the alliance of religion and politics tries to trap Jesus
  • The dangers of trying to keep religion and politics separate
  • The proper relationship between religion and politics
  • Questions for discussion and reflection

It was a trick question designed to alienate Jesus from the popular masses. By popular masses, of course we mean the poor and overtaxed. His stunning one-liner response covers questions regarding taxes and church and state, but so much more also.

It came from the Pharisees and Herodians, an interesting alignment of both the religious elite and political players. Their opening approach is characteristic of the manipulation you might expect from such a partnership: “Teacher, we know that you are sincere and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one, for you do not regard people with partiality. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”

If Jesus says no, he is treasonous; if he says yes, he alienates the populace. His memorable escape? “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.”

Some people are tempted to hear a simple “yes” with this answer—pay your taxes. If it is this simple, then it seems there are two kingdoms—an earthly one and a heavenly one. We remember that Jesus himself taught his disciples to pray that they eventually become one: “Your kingdom come on earth as in heaven.”

If this is the case, then the two kingdoms are separate. So we are to pay our taxes in the earthly kingdom, and worship God in the heavenly one. We find other applications of this “two separate kingdoms” mentality throughout Christian history. For example, slaves, submit to your owners in the earthly kingdom, and worship God in your slave communities. Or politicians, get the job done by whatever means throughout the week, and worship God on Sunday. Or patriots, support war, and worship God. Or you rich, pay a higher income tax, and worship God. Or you poor, be content with your wages, and worship God.

The “two kingdom” perspective works out pretty well for the politically powerful and the religious elite. Both get what they want. And if you’re part of both groups, you get a double benefit!

But Jesus’ answer isn’t a simple “yes,” and the Pharisees and Herodians knew it. That’s why they were stunned into silence and retreat. Today we also shouldn’t hear a simple “yes” with all the troubling implications that accompany it.

Remember Jesus requests to see a coin. There were two coins in circulation at Jesus’ time: the imperial coin and one allowed by Rome for use among Jews. The imperial coin included an inscription and image of Caesar. Pious Jews wouldn’t carry imperial coins, because they wouldn’t carry something with a graven image. But when Jesus asks for a coin, the Pharisees produced an imperial coin.

Jesus publically asks, “Whose inscription and image is this?” And already the debate is won. The coin is inscribed, “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus” and it has Caesar’s image. Jesus doesn’t have to say it, because the crowd would already have been scandalized by the coin, but he does anyway: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

Clearly the point isn’t a simple, “yes, pay taxes.” Instead, this episode asks an uncomfortable, revealing question: Are you giving to God what is God’s? Are your priorities right? In the conflict between spiritual values and material ones, which set wins?

For Jesus, the coin belongs to Caesar because it bears Caesar’s image. But we belong to God because we bear God’s image. So the question is, Are we giving ourselves, our whole selves, to God? Of course we are not. So the question narrows to, What are we holding back?

Jesus’ answer, “Give to God the things that are God’s,” reminds us of a truth his audience would already have known: All things belong to God. Psalm 24:1 says, “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” In all things, we are stewards in this life—everything belongs to God and we are merely taking care of them for a time.

So Jesus is instructing us to good and faithful stewardship of all things: Our time—including Sunday morning; our strength—including what it takes to serve others; our financial resources—including our charitable offerings. And including our taxes.

This is the good of taxes: We are forced to remember that what we call our own, is not our own. Every paycheck and every April 15 reminds us we belong to the United States. And every Sunday, every sacrifice of time and resources reminds us that we belong to God.

Jesus refused to allow the politically powerful and religious elite to co-opt his message of God’s reign in this world. He refuses to allow us to compartmentalize his Lordship in our lives. When we withhold from him areas of our lives we think belong to us, he wants to deliver us from the tyranny of trying to be our own lords. For wherever we do not have Jesus as Lord in our lives, we do not have him as Savior there either. So give to God, the things that are God’s.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • In what ways have you been living with a “two kingdom” mentality, as if there were parts of your life that don’t belong to God? How can you better bring God into those parts of your life?
  • Metaphorically speaking, are you carrying “imperial coins,” getting things done using dishonest or less honorable means? How might you align your life with the values of God’s kingdom?

