Friday, August 16, 2013

Get Over Yourself!

Today is the final day in our 32nd week, reading the Bible through in a year.  Our scriptures* today are:  Hosea 14; 2 Chronicles 26-27; Matthew 20; Psalm 61.

In Matthew 20, Jesus tells the story of the workers in the vineyard:  

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 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 a denarius?14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.”

 Usually, this story is called the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.  Really, it should be called the Parable of the Generous Landowner.  This story really ruffled people's feathers in Jesus' day, and it still upsets folks today.  What do you think?  Was the landowner generous, or was he shady?  Take a look at the video below, to hear what people on the street think.  

Instead of calling this the Parable of the Generous Landowner, many people would call this the Parable of the Dishonest Boss.  But only if they aren't really listening.  The landowner never cheats the workers who came into the field first.  He simply shows his generosity to those who came last.  Those who came in the early morning still received the reward that they bargained for.  Did the latecoming workers get what they deserved?  Probably not.  They got more than they deserved--but this shows the lavish nature of God's grace towards them, not the miserliness of God towards the first workers.

I've heard a lot of interpretations for this parable.  Some say that it's about people who become Christians early in life, versus those who enter the Kingdom later in life.  Each receives an equal reward for their faith.  This may seem unfair.  Those who enter faith early devote their entire lives to the Lord's service, while those who are saved later can only give God a short time to serve Him.  Yet, we forget that the definition of GRACE is "unmerited favor."  The whole basis of our faith is that God generously gives better than we deserve.  Those who complain have forgotten that none of us deserve God's grace anyway.  And that simply being hired by the Master at all is a sign that God has given us His great mercy.

How much do you think you've earned?
Certainly the interpretation that Jesus intended in His own time was that God first called the Jews into the Kingdom, and then later He would call others.  John the Baptist decried pompous Jewish self-confidence, saying, "Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham (Luke 3:8)."  And in the Gentile people, God would indeed raise up another people for Himself.  This must have enraged John's hearers.  It must have infuriated those who heard Jesus' Parable of the Generous Landowner--because the members of His Jewish audience were those who had entered the field early in the morning.  They believed it would be unfair to give the same reward to people who hadn't worked for it, as their ancestors had.

This sentiment is at work today, as well.  In my twenty-plus years of ministry, I've always worked in rural churches throughout Virginia.  No matter where I've gone, there has been conflict between the "from-here's" and the "come-here's."  My readers who live in cities may not appreciate the social importance of these designations.  City populations are so transient, diverse, and variable that it doesn't really matter who's a "from-here" and who's a "come-here."  But in the rural South, the people whose families have lived in the area for generations often feel a sense of entitlement, and are unwelcoming to those who move to the area.  Don't get me wrong--this isn't always the case, but it often is.  Especially if the "come-here" isn't from the South at all.  In churches, this conflict can carry over to power struggles within the congregation.  People who seemingly inherited the church clerk or trustee or deacon position from their grandparents can be unwilling to share control over the church with those who are newcomers to the area or to the congregation.  In this case, the denarius in Jesus' parable would not represent salvation, but would stand for the places of privilege held by church members who feel that they and their ancestors have worked in the fields longer than the "come-here's."  Yet in God's economy, it doesn't matter how long you've been in the field--you all get paid the same way.  God's plan is for the "from-here's" and the "come-here's" to play an equal part in the church.

The reader must keep in mind the context of this story.  In the previous chapter, we meet the Rich Young Ruler, who thought he could earn God's favor.  "Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life (Matthew 19:16b)?”  But Jesus tells him that salvation cannot be earned.  In verse 30, Jesus says, "But many who are first will be last, and the last first."  Then, right after the Parable of the Generous Landowner, we read about James and John's mother, who asks Jesus to grant a special favor for her boys--ostensibly because they had earned it.  But Jesus says, "Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (20:26-27).”  Grace isn't about earning more.  It's about submitting yourself to God and receiving what you could never earn to begin with.

So--what's the point?  To put it plainly, Jesus was saying, "Get over yourself!"  Life isn't about jockeying for position, like James and John were trying to do.  It's not about trying to earn more credit from God than other people have earned--because you can't earn it anyway.  Life is about saying, "Yes, Lord, I'm willing to work in Your vineyard," and then trusting God to take care of you fairly.  God is generous beyond your imagination.  When you serve Him, He always gives better than you deserve anyway.  When you trust Him, you'll see just how gracious God really is.

*Scriptures taken from the ESV.

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