Sunday, September 18, 2011

Reflections on the Parable – “The Workers in the Vineyard” – Matthew 20:1-16

Read the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard here: Matthew 20:1-16
It's Not Fair!
Over the course of our focus on the Parables of Jesus there have been two very important themes that have emerged: 1. God loves God’s creation – extravagantly, madly, passionately and showers upon the beloved creation this love and grace in outrageous abundance.  God’s goes to extravagant and illogical extremes in showing love, grace and forgiveness to all of God’s creation – that would be us, you and me.  And the 2nd theme is related and comes forth from this: we are called to be in community and to reflect this crazy extravagant love and grace and forgiveness in the way we relate and treat and interact with others!
This is not so easy for us and Jesus acknowledges this fact in the parables while at the same time shocking and challenging us to move beyond our inclination to be focused only on ourselves and our tendency to judge and our desire for selfish fairness.  It is this latter issue that is the focus of the parable for today: The Workers in the Vineyard.  The landowner hires day workers throughout the day but in the end, when it is time to pay the workers all of them get the same pay regardless of how long they have worked.  Now it is important to note a very important point: The employer pays all of the workers exactly what he promised.  He is not trying to cheat them.  They all agreed to work for a set amount, but at the end of the day the workers who worked the longest felt it was unfair that those who were hired last got paid the same.  The issue is envy and their sense of fairness, which has been offended.
If we are honest we have to admit that we probably are sympathetic to the position of the workers.  If we were in their place we might very probably feel the same.  It’s not fair that they all got paid the same!  But we also need to look a little more closely at this.  There are three points that I feel this parable raises about the issue of fairness and how we tend to experience and apply it. 
First – if we are not careful, our sense of fairness can easily turn into works righteousness.  You only get what you earn; you only get what you deserve; if you don’t put in the time and the work then you don’t deserve to receive _______ (you can fill in the blank).  This is a popular attitude in our society.  And to some extent our economy is based on this.  But it runs into problems when people find themselves unable to work and contribute for reasons that are out of their control (ageing, illness, unemployment, etc.).  So do we hold to our fairness doctrine that says – if you don’t work then you don’t eat regardless?  It also runs into problems when we apply the same paradigm upon our relationship with God.  This then turns the grace and love of God into a commodity that must be earned.  This is completely rejected by Jesus and condemned by the parables that Jesus tells.  God’s love and grace are freely and extravagantly given to us all.
2nd – If we are really honest we have to admit that our sense of fairness is really very egocentric.  We evaluate issues of fairness in terms of what I feel is fair, or what is fair for me!  As David Lose writes, “We tend to measure fairness in terms of our own wants, needs, hopes, expectations, often with little -- or at least secondary -- regard for the wants and needs of others.”  Way too much of our political discourse is focused to appeal to our self-interest at the expense of the community.  This parable calls that into question.  The landowner’s generosity is extravagant and, in fact, it is to be celebrated as it means that all of the worker’s can now feed their families.  How hard is it for us to be able to see that this position or this law or that government program, which might take a little from us individually may offer a lifeline and healing to someone else.  This parable calls for us to seriously consider this.
Third, and last is the issue of envy.  Envy, the green-eyed monster, blinds us, it burdens us, enrages us, divides us and separates us from each other and from God.  Envy can lead to resentment and bitterness that sometimes can last a lifetime.  Envy separates us from the community and from God and sends us off into our lonely corners of self-pity and resentment where we can create for ourselves (and sometimes for those around us) an experience of hell on earth if we are not careful.  This parable calls on us to look at how we apply our sense of fairness and how it leads us to separation and a continued experience of resentment and bitterness.
The bottom line:  God is not fair.  A sense of fairness is a human trait.  God, by contrast is extravagantly and illogically loving and gracious.  God showers us with love and forgiveness and acceptance and grace.  God’s love for us is not dependent upon any sense of what is fair.  And to that we can only respond: Thanks Be To God!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

"Forgiveness" - Reflections on the Parable of the "Unforgiving Servant" - Matthew 18:21-35