10.05.14 Products that Last Matthew 21:33-46 Sermon Summary

This is not a parable about God’s blessing the Christian church, but about God judging the church’s leadership.

Summary Points

  • The metaphor of the vineyard in the Bible: three views
  • The three audiences of Jesus’ parable about the unfaithful tenants
  • How Faith Presbyterian Church intends to be faithful tenants: five directional goals
  • Questions for discussion and reflection

The (complementary) Lectionary today gives us three views of the vineyard. Throughout the Bible, the vineyard represents the people of God, and often includes intimate romantic overtones. See the Song of Solomon as a concentrated example. This intimacy is apparent in the first view which comes from Isaiah. It is actually a preview, and shows us the vineyard from God’s perspective.

God joyfully envisioned and labored to create a vineyard. He had hopeful expectations regarding it. God looked for justice and righteousness but instead found bloodshed and cries from the oppressed. In the following verses and chapters, Isaiah identifies some of the problems with the vineyard: unrestrained accumulation of wealth, feasting without gratitude, bribery, and perversions of justice. Giving this, God promises to cease cultivating vineyard, allowing it to suffer the consequences of nature.

The postview comes from the psalm, and offers us a perspective from within the vineyard after God’s judgment has come. It recalls earlier times of deliverance and blessing that have been replaced with judgment. It pleas for deliverance, not on the basis of its own righteousness, but because God is the owner of the vineyard.

Matthew gives us the long view. Jesus parable summarizes the life cycle of God’s people using the metaphor of the vineyard. The cycle is that we receive blessings, but withhold appropriate and active thanks. God continually invites us to be a thankful and generous people, but we ignore God’s many invitations. In the graphic description of the parable, we beat, kill, stone the servants of the owner and refuse to do right. Eventually the owner sends his son, whom we also kill, and Jesus promises that the landowner will evict the present tenants and bring in others who will bear the “fruit of righteousness.”

Whenever we read the Gospels, and especially the parables, we have to remember that there are really three audiences: Jesus’ first audience, the writers’ audience, and us.

Jesus’ first audience, when they heard this parable, would have immediately had Isaiah and the other Older Testament references to the vineyard in mind. They would recognize God as the landowner and the vineyard as themselves. And when the landowner sends his son, they would have identified him with the king, for the Older Testament often refers to the king as God’s son. They would have wondered about the tenants, however, since that is a new layer on the metaphor introduced by Jesus.

Matthew’s first audience would make the same connections as Jesus’ original audience, except that they would recognize the son as Jesus. They would see the new tenants as themselves, the Christian church. And because Matthew says so explicitly, they would understand the old tenants as the chief priests and Pharisees. It’s helpful to know that Matthew was written to a primarily Jewish Christian community, Jewish followers of Jesus whom other Jews criticized.

As we receive this parable today, as Matthew’s second audience, we realize that this is not a parable about God transferring his blessings from Jews to Christians. The vineyard is the same—the people of God. The expectation is the same—justice and righteousness, or as Jesus calls it, the “fruits of the kingdom.” This parable is about the stewardship of the vineyard. In other words, it’s about church leaders.

Who might this include? In a Presbyterian church, it certainly includes ministers of Word and Sacrament, the ordered ministries of Elder and Deacon, paid and unpaid Staff, and Volunteer ministry leaders. But because of the priesthood of all believers, everyone is implied also. One of the ways we talk about membership in our congregation is the move from being a “receiver” in the church to taking “responsibility” for the church. So this parable about church stewardship addresses a lot of people.

