Last to First; First to Last

Reading for the day (Sunday, September 24, 2017):

Jonah 3:10—4:11

Psalm 145:1-8

Philippians 1:21-30

Matthew 20:1-16

 

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

 

We’ve all heard the phrase, “Life isn’t fair.”  And I think we all know this to be true, but even though we know this, we still can’t help ourselves from wanting things to be fair.  We long for things to be fair.  Don’t you hate it when you see people who get things that they haven’t worked for or earned?  And of course, we want everyone to be paying their fair share of taxes; not getting out of their fair share because of some loop hole.  No butting in line and no short cuts, right?  People should only receive what they have worked hard for.  So it is definitely unfair when people seem to just get things while barely lifting a figure to work for it.  That’s not fair!  That’s not just!  We want fairness, we want justice.  And this is why today’s parable that Jesus tells frustrates us and makes us mad.

How dare Jesus tell a parable that says no matter how much you work, or not work, you will ALL be rewarded the same.  That’s not fair, and that certainly is not justice.  Of course it isn’t fair when looking at this parable with money in mind.  The landowner sets out in the morning (probably around 6:00 am) to hire workers to work in his vineyard for the day.  He finds some and they agree to be paid $100 at the end of the day.  The landowner still has work to be done.  So he goes back out at 9:00 am and hires more workers.  There still is more work to be done.  And the landowner goes out again at noon, at 3:00 pm, and at 5:00 pm.  Then at 6:00 pm, the work was done for the day and the hired hands come to collect their pay for the day.  Those hired last are paid first, and they are each given a $100 bill.  Ok, that’s fine.  The landowner must have gotten a really good price on grapes at the local winery.  This probably means more money for those who worked longer.  Next to be compensated are the workers hired at 3:00 pm; given $100 as well.  But you know, they only worked 3 hours as compared to 1 hour.  Those hired at noon also are given $100.  This is starting to get confusing, but maybe the extra pay doesn’t kick in until one works more than 6 hours.  And then things get frustrating.  The workers hired at 9:00 am are paid the same $100 for the day.  And then the unthinkable happens, those hired at 6:00 am are paid the same as everyone else; even all of those who worked 3, 6, 9, and even 11 hours less than those hired early in the morning.  This is maddening.  What started off fine, turned into okay to confusing to frustrating to maddening.  How could Jesus ever say, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.”?

This all means that those of us who have followed Jesus our entire lives are going to receive the same as someone who near the end of their life decides to finally believe and follow Jesus.  Like I said, maddening and unfair.  That is of course as long as we look at this parable with money in mind.

What if we changed the perspective?  What if instead of focusing on what the vineyard workers received (or didn’t receive), we focused on the landowner’s actions and motives.  The landowner isn’t concerned about the wage, he’s got enough to go around.  He’s more concerned about getting the work done.  There’s got to be ample work in the vineyard because the landowner is obsessed with hiring every possible person he can find.  The landowner is also generous that he overpays almost his entire workforce.

Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like this landowner who continues to go out and hire workers for his vineyard.  The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.  God is most concerned about the proclamation and sharing of the Gospel with the world.  He doesn’t care how much someone as 6:00 am makes as compared to someone hired at 3:00 pm.

When we look at this parable by comparing the pay of the laborers, we’ve missed the mark.  Instead, the landowner wants as many people involved as possible.  And he is so generous that he’s willing to give people whatever they need.  Our God is so generous that he willingly gives us the gifts of forgiveness, eternal life, and unconditional love no matter how long it took us to get to his vineyard.  The important thing is that we are here, working, and we will receive a fair wage for our labor.  And there are more laborers out there looking for work, who are longing for work.  And yet we are focused more on what is considered fair.

We look at the world and rank people.  Who’s first and who’s last, all for the sake of being fair.  But who really is last?  Who really is first?  Jesus says, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”  And we so like to be first.  But actually because of your sin; because of your strong desire to be fair, to be just, to be first in everything that you do, you are the one who is last.  Your sin puts you into last place.  And if you are in last place, who is in first?  Well Jesus of course.  Jesus, who was first in all of creation, who was in the beginning when God created the world.  So Jesus is first, and we are last.  But we really should continue reading beyond the appointed text to get a full understanding of this phrase…

“While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.”

Jesus who was first before creation, made himself last, taking on all of your sins and bringing them to the cross; so that you, who were last, would be made first in the eyes of God.  God sees you as first, not because of your sin, but because of Jesus.  So yes, the last will be first, and the first will be last.  You were last, but now you are first because of the cross of Christ.  Amen.

 

© 2017 Anthony Christoffels.  All rights reserved.

