Friday, 23 September 2011

Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity - The offensive ways of God

Philippians 1:21-30
For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.

Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

Matthew 20:1-16
‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; 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 labourers 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. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 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.” 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? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this 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 generous?” So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’

God is offensive. Or perhaps I should clarify that. The ways of God are offensive to people. No, that’s not quite far enough either. How about this: The ways of God are offensive to Christians. Now that may sound like an unlikely thing to say, but I want us to think about God’s grace this morning, and some of what I say will be difficult for us to stomach, because although we know statements like, ‘The first shall be last and the last shall be first’, we don’t actually pause and think about the implications.

Let’s have a look at the parable we have before us this morning, because this is a classic example of a parable that should shock us when we think deeply about what it actually says. The first thing to note is the context. Jesus is not talking to large crowds of interested spectators here. This isn’t one of those occasions when large numbers of people come on over to follow Jesus.

Instead it follows on from the story of the rich man who comes to Jesus asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus hears him say that he has always kept the commandments but recognises quickly that his wealth is actually his anchor and tells him he must give that away so that he will learn to depend on God. But the man can’t do that and goes away disappointed.

And then Jesus turns to his disciples and begins to explain how hard it is for rich people to enter the kingdom of heaven; that a camel has more chance of getting through the eye of a needle than of a rich person getting to heaven, saying that many who are first will be last and the last will be first.

The story that we have before us today follows on directly from this and so we can conclude that he’s telling the disciples this parable to illustrate what he’s just said to them. In other words this parable is not evangelistic. It’s not aimed outwardly. It is aimed fairly and squarely at believers, at insiders like us, and it is likely to offend people. It is, however, a principle we need to learn and apply in order to grow as a church.

The story is really quite simple. A group of labourers are hired at the beginning of the working day, let’s say 6.00am, and reach an agreement that they will be paid the usual daily rate for a day's work. The vineyard owner hasn’t got enough people to do the work so he goes back out again at 9.00am and wanders around the middle of the town, finding men in the market place doing nothing. So he hires them too.

Another three hours goes by and at noon he hires yet more men who are doing nothing. He goes back to the market place again at both three and five in the afternoon, each time hiring more men who seemingly have nothing to do. Sometime around 8.00pm he goes out into the vineyard himself. The working day is over, which shows clearly that these people didn’t submit to EU working directives because some of them have done a fourteen hour day.

Then he calls them all over and begins with those who he hired at five o clock, and he pays them all the full daily wage, even though they have only done three hours work. Now you can probably imagine what is going on in the minds of those who have been at it for fourteen hours.

They know what their contracts said, the daily wage for a day's work, but now they have seen how generous their employer is! If the three hour people get a day's wage, then they should be getting more than four days pay, by their calculations.

Imagine, then, what it must have felt like as he worked his way through the employees, giving each group, no matter how long they had worked, a day's pay. How would you have felt? Wouldn’t you have felt cheated somehow? Yes you had a deal, but if he can be this generous, surely he could have offered you more.

And that is what it feels like to be an insider on the receiving end of God’s grace, watching him pouring out his love on those who got in at the last minute. We love the story of Jesus telling the thief crucified on the cross next to him that he will get to be in paradise as well, but think of what the implications are. That man stole and robbed his way through life whereas you have all worked hard to be good, upright and moral Christian citizens, and you will both get the same reward.

Isn’t that offensive? It can certainly feel that way. Yet what it means is, regardless of how hard you have worked for all of your life at trying to be a good Christian, God chooses to forgive someone and give them the same rights as you to heaven if they repent on their dying breath. You both get to heaven.

God hasn’t done you out of anything, but his grace and love are so far reaching that he will forgive and restore people to his love the moment they turn to him. That’s what grace looks like, and it can be offensive to insiders because our natural position is to say, ‘Yes, but we have given up everything for you for all of our lives.’

Now don’t get me wrong; in the verses before these the disciples say the same thing, when Peter points out how much they have given up for the kingdom and Jesus reassures them that they will receive so very much in heaven as a reward, ‘But’, he says, ‘Many who are first will be last and the last will be first.’ We will be rewarded for being faithful, but God’s grace also extends to those who have only just repented.

What I think this story highlights for us is a sense of jealous ownership, that as insiders who have always tried hard we ought to be rewarded, and this extends into church life on this side of the veil too.

It is wonderful to welcome new people into church life and encourage them to get involved. But I also wonder how willing we are to let them get really stuck in, or whether there is a sense of, 'We were here first - we should decide who does what.'
This seems to me to be a similar attitude to what we see in the parable, that God makes little distinction between the first and the last to arrive - all are treated with love and grace.

So let us be generous in our love and giving. Let us welcome new people and give them honour in the church and not expect them to have to do the hard graft for five years before they are accepted, but to make them a part of the family from the very beginning, because in doing so we are treating them as God treats all of us, giving grace and love to all, regardless of how long they have been here. Amen

Brueggemann et al, Texts for Preaching: Year A, Louisville: WJK Press, 1995, 493f

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