The Session has the responsibility to “discern and govern” a congregation. We’re the “first line” stewards of a particular vineyard. So it’s up to us to articulate how our congregation will grow Jesus’ “fruits of the kingdom.” In our congregation, we have identified five directional goals to help us do this. They are:

  1. Bible knowledge: we should know generally what’s in the Bible and how to apply it to our lives
  2. Prayer, personal and public: we should know how to give thanks to and trust God regarding our own circumstances, and be able to pray for others when called upon to do so
  3. Community: we should have friendships within the church in addition to the friendships we have outside the faith community
  4. Service: we should be a people who naturally seek to meet needs in, through, and beyond the church
  5. Worship: we should understand and appreciate the value of what we do together in worship

We believe that God has invested in this church, loves this church even as the scripture depicts in the metaphor of the vineyard, and hopes our church will produce justice, righteousness, and the fruits of the kingdom. We believe these five directional goals will help us be good tenants.

As God has invested in this church, we invite our congregation to invest in it as well. But producing the fruits of the kingdom requires more than money. It requires more than the leadership of Session, Deacons, paid and unpaid Staff, and Volunteers. It requires all of us—we’re all stewards of this vineyard, and God will hold us accountable for it.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • In what ways have you seen “fruits of righteousness” present in your congregation?
  • How would you judge the stewardship of the tenants of your congregation, beginning with the leadership, but also realizing that you are a tenant?
  • In what ways are you involved in helping your congregation achieve the five directional goals?

 

09.28.14 The One Person You May Judge Matthew 21:23-32 Sermon Summary

According to this parable, there are only two kinds of people who attend worship. Which kind are you?

Summary Points

  • The two sons, chief priests, elders, tax collectors, prostitutes, and us
  • Why religious people especially are so judgmental
  • That God is patient in the present, and forgiving of the past
  • How Jesus frees us to be less judgmental and to live more faithfully
  • Questions for discussion and reflection

There are two sons in this parable of Jesus, and in his own interpretation he suggests that one of the sons represents upright religious folks. The other son represents tax collectors and prostitutes. When the father asks both sons to work in the vineyard, the first says “no” but eventually goes; the second says “yes” but does not go. When everyone agrees that the first son, though initially saying “no,” is the one who actually does the father’s will, Jesus tells the chief priests and religious elders that the tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God before them.

So which son are we? Either we think we deserve to be in the church because we’re believers, or at least we’re religious. Or it’s because we so desperately want what Jesus preached to be true. We’re sinners and we know it. We screw ups, broken, and lost.

In Jesus’ parable, everyone gets into the kingdom. Of course this makes sense given what Paul says, that because of God’s exaltation of Jesus, every knee shall bend and every tongue confess that he is Lord. At the end of time everyone—chief priests and elders, tax collectors and prostitutes, religious and sinners alike—enters in. The difference is that the sinners get it now, and get in early, while the religious folks are busy judging others.

Judging others is in our nature. It started out as blame: Adam blamed Eve who blamed the Snake. But once religion gets introduced, we stop blaming each other and start judging instead. The question is no longer “who sinned first” but “who’s still sinning.” And the easiest measuring stick is religion.

The challenge is that Jesus came to heal sinners, to find the lost, to save the irreligious. He lets the religious keep trying to save themselves. But since he knows they’re sinners also, he keeps inviting them to follow him nonetheless.

Imagine the father’s initial reactions to the responses of his sons. I suspect he was delighted with the second son’s response, “I will go.” And it’s reasonable to assume he was displeased with the first son who said “I won’t go.” But I wonder what else went through his mind. Did he feel like a failure as a parent? Did he plan to introduce some regimen of discipline for the first son? Did he feel like giving up on the first son as a lost cause and investing more in the second?

We don’t know how the parable ends, whether the father rewards the first son who ended up doing it and punishing the second son who only says he’ll do it. The first point of the parable seems to be not how it ends, but what the sons do in the meantime. It’s the contrast between lip service and hand service. Do we just say we’re following Christ, or are we actually doing it?

