THE KINGDOM RESPONSIBILITIES TO THE UNWORTHY
There are some thought provoking truths in the stories and actions of those who are remembered in the history of our faith. However it occurs to me that a good part of the impact of each story depends on truth which comes to life for us when we realize the story teller lives by the words of that same truth.
Which brings us to today’s parable. It turns out that this particular parable is easily misinterpreted – sometime with unfortunate consequences.
The standard, and I suggest limited, way of looking at this reading from Matthew about the labourers and the vineyard is to use the story to gain insights about God. If for the owner of the vineyard you read God, then at one level the reading might be assumed to be telling us about the generous nature of God. The notion that turning to God’s truth shortly before the “roll is called up yonder” and still getting the same reward as those who had laboured in God’s service all one’s life no doubt at least holds out hope for the habitual sinner.
The only catch to this last minute recruitment story is that it rather misses what Jesus actually said. To think Jesus was using the story to teach about God is not just a shallow reading of the parable – it is even not paying attention to what Jesus was actually saying.
He does not in fact say God is like the landowner who goes out to hire labourers. What he actually says is that the kingdom of God is like a landowner …..
Remember in much of Jesus teaching he seems to be implying that the kingdom of God is the situation we become part of when we accept the call to follow.
In other words referring to the kingdom of God, instead of God, is really placing us as representatives of the landowner in the parable. After all, if in symbolic language we wish to identify with the kingdom of heaven, then the story may not so much tell us about how we hope God is going to treat us, but rather gives us a clue as to how we might treat others.
If we are serious about accepting the parable, perhaps it is asking us to offer our generosity, not just to our church leaders and established members…but caring just as much and offering just as much respect and assistance to those who have just turned up. I remember once asking a Church conference how many of those present came from churches where young people were given responsibility in their respective leaders’ meeting? I won’t tell you what the question revealed but perhaps you can guess.
I suspect that for established Christians in some types of Churches the parable might even run contrary to normal Church practice particularly if the Church in question is hierarchical in the sense that Church leaders are treated with great respect. My impression is that the newcomer to a hierarchical church is not treated in quite the same way that those who have gradually worked their way up the leadership ladder. Perhaps the implied moral of Jesus’ parable is not always popular because it teaches something which doesn’t quite fit with the way many people like to welcome newcomers to the faith.
For example for a period of several centuries some branches of Christianity taught that “the last shall be first” meant that just so long as you confessed just before your death it didn’t matter much what you did during your lifetime. The difficulty here is that this implies that religion has nothing to offer this life. There is also the problem that the next life, whatever that might mean, is largely a matter of speculation in that there are just about as many beliefs about the nature of what the word heaven is intended to mean as there are versions of Christianity.
Even although Jesus’ parable has been around a long time not all those who attend Churches necessarily see it as having anything to do with their behaviour.
I want to give three examples of Church congregations which demonstrate what can happen. The first is something told to me about one particular Church where a woman said that she had shared with another woman saying that after twelve years she felt she was just beginning to be accepted as part of the congregation. The woman she confided to responded that she had been attending for even longer and she still felt she was not quite accepted.
My second example is a personal one. When I started teaching at Wesley College many years ago I used to take services regularly as a lay preacher at one particular small country Church. They were lovely folk – but never once did Shirley and I get invited to a congregation member’s house. What is more I noted that other visitors had the same reception – almost as if they had to have done the long service before qualifying for proper friendship. Unfortunately it didn’t immediately occur to us that we were just as free to offer hospitality. When we shifted to Papakura, Shirley and I went somewhat tentatively to a nearby Church on a Sunday morning where we were not only greeted and made to feel extremely welcome but we were also invited to a meal on the first day. Needless to say we reciprocated and started attending that Church seeing it as a place of friendship. Now years later I wonder what might have happened in the little country Church if my wife and I had done more to invite members of the congregation to our home.
My third example happened at another Church in our neighbourhood where I was told an elderly woman had arrived as a newcomer and after two or three weeks announced to the congregation that since she really knew nobody, she had divided the congregation up into manageable groups and was inviting first those with surnames A to L to her house for a pot luck meal. According to my informant this has had a transforming effect on the friendliness of the congregation.
Yet in every walk of life this seems to be the exception rather than the rule.
The kingdom of God is like……
….Well it certainly can’t remain like words in a book – even clever words like the words of Jesus in a Bible. Stories and uplifting words can give encouragement ….but they are a poor substitute for the real thing: the lived faith.
If the kingdom of God is the equivalent of the open hearted landowner who does not demand extended evidence of extended genuine effort before giving a full measure in return, then perhaps one message we might receive from the parable is that it is not so much a description of our entitlement – but rather guidance to us on how to treat others.
What would an election be like if those who claimed to be Christian chose their political affiliation first and foremost on how the policies looked after not so much our own interest but rather the interests of those who were the most vulnerable, the late comers to our communities. Whether or not we are aware of Jesus’ words in the parable is not then the point. Rather the issue is: would this attitude Jesus identified of treating even latecomers with due concern and consideration whether they had recently arrived or had been here for the long term be what others would notice in our behaviour..
To be truthful I am not sure whether this parable represents workable economics in the narrow sense of the word, but there are other values in life which we instinctively know matter more than the exchange of money.
I said at the outset that those who offer wise stories or thoughtful observations are much more likely to have impact if we know they are living their truth. I would like us then to think for a moment about Rabbi Hugo Grynn. Rabbi Grynn was a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz where he had been sent as a small boy.
I know only one of his insights …. A key phrase “We will be judged by how we are to people to whom we owe nothing.” He had won the right to speak that phrase because for most of his life he was one who lived this principle as a campaigner for refugee rights.
From Auschwitz Hugo Grynn moved to the United Kingdom, where he worked first to become a Rabbi and from that point to become one of the United Kingdom’s most respected spiritual leaders, writers and broadcasters. He was entitled to his view because in his life it was clear he cared about those who deserved nothing from him.
What of us and our dealings with people to whom we owe nothing. When we reflect on how we are going with such people, what do we see? How are we are towards people such as the very old, the very young, the disabled, those who don’t sound educated or who appear to be new immigrants, the strangers, those who have fallen from grace – alcoholics – and yes the unemployed…..those still waiting for employment chances at the end of the day because they weren’t seen as employable in the first selection. Would others see those kingdom characteristics in us?
If Jesus shows by his dealings with those who represented the undeserving that in the kingdom of God there is a place for such people – then we too – if we claim membership in the kingdom of God, should also be making our offer to the people to whom we owe nothing.
As a guiding principle it is not only of value because it affords dignity and worth to all people regardless of their circumstance; but more than this it is of value because it as a by-product we may just discover authentic meaning and purpose whatever we might previously have thought about our status and power.
In the parable of the labourers in the vineyard, the landowner is thoughtful of the undeserving – first of all in choosing workers originally passed over – but then in giving those workers more than they technically deserved. It may be true that the people were in fact owed virtually nothing.
Even if it is not what we might have done – we can sense the basic goodness in such an approach. But then the story of Christianity through the centuries is one of handing on the mantle. The landowner and the labourers story is a story of the kingdom of God to which we too might aspire. How will we in our turn make our offer to people to whom we owe nothing?
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