Read the Gospel Parable here: Matthew 18:21-35

Reflections on the Parable – “The Unforgiving Servant” – Matthew 18:21-35
The parables are like a large and beautiful diamond.  To focus one’s gaze on the parables is to gaze into the heart of the Kingdom of God.  Each of these parables give us a different view and help us to complete the picture of what God’s realm on earth looks like; and they help us to also see a little of who God is.  These images are often surprising, shocking and even offensive: God is like a sower who doesn’t really know how to sow; God is like an incompetent judge; God is like an employer who doesn’t know how to manage personnel.  God’s realm is a place where all of God’s people are a part of one community; where we have responsibility for each other; where the usual human cultural, racial and sexual divisions and stereotypes no longer apply.  God’s realm is a place of radical, illogical abundant grace, love and forgiveness.
The parable of the Prodigal Son gave us one glimpse of the abundant and radical forgiveness that God offers to us through Jesus.  Today our parable gives us another view and may add some more to the picture.  In the parable of the Unforgiving Servant we have a King who has slaves and one slave in particular has become substantially indebted to him.  The slave owes the king 10,000 talents!  Now, a talent was a measure of weight – roughly 130 lbs – which was used to measure out silver or gold.  In monetary terms 1 talent was equal to about 15 years of income for a 1st century peasant or farmer.  That would be 10,000 x 15 = 150,000 years of income.  This slave owes the king something somewhat equal to the US current national debt!  That is a lot of indebtedness!  The slave cannot hope to come close to paying this off.  He begs for forgiveness and it is granted.  The king forgives him the entire debt!  That is a lot to forgive!  The king (God) extravagantly and abundantly and illogically forgives!
And what does this slave do in response?  Well, he goes out and comes across a fellow slave who owes him 100 denarii and demands repayment.  Now slave 1 owed 10,000 talents; 1 talent is worth 15 years of income and 1 talent = 5,475 denarii.  So, if 10,000 talents are close in value to current US debt, 1 denarii would be like having $1,000 on a credit card that you can’t pay off.  It is a burden, but not really comparable to the trillions owed by the US to banks.  But slave 1 will not forgive and has slave 2 thrown into debtor’s prison.  Slave #1, by refusing to extend forgiveness, has just refused the forgiveness offered to him by the King.  Despite the extravagant gift offered to him by the King, he refuses it through his inability to extend the same gift, at a much smaller level, to another.  He chooses prison and darkness for himself and his family.  End of story…. Not really.
What about us?  “How much do I have to forgive?” asks Peter.  “77 times,” answers Jesus – which means there is no limit.  And that refusal to forgive will be a prison for us and for our families.  The 1st point of course is obvious – God’s forgiveness for us is abundant and extravagant and illogical.  God’s forgiveness of us is always available.  Can we accept it though?  Remember, the other parables have made it clear that we are interwoven with others in our community and refusal to forgive others is tantamount to rejecting God’s offer of forgiveness, which binds us and throws us into the darkness and prison of our bitterness and anger and nursing our hurts.  God offers us the opportunity to turn all of that over to God and to be freed from this prison of our own making.  This parable offers us a choice: can we accept the gift which God offers to us, which includes our being willing and able to turn our hurts over to God and offer forgiveness to those who have hurt us?  Or would we prefer to remain bound and in the darkness of our bitterness and anger, nursing old hurts and betrayals?
A couple of words about forgiveness: this is one of those Church words which gets bandied about so much that over time it takes on baggage that keep us from understanding what it really means.  1. Forgiveness does not mitigate consequences.  If you have been victim of a criminal act you might very well be able to come to a point where you can forgive the perpetrator, but this does not mean that then there are no consequences for either of you.  There may be serious consequences which you might need to live with for a long time.  When I broke my grandmother’s picture window playing baseball, my grandmother forgave me, but I still had to pay for the window. Forgiveness does not eliminate the consequences  2. Forgiveness does NOT mean – “forgive and forget!”  Repeat: Forgiveness does NOT mean – “forgive and forget.”  How this attitude ever developed I do not know.  But it is completely unbiblical.  When we forgive we need to have learned and grown through the experience – and the same with the one who we are forgiving.  This comes up all the time – but if forgetting is part of the equation then we will never move forward.  3. Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation.  We may be able to come to a point where we can forgive a hurt or betrayal which we experienced, but it does not necessarily follow that we can be reconciled with the perpetrator.  Maybe, but it is a different process. 4.  Who benefits from forgiveness?  It is not necessarily the one who is being forgiven.  The gift of forgiveness is a gift which God offers to us as a way of our being freed from the bondage and darkness and dungeon of holding grudges, seeking revenge, nursing hurts and so forth.
       Finally, forgiveness is a gift from God.  We cannot do it on our own.  We need to pray for God’s help in forgiving others, and in forgiving ourselves.  God is offering this gift to us abundantly and extravagantly, but too often we would prefer to turn our backs on the gift so we can continue to nurse the hurts and remain in the familiar surroundings of our prisons.  Slave #1 ultimately was unable to accept the extravagant gift that the king offered him.  What about us?  What hurts do we continue to nurse?  What and to whom do we need to offer forgiveness?  Are we ready to ask God to open our hearts and forgive so that we might be freed?  