Another point of the parable seems to be the father’s patience with the sons. He gives them time to change their minds. The father is big enough to be patient, to allow the sons to change, to grow. Or to use religious language, to “repent.”

If we may infer something about God from this parable, it is that God is also patient, allowing time for our change of mind. One of the ways God allows repentance is that he doesn’t judge us according to our past. At one point the people of ancient Israel cried that “the way of the Lord is unfair” because they were being judged according to their ancestors’ misdeeds. Their despair likely led them to think they may as well not even try anymore.

Sometimes we have the same despair. We remember the line in Wordsworth’s poem, “The child is father of the man.” For Wordsworth, this was a pleasant realization—as the child loved rainbows, so the man does also. But if our childhood was traumatic or just negative, or especially if our youthfulness was sinful, we might be tempted to despair like the ancient Israelites and think, “I’m doomed, there is no hope.”

But God responded to the people, “Forget that Bible verse that says I will punish the children for the sins of their parents. Instead, you get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit.” God reorients us to the present and invites us into faithfulness, regardless of the past. According to the psalm, God is mindful of his mercy and love, and does not remember the sins of our youth. We learn that God takes no pleasure in the death of anyone, so he calls us now to “turn and live.”

Not only is there time for repentance in God’s patience, but Paul says that, “it is God who is at work enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” So God gives us time and power for repentance. This divine work in our lives is the definition of grace. We can’t do it ourselves, so God does it with us.

Jesus is Lord because he is the second son who did the will of his father. We said, “we’ll do it” but then we didn’t. We didn’t because we couldn’t. Jesus said, “I’ll do it” and then he did. He was obedient to death, and so, Paul says, God exalted him and opened the kingdom to everyone. Now, in the power of the Spirit of the resurrected Christ—a power we receive in baptism—God enables us both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Because Jesus is Lord, and the kingdom is open, and because God allows and empowers repentance, we are not allowed to judge anyone. We can’t tell if they are first or second sons. They may appear as chief priests and elders to us, or they may appear as sinners. Right now, we’re in the middle of the parable, and we don’t know who’s going in first and who has to wait until his religion is purged out of him.

In the meantime the one person we can judge is ourselves. Are we first or second sons, first or second daughters? Are we saying it but not doing it, or are we living according to God’s will? Only we can answer that for ourselves now.

And thank God that only God, who is patient and faithful, who is mindful of mercy and love, answers that question for us later.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • Which son are you and I—church going, sermon summary reading Christians—more likely to be? How would you feel if the sinners you know enter the kingdom ahead of you?
  • Are you someone who judges others on the basis of religion? How does this parable invite you to change? How can you grow in grace enough to cease being so judgmental?
  • How do you respond to the understanding of grace that says God is patient and forgiving and empowers us to live according to his will?

 

09.21.14 When Just is Not Fair, Matthew 20:1-16 Sermon Summary

There is perhaps no other parable that offends us as much today, especially in America, as it did Jesus’ original audience as this one.

Summary Points

  • The parable of the generous Landowner and it’s parallels in the parable of Jonah
  • Why Jonah couldn’t rejoice over God’s generosity towards others
  • How God’s grace extends even to an isolated and resentful Jonah
  • How Paul’s example guides us to receive and share God’s grace

“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” So begins a parable unique to Matthew. The Landowner hires Day Laborers throughout the day: at 6 AM, 9, 12 PM, 3, and finally at the 11th hour, (5 PM), with 1 hour left in the work day. He pays them a denarius, the subsistence wage for a family. According to Old Testament law governing the economy of the poor, the Laborers must be paid at the end of the day. The Landowner pays everyone what they need to support their family, what we would call a “living wage.”

The first hired Laborers grumble. They’ve worked all day in the heat. The Landowner recognizes that they have an “evil eye,” which means they viewed him with resentment and accusation of unfairness, and their fellow Laborers with envy.

