Monthly Archives: September 2017

Unfair! Extravagant Generosity

20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage,[a] he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.[b] 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.[c] 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?[d] 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’[e] 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”[f] (Matthew 20:1-16 NRSV)

I don’t know about you, but I feel annoyed.  Here I’ve worked my fingers to the bone, taking care of that huge vineyard!  I toiled under the hot, scorching sun.  I’m in need of a cool shower and a good meal.  Yet, those late arrivals received the same amount of pay as I did.  They should get what they deserve!

Do you feel the same way?  Are you angry with Jesus for telling this parable?  What’s up with this?

Okay.   So, before we put Jesus in the dock, we have to be clear.  The parable is about “the kingdom of heaven.”

So, maybe you’re ahead of me, already.  If this is about the kingdom, then everyone is equal in there.  Yes.  But, the behavior of the early workers isn’t kingdom behavior, is it?  What else are we missing?

A lot.  This simple parable isn’t so simple when you get into it.  It’s rich in its teachings.

First, we see a landowner who can’t get enough workers.  Everyone has an opportunity to labor in the vineyard.  No one is left out.  No one.  Not even those last hour laborers who weren’t in line at the marketplace early in the morning, or at 9:00 or noon or 3:00.  Don’t you wonder where they were all day?

Even the owner asks them that question: “Why are you standing here idle all day?” (Mt 20:6b)  I suspect they were busy elsewhere, their attention on something else, perhaps other jobs, or they slept in.   As the day waned, they made their way to the day laborer office and found themselves a job.

Everyone has work to do in the kingdom.  The more workers available, the easier the work.  The more workers who arrive the better the variety of gifts and talents to put towards the work.  We’re all needed from the mail clerk to the CEO, from the blue-collar worker to the white collar, from the poverty stricken to the wealthy.

Everyone has work to do in the kingdom, because God is so madly in love with the world.  Not just you and me, but all of creation.  Even our enemy.  In the kingdom, everyone works for the kingdom.  Earthly power means nothing.

Another teaching point in this parable is the generosity of the landowner.  He could have paid less money to the late arrivals and no one would have blamed him.  Instead, the early arrivals complain because they don’t get a bonus.

When have you felt jealous over a friend’s good fortune?  Why her and not me?  She isn’t even deserving?  Yet, God is generous.  And only after we study our own life do we realize that generosity.  The fact that you’re reading this blog tells me that you can afford an electronic device on which to read it.  Perhaps you have several devices.  And you have food to eat and a roof over your head.

More important, God is watching over you.  You’re walking with God each day.  You can speak to God, listen to God, see God at work in the world.  And when we get outside ourselves, we can rejoice in the good fortune of others.  That’s the kingdom at work!

Most important, there was nothing any of the workers in the vineyard could do to earn or deserve God’s generosity.  We work hard to earn our way in the world, to achieve the promotions and the pay raises.  We work hard to be noticed in all the right ways.  What a relief, that we don’t have to do any of that in the vineyard.

When we enter God’s kingdom, we are one with each other.  There is joy in the work; we are given an opportunity to work in the kingdom.  There is good work to do with no need of merit.  Work is a gift that is graced on us without our deserving it.

So, when I identify with those workers who spent 12 hours of labor in the hot, scorching sun, I wonder if I might take a different view.  First, that the 12 hours was hard work, but not without the joy of working for the vineyard owner.  That envy didn’t enter into things until I got wrapped up in jealousy at the end of the day.  During the day I enjoyed a gracious and undeserved gift.

Second, I could have been the late arrival, receiving what everyone else had received and feeling the joy of being accepted equally.  What if one of those all day workers had high-fived me in celebration?

Most important, none of us in the vineyard got what we deserved.