     Have we as a nation come yet to the point where we can forgive the 9/11 terrorism attacks?  We have come a long way in 10 years: 2 wars, an economic meltdown (which is not unrelated), a new security regimen.  We have been profoundly changed.  So many beautiful and precious lives were lost; families profoundly changed.  There has been much that has been heroic and deeply moving; but there continues to be scapegoating of Muslims, the stupid burning of the Islamic Holy Book the Quran, the senseless outlawing of sharia law - all of which just continues to scapegoat and victimizes Muslims.  In some ways we are still in the darkness of the dungeons of anger and revenge.  But there is light too, there are stories of grace and self-giving.  Forgiveness on a personal level is hard; forgiveness on a national scale is even harder.  But yet God offers us the gift of forgiveness.  The light of this gift appears as a small light in the midst of the darkness, as a crack of the dungeon door.  I believe that it is in this that we find our hope.  God is with us - even in the midst of the aftermath of such a horrific event and God will effect healing and forgiveness.  It may take a long time - but we will move forward, we will experience healing and God will continue to shower us with God's love and grace.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

"The Tapestry of the Kingdom II" - Reflections on the Parable of the Rich Fool - Luke 12:13-21

Read the Parable of the Rich Fool here: Luke 12:13-21
Reflections on the Parable of the Rich Fool – Luke 12:13-21
Last week we focused on the Parable of the Friend at Midnight and saw that the parable was one that pointed to the importance of community.  It taught us that the Kingdom of God is a complex and colorful tapestry where all of God’s people are woven together and where we are all interdependent with each other.  As citizens of the Kingdom, or the Realm of God, we are linked one with another and we have responsibilities for one another.  This is not easy for us.  In our culture we celebrate independence and being self-sufficient.  But this “rugged individualism” takes a terrible toll on so many.  It leads to a lot of loneliness; it leads us to keep to ourselves; and it leads to a lot of individual greed.  And since we do not understand ourselves in relationship with a broader community many among us (including many of our political leaders) have lost any sense of corporate responsibility.  We are in it (life) for what we can get out of it and the game is played in such a way that getting ahead is to be done any way necessary – no matter who or how many others are hurt in the process – as long as me and mine get ahead.  Unfortunately, this very popular and prevalent view is condemned unequivocally by today’s parable.
The farmer in the parable for today has been very successful.  This year’s harvest has yielded better results than he had expected and he now has more than he can even store and maintain.  What to do?  Well, he (quickly) builds larger barns to store his grain and then congratulates himself on his wealth and cleverness.  So what is wrong with all of that? Why is he called a “fool?”  Isn’t he just being a responsible farmer?  Well, yes – so far so good.  The problem is not in his windfall per se, or even his efforts to manage it.  But rather, there are two problems with this man and his response – and it is these two things that prompt Jesus to call him a “fool.”  First, read through the passage carefully and notice all of the “I” statements: "What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?" … "I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul...."  As David Lose states:
The relentless use of the first person pronouns "I" and "my" betray a preoccupation with self. There is no thought to using the abundance to help others, no expression of gratitude for his good fortune, no recognition of God at all. The farmer has fallen prey to worshiping the most popular of gods: the Unholy Trinity of "me, myself, and I."
Within the context of the First Century, this is attitude actually runs counter to the culture and to Jewish Law and so would have been a surprise (though being self-centered was not new even back then).  But there were social and legal constraints on it.  For us, however, the attitude is not so unusual.  In fact we celebrate this kind of thing, don’t we?  But being a part of God’s Kingdom calls forth a different response: a response that sees individuals as part of a community; a response that calls forth a sense of responsibility for others.  Being a part of God’s Realm is being a part of a Tapestry where we are all – all of us, of different nationalities, races, social conditions and on an on – are linked and woven together.
So, the man is a fool because he sees only himself and his own needs and cannot see his connection with the community.  But, there is another issue also – again from David Lose:
He is not foolish because he makes provision for the future; he is foolish because he believes that by his wealth he can secure his future: "Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry."
In other words, he is guilty of idolatry.  His ultimate trust is placed in his possessions.  Possessions are good.  There is nothing wrong with possessions – until they take over our lives and we begin defining life in terms of our possessions.  And of this we are all guilty to some extent or another.  
Like the parable of the Friend at Midnight, the parable of the Rich Fool calls for us to recognize that we are part of the Tapestry of the Kingdom of God.  We are, as believers and followers of Christ members of a community, not just individuals.  Consequently, we have responsibility for others with whom we are interwoven and interdependent.  Additionally, this parable calls on us to look at our own habits of acquiring possessions and demands that we question whether we are placing too much faith in money or the things we own.  Ultimately it is Christ that saves us – not our money or our things.  Not only that, but all that we have and all that we own is not ours anyway – it is God’s.  And if we have been blessed by God then how do we respond in a way that gives thanks to God and is responsive to our responsibility as a part of God’s Tapestry?