Jonah had the same view. He was miraculously saved by big fish and delivered to Nineveh to proclaim repentance. When the people repented and God did not punish them, it made Jonah “very displeased.” Jonah would rather die than give up his bigotry.

God asks Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry?” This is the precise question to ask an angry person, because it forces us to examine our hearts. But it is also the hardest one to hear. Jonah is so angry he doesn’t even answer God, but flees again. He heads “East,” which is the Bible’s way of saying he departs from God’s presence (remember the Garden?), and watches to see what will happen. He still wants Nineveh to be judged.

Jonah builds himself a booth, a little shelter from the elements while he watches. And here we get an insight into his core problem. Jonah is too self-reliant. He wants to be recognized for what he’s done, and he wants others to be punished for what they haven’t done. Jonah is preoccupation with rewards—who has them, who doesn’t. This blinds him to the presence of grace (remember the fish?) in his life. Because of this, he can’t accept the presence of grace in the lives of the Ninevites.

Think about this: Is there anyone who, if they end up in heaven, it would make you mad? Standing next to this person, would you accuse God of injustice? Or back in this life, how do you respond when things go well for others? Do you rejoice with them, or are you envious, resentful, watching with an “evil eye”?

The good news is that God doesn’t abandon Jonah in his anger. Or to his self-reliance. God provides a shade tree for a day, a shelter better than the one Jonah has made for himself. The next day, however, God removes the shade tree and sends an extra hot sun and wind. Finally God asks again, “Is it right for you to be angry?” God returns to Jonah in his isolation and resentment, and invites him back to God’s grace—a grace that includes Nineveh.

Likewise, the Landowner speaks to “one” of the Grumblers—interesting because up to now the Landowner has dealt only with groups of Laborers. As God is gracious to the 120,000 Ninevites (and their animals!), he is gracious to the lone petulant prophet on the Eastern hill. The Landowner addresses the one Grumbler as “Friend.” He invites him into the generosity of grace. In paying everyone the daily living wage, he reminds the Grumblers that God provides what we need, not what we deserve. We need daily bread; but so does everyone else.

Paul and Jonah make an interesting study in contrasts. Both are commissioned to proclaim the good news of God’s grace. Both at one point preferred death. Jonah wanted to die because he was resentful of God’s grace; Paul because he desired to be in the fullness of God’s presence. The irony is that because Paul shared God’s grace with others, he already enjoyed God’s presence. But because Jonah would deny God’s grace to others, he was already dead.

How do we live like Paul and not Jonah? How do we live in God’s grace? Paul’s example teaches us that it starts by (1) being grateful, grateful that we have been called. Grace is that, whether at 6 AM or in the 11th hour, that the Landowner came looking for workers. Grace is that, when we flee from God, he comes looking for us. Gratitude for God’s grace helps us to (2) be content with what we have. Out of this gratitude and contentment, we are able to (3) rejoice with others over God’s generosity towards them. And finally, Paul teaches us to (4) find a way to serve others with our lives.

If we follow Paul’s example we’ll discover like he did that it’s better to die in God’s service, than to die in our resentment.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • Share a time when you had the “evil eye,” a negative attitude towards God’s generosity towards others. How did that make you feel? How is your relationship with that person? What affect does this attitude have in your relationship with God?
  • In what ways are you building your own sanctuary “East” of where God is residing? How are you trying to do things on your own instead of depending on God? Knowing that God comes looking for us, how might you make it easier for God to find you?
  • Who are the people which, when you think about God judging them, it gives you a sense of satisfaction? What do you suppose God’s attitude is towards them? What would you do if you ended up on the same floor in God’s heavenly house?
  • What are some ways God has been gracious to you? Do you spend time in grateful prayer for this grace? How might meditating on God’s goodness to you help you be more gracious towards others?
  • Paul found purpose in serving others. How are you serving others, out of gratitude and while on this side of death?
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