We received a gift of work and worth: undeserved and gracious in the giving.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 

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Unfair! Extravagant Forgiveness

21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church[a] sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven[b] times 23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents[c] was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii;[d] and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister[e] from your heart.” (Matthew 18:21-35 NRSV)

Note:  This is part two of a three-part series entitled, “Unfair!”  We will look at some texts that may make us feel uncomfortable, even angry and want to say to God, “That’s not fair!”

“Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.”

These are not words Jesus lived by.

You see, the particular congregation is unique.  Last week we pointed out that church isn’t meant to be a civic group, nor a business entity, nor a not-for-profit organization.  Though a church holds a few aspects of each of these, it still stands out as uniquely different.  It’s a place where members can let down their guard and be themselves.  They work together, pray together, break bread together.  They build trust within the group and then go out to share with the world.

At least, that’s the way it’s meant to be.  Being human, we often sin and an authentic church will point it out and help restore that person.  But what if they continue sinning?

That’s a good question, and Peter isn’t afraid to bring it up with Jesus.  In fact, he knows Jesus to be a generous man, so tries to second-guess him.  “How often should I forgive?  How about seven times?  That’s a good number.  A heavenly number.”

“Peter, I want you to quit counting.  That’s what legalistic religious folk do.  They count up their mint and dill to make sure they tithe a perfect amount.  They use the law to get around behaving compassionately with people.  No, Peter.  I want you to forgive over and over and over again.”

He sees the disappointment and horror on Peter’s face.  Peter and the disciples clearly need a parable.

The lord of the manner is extravagant in many ways.  He’s extravagant in his lending to the slave.  ten thousand talents is like saying “a bazillion million.”  It’s a ridiculous amount, unpayable by anyone.  The lord is also extravagant in his punishment.  In Jewish tradition, debtors prison was against the law.  In Greek and Roman law, it was permitted but rarely used.

The slave repents and begs for mercy.  How often do we repent and beg for mercy when we’ve hurt someone?  How often has someone repented with you when they’ve obviously hurt you?  Perhaps the slave had no other choice, but he found himself on his knees and asked for time to make it up.

Once again, the lord is extravagant.  He forgives the entire debt!  That’s unheard of!  Out of great love and mercy, he graciously sets aside the debt.  The slave is free to go, his family safe from prison.  He can begin his life anew, debt free!

Here’s the part we don’t like.  The slave refuses to forgive the debt of a fellow slave.  The debt was high, about 100 days wages.  The forgiven slave had received lavish grace and forgiveness, and instantly forgot.  So, he gives his fellow slave what’s coming to him–debtor’s prison.

Don’t like him much, do you?  Yet, isn’t he us?  Seeing the personification of sin instead of children of God?  Afraid to show weakness and vulnerability?  We want the sinner to earn our forgiveness, to measure up.  Forgiving repeatedly is reckless irresponsible.

Yet, God forgives us multiple times.  Sometimes in one day!  Perhaps we should pay it forward.

Jesus taught us last week that we first confront the sinner and do everything possible to restore her to the congregation.  But, she has to be willing.  If not, she dishonors herself and the church.

But, we have to forgive for another reason.  Ourselves.  If we hang onto the wound, it damages us.  The behavior isn’t forgiven and forgotten.  We have to let go so that we can remain authentic followers of Jesus.  We don’t put people on probation.  At the same time, we don’t deny our own hurt, nor do we minimize it.  It may take some time to move through this process.  We can do no less than what the lord of the manner did for the slave who owed a bazillion million.

I was falsely accused of something when I was in high school.  My accuser was one of the ministers, a person a highly regarded.  The church went to bat for me.  And I was counseled and allowed to feel the pain.  And, somewhere deep inside I refused to allow it to ruin church for me.  When the truth finally came out and I was exonerated, I had already forgiven.

Since that time, I understand all to well how church members can hurt and wound each other.  Furthermore, how church members surround the sinner and the wounded to bring life back.

What about the sinner?  What about that torture that’s promised?