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Obligation or Love?

Reading for the day (Sunday, September 10, 2017):

Ezekiel 33:7-11

Psalm 119:33-40

Romans 13:8-14

Matthew 18:15-20

 

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

 

Don’t you feel grateful today?  We have food, fuel, and shelter…and we aren’t having to seek dryer ground.  Texas has already begun recovery efforts from Hurricane Harvey.  And Florida is preparing for one of the worst hurricanes ever.  And unfortunately after Irma moves through, Hurricane Jose isn’t that far behind.  Our thoughts and prayers are certainly with all of those affected by these natural disasters as well as all of those who are helping with evacuation, rescue and recovery efforts.  With all of the attention on the southeast with the hurricanes, many forget that the western part of our country is on fire, literally.  26,000 firefighters are battling the blaze in western Montana, California, and all over the Pacific Northwest.

Now with all of these natural disasters, the question comes up, “How much do we help?”  We certainly can’t help everyone, and unfortunately the call for charity increases the amount of scammers.  Between mail at home and especially mail at the church, we receive so many requests for financial donations that at times I just get to the point where I want to scream, “No one is getting my money!”

But the real question that needs to be asked is, “Do you help out of obligation?  Or do you help out of love for your neighbor?”  The book of Romans is Paul’s letter to the Christians living in Rome.  When he wrote the letter, the government and all of society was not Christian.  In fact the Roman Empire would not become Christian until Emperor Constantine’s reign about 250 years after Paul.  So these Christians living in Rome have heard the Good News about Jesus and are trying to live a godly life.  Plus they have heard that Jesus is their king.  And if Jesus king, are we subject to the Roman Emperor and other governing authorities?  Do we have any obligation to them?  In short, Paul says in chapter 13 of his letter, yes we must be subject to them – not only because they can arrest us, but also because of our conscience.  Paul says, “For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing.  Pay to all what is due them – taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.”[1]

We have an obligation to pay our bills and settle our debts, because that is the right and fair thing to do.  But then in the very next verse, Paul goes on to say, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.”[2]  Here Paul is making a shift in his letter from a standard formula that in the end needs to balance, to an entirely new way of living our lives.  Paul says we still need to do what is right and fair, in regards to our obligations.  But as for helping others, doing no wrong to our neighbor, and instead loving our neighbor, is not done out of obligation like paying taxes or paying the electric bill.  Rather we do so out of pure love and care for our neighbor because we are children of God.

God calls us to love our neighbor, but what does obligatory love look like?  If you feel obligated to love someone, then you do as little as possible.  This means not going out of your way for anything.  So you help only when there is nothing else better to do.  From His children whom He has claim, God desires much more from us.  From before we were born, God chose us to be His own children.  He has no obligation to love and care for us.  Instead out of genuine, unconditional love we have been given this gift of salvation and eternal life because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us.  And out of this great love that God has shown us, we respond by sharing this same love with those around us.  Let’s call them our neighbors.

Love for your neighbor does not have to be complicated nor expensive.  In fact, how we love our neighbors can be compared to how we are to love our children.  I tell parents that the greatest love you can give your children is the love that you give to each other.  So by loving your spouse, your children will see, feel and experience that same love.  I think the same goes for our neighbors.  Maybe the greatest love you can give your neighbor is the love that you give to God.  So by loving and serving God, your spouse, your children, your family, your friends, your neighbors will see, feel and experience that same love that you have received from God.  I think our witness to the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus, really is that simple.

Out of this great love that we have received from God, many feel that call, that tugging by the Holy Spirit to not sit silent, but to act.  I saw a story that a man from Austin answered that call to love his neighbor by flying his single engine plane down to Texas carrying over 300 cans of Spam.  “One day you have everything and the next you have nothing,”[3] is what the pilot said.  He was not obligated to fly his own plane, paying for his own fuel to go help those affected by Hurricane Harvey.  Rather it was out of love for the neighbor that he acted.

If you do feel called to respond, there are bulletin inserts provided with information on how to give.  If you do decide to give to other organizations, make sure you do your research on how much of your donation goes directly to helping.  Some organizations take as much as 40% out for overhead expenses.  Lutheran Disaster Response makes sure that 100% of your donation goes for disaster relief efforts.

So obligation or love?  What is God calling you to do?  Amen.

 

© 2017 Anthony Christoffels.  All rights reserved.

[1] Romans 13:6-7, NRSV

[2] Romans 13:8, NRSV

[3] http://abcnews.go.com/US/pilot-flying-canned-spam-hurricane-harvey-victims/story?id=49704964