After King David took Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, and impregnated her.  He tried to cover it up and ultimately had Uriah murdered.  When Nathan the prophet approached David, he laid it out fully and completely.  David responded, “I have sinned against the Lord.” (2 Samuel 12:13)  And in those words we feel David’s mounting shame.  Psalm 51 is the result, when David cries out to God to, “purge me with hyssop…) (Ps 51:7a)

Ever been caught for doing something you shouldn’t have done?  Wasn’t the torture awful?  It blinds us as we almost double over in pain.  The shock is too much.  The only way through it is to face it.

This isn’t easy stuff.  Lavish forgiveness from God, demands that we lavishly forgive the one sitting in the pew across from us.  Extravagance from God makes us want to be extravagant, as well.

I think that we do this more often than we give ourselves credit for.  We know our neighbor in the pew beside us.  We understand him, perhaps more than others do.  Because of that we make allowances and excuse some poor behavior.  After all, he’s part of the “family.”  We don’t forget, but we do let it go.  And, a healthy relationship demands that we counsel him if he continues to misbehave.

Yet, sometimes we hurt more deeply than we realize.

Will  you allow one person (or even many) to ruin your relationship with God?  Or will you forgive and move on and allow your valuable friends to care for you?  Will you acknowledge the pain and move through it?

Will your use that painful memory to help others?  Will you help them acknowledge the sin and pain?  Will you help them refuse to let it ruin their lives?

Will you reflect Jesus’ call to forgive over and over and over again?

 

It’s unfair when we first look at it.  Unfair to forgive repeatedly.  But, when we behave like the forgiven servant and treat others poorly, it’s unfair to them.

And, it’s unfair to ourselves.

It dishonors Jesus and his Church.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 


Unfair! Restoration for All

15-17 “If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend. If he won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won’t listen, tell the church. If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.

18-20 “Take this most seriously: A yes on earth is yes in heaven; a no on earth is no in heaven. What you say to one another is eternal. I mean this. When two of you get together on anything at all on earth and make a prayer of it, my Father in heaven goes into action. And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I’ll be there.”  (Matthew 18:15-20 The Message Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson )

Note:  This is part one of a three-part series entitled, “Unfair!”  We will look at some texts that may make us feel uncomfortable, even angry and want to say to God, “That’s not fair!”

Church, whether outside the walls like this blog or within traditional church walls, is not a non-profit organization.  Church isn’t a club that exists to do good stuff, though reaching out is a part of our mission.  We do not pay dues, we return to God a portion of all that God has provided.  If it were that simple it would be easier: we could “recruit” new members, have a theme song and send out dues notices.  We could “assign” tasks and elect officers to lead us.

Church is more than the sum of its parts.  Church is made up of broken people who know they are in need.  Church is worship of God who is far more awesome and far bigger than we can even imagine.  Church is reaching out to others in unique ways: giving of time, talents and money; being in relationship with those who are in need but can’t find what they’re looking for.

Church is fellowship: breaking bread together at the communion table and at the potluck dinners; praying for each other in sickness and tragedy and death and hurtful times; laughing and crying; trusting enough to be vulnerable with each other.  Church is a place we can go to catch a glimpse of God’s kingdom.

So, it’s no surprise that Jesus spends some time teaching us how to be church.  And here’s the rub: sometimes we misbehave and we have to deal with it using kingdom values.  Jesus doesn’t permit us to behave like the culture around us behaves.  No, we have to behave like disciples of the One who went to the cross.

That’s sooo unfair!

For example.  Jesus tells us how to handle disagreements.  It’s a step-by-step formula:

  1. Confront him or her privately.  Try to work out your differences and come to terms that are agreeable.
  2.  If that doesn’t work, take one or two others to be witnesses and to keep things honest and fair.
  3. If that doesn’t work, tell the church.
  4. If that doesn’t work, treat her or him like a tax collector or a Gentile.

Step one may be difficult but it’s definitely do-able.  Prayerfully, speaking in private can usually bring out the differences and reconciliation can be achieved.  It may feel awkward.  For some, it isn’t easy.  I’ve had times in my life when I’ve chosen not to approach and it’s turned worse instead of better.

Step two, gets a bit more difficult.  Finding two members of the congregation who can act impartially and prayerfully is critical to the success of this step.  Jesus specifically states that they are to act as witnesses, not body guards or henchmen.  No bullying allowed!  Talk it out and listen to your witnesses.

Step three.  Now it’s getting harder.  Take it to the church.  Oh my.  I don’t like to air dirty laundry in public.  Let’s just drop it and I’ll deal with it the best I can.  Nope, says Jesus. That’s not allowed.  The church will need to provide a place of healing and reconciliation.  Everyone is vulnerable at this point and no one is allowed an “out.”

Healing and reconciliation.  Hard words these days.  The news in my city has been difficult this week: murders, someone literally using their automobile to attack homeless victims.  Our societal nerves are worn so thin that our anger is a hair-trigger.  Social media is not just a place to share joys and concerns.  It’s a place to display your anger and disgust in hate-filled ways.  We hate with ease; listen less and yell more; shut down when we don’t like what we hear.

In the best of times, the church is the one place where healing happens because we listen prayerfully.  The congregation recognizes that Jesus is present and they know that everything they say and do is in his presence.

And after all that, if the offender refuses to repent, you can oust him or her.

Really?  Do you honestly believe that Jesus would permit that?  Scripture says we can treat him or her like a tax collector or a Gentile.  So, get those excommunication papers ready, and strip the offender of the keys to the church.  He’s out of here!

Slow down.  Think about this.  Get your Bible out.

Who did Jesus associate with?  Tax collectors and Gentiles and sinners.  He enjoyed many a meal with them and offered relationship, healing and entry into fellowship.

Just prior to this text, we learn about a God who doesn’t want to lose a single believer.  This God will leave 99 sheep behind to search for that  lone lost one.

Jesus also taught his disciples and followers that simple faith is the way into the kingdom.  No bullying allowed.

So, why did Jesus say, “Treat them like a tax collector and a Gentile”?  He said this to remind us that we have to start again from scratch.  We confront them with the need to repent and we offer God’s forgiving love.

Unfair?  Perhaps.

But, there’s more.

“What you bind on earth will be bound in heaven.  What you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  That doesn’t mean that you have the power.  Nor does the church have the power.  Go to God in prayer with this.  Serious prayer and discernment and God will get to it.

Prayer is that place where we go to share with God what we think and feel, what gives us pain, what we question and don’t understand.  Prayer is the place we go where God listens and God speaks.  God’s got this.  God will work it out.

It seems unfair, doesn’t it?

Being a member of Christ’s church means that we have to work together and grow and strive with each other.  That striving means confronting, at times.  And when we do that we risk a lot and that’s difficult.  We risk losing a friendship; we risk hurting someone.  But we also have an opportunity for growth and reconciliation that can’t be achieved if we walk away and allow the hurt to simmer and grow.

Being a member of Christ’s Church is serious business.  What we say or do is witnessed by Jesus.  He closes this passage with the reminder that wherever two or three are gathered, he’s there with us.  So, if Jesus is present, what do you want him to witness: poor, unloving, hate-filled behavior?  Or an attempt at loving (even tough loving) filled with prayer and discernment?

It may seem unfair until we realize that we be the one in need of being reconciled.

It may feel unfair that you can’t let a fellow believer loose and drop her from the rolls.  What if you’re the one being set loose?

It may be unfair that we can’t walk away from each other and forget.  We can walk away, but we can’t forget.  We have to keep them in prayer just as we are held in prayer when we go astray.

When we honor this teaching from Jesus, we gain from it.  We are stronger, more faithful and less vulnerable.  We become a fellowship that builds bridges, tears down walls, and walks with each other in love.  Even tough love.

We become a place where no one is written off.  Not even you.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


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