Parables

No Guts, No Glory


Matthew 25:14-30 (NRSV)

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.

“The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’

“And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’

“Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.

‘For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ ”


This parable is a warning, and that is how I shall preach it.

In case you don’t know, the word “talent” in this story means a significant sum of money, certainly what we would think of as tens of thousands of dollars. The modern use of the word—for example, a “talented singer” or “a student with many talents”—developed from the way we traditionally interpret this parable.

Once we know what a talent is, the story itself is relatively straightforward. A wealthy man goes on a long journey and leaves different large amounts of money to what must be three very trusted slaves. We have to remember that in Jesus’ day, while slaves were owned by their masters, they sometimes did more than manual or household labor. It wasn’t unusual to have slaves managing significant business operations.

Two slaves double the investment they are given. One slave fails to earn so much as a little interest, and the master deems him useless for even menial tasks, casting him out.

Do I have to tell you this parable is not actually about money? Money is simply analogous to the gifts God gives us to use in the world as we help him grow his kingdom. Sometimes I talk in great detail about spiritual gifts, particularly if you’re in the Luminary 101 class. Let’s try to keep that conversation simple today.

God has some way of using you. First of all, you’re made in a particular way. That partially dictates how you can best work for the kingdom.

Since we just finished our long sermon series in Romans, I’ll use Paul as an example. Even before his conversion, Paul was clearly what we would call, in modern terms, a “Type A” personality: competitive, organized, ambitious, perhaps a little impatient. We also know he was studious, capable of processing and understanding complicated theological concepts.

Even after he came to believe in Jesus Christ, none of that really changed. God just began to use what was already there. A different make and model could not have traveled the same roads Paul traveled. So in one sense, our talents are stitched into us before birth and during our upbringing.

There’s more, though. Once we become followers of Christ, the Holy Spirit gives us new gifts. They work uniquely with how we are made. For example, the spiritual gift of discernment will be expressed differently in a detective than in a doctor, even though it is the same gift.

We know we are all called to lead others to Jesus Christ, so at a minimum, we all receive the same gift allowing us to spread the Good News. Paul certainly found himself newly equipped to evangelize for Christ.

There are many other possible gifts God may implant in us, too, gifts that make a real difference in growing the kingdom here on earth. I promise you, Christians, like the third slave in the parable, you each have at least one talent. It belongs to the master, not you, but you have been entrusted with it. It is worth a small fortune in the kingdom economy, where we trade commodities like love, grace, forgiveness, and healing.

That’s a lot of background to get to the real point of this parable. Fear is the third slave’s problem, and frankly, fear is our problem. Let’s think for a couple of minutes about what the first two slaves did; in the parable, their actions clearly match the master’s expectations. They “traded” with their talents to get a return.

What do we have to do to trade? Well, first we have to get out in the world. Even in today’s context, we need another person, at a minimum via an internet connection, if we’re going to do any trading. We have to find someone who wants what we’re offering.

This business of getting out into the world is what the third slave feared. He had no stomach for risk, not even taking advantage of the low-risk, low-return terms the bankers offered. The slave feared someone would take advantage of him, that he would make some sort of mistake that would cost him the talent he had been given.

I have heard people say they feel sorry for the third slave. I don’t. He knew who his master was, he knew what his instructions were, and in the end, he proved to be a coward. That’s why the master in the parable found the slave not just unfit for investment work, but completely unfit.

How strange it is that we can experience a similar kind of fear when considering how to use our talents to serve the master who offers eternal life. We genuinely have nothing to fear! Our master tells us, fear not! And yet, in the church we so often keep our faith within our walls, rather than seeking the people who need us.

People might reject what we offer, but we cannot lose what we have simply by engaging with the world. Even if we die, we cannot lose eternal life.

Everyone wants to see a miracle. Let me tell you about a miracle we can see with our own eyes. All we have to do is get out there and use our talents.

You will eventually find someone who accepts what Christ offers through us. You’ll then see love, grace, forgiveness and healing double in proportion. It is as if we are  giving away dollars, and every time our offer is accepted, a new dollar appears in our hand.

All who ask receive, but this is no zero-sum game. No one ever loses in a kingdom economy because the source of love, grace, forgiveness and healing is infinite and eternal.

The only risk for us is in not using our talents. According to the parable, that’s when talents can be snatched away, and that image of the servant cast into “outer darkness” is something we should fear. Have you considered what your talents are? Are you using them for the kingdom to the best of your ability?

Hurry, people, hurry! Even though it seems he has been gone a long time, we do not know when we will next face our master.


The featured image is Andrey Moronov’s “Parable of the Talents,” 2013, available through Wikimedia Commons.

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The Well-Guarded Path

Psalm 1 (NRSV)

Happy are those
   who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
   or sit in the seat of scoffers;

but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
   and on his law they meditate day and night.

They are like trees
   planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
   and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
The wicked are not so,
   but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
   nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;

for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
   but the way of the wicked will perish.


In Psalm 1, we have the beginning of a beautiful formula, a theological concoction that has intoxicated God seekers for thousands of years.

Understand God’s will and live according to it, and you will find joy, prospering in all you do. Ignore God’s will, and life will be misery and loss. It is the classic theme of Wisdom literature from the Near East.

The psalm is all about action-oriented choices. A different translation, one by Hebrew professor Robert Alter, captures the first lines more literally from the Hebrew:

Happy the man who has not walked in the wicked’s counsel,
     nor in the way of offenders has stood,
          nor in the session of scoffers has sat.

One chooses where to walk, or with whom to stand or sit. The metaphor then shifts to something very familiar for people raised in an arid climate, the image of fruit trees in need of water. Plant yourself in God’s law, the revelation of God’s will, the Psalm is saying, and like a tree near an always-flowing stream, you will bear fruit. Plant yourself too far from the source of life, and you will wither until dry and blow away.

On the surface, these are beautiful ideas, concepts that fit our desire for justice. Without further development, they can seem quite empty to us, though.

If the opening theme of Psalm 1 were the only theme of Scripture, I would have long ago discarded my study of the Bible. The idea being expressed does not match the reality of what we observe during most of our lifetimes.

Too often, the clearly good people suffer. Too often, it is the wicked who flourish and seem to have all the fruit. Fortunately, Psalm 1 is just one piece of an elaborate puzzle.

The Book of Job is an equally ancient piece of Wisdom literature, and it takes us in a whole different direction. You may remember the story of Job. As it begins, he fits the pattern described in Psalm 1. He is a righteous man, walking with God and prospering mightily in terms of family and wealth.

The problem arises when Satan goes to God and speculates that Job is righteous simply because life is so good for him. Let me strike at him, Satan says, and Job will curse you, God. First, Satan is allowed to strike Job’s possessions and family. Later he’s allowed to strike at Job himself, afflicting him with terrible diseases.

In all of this, Job does not curse God, and he does not relent in his assertion to friends that he has done nothing wrong. He does complain mightily at times, though, and once he begins, he moves beyond his own problems and complains about how the wicked flourish and abuse the righteous, including orphans and widows, and God seems to do nothing.

You reach a story like Job’s in Scripture, and you realize the Bible deals with some very deep subjects. We may not find satisfying answers in Job to these deep questions about evil’s persistence, but at least the questions are asked.

So, with its simple opening formula, is Psalm 1 irrelevant? No, not at all. Its theme is a beginning point for us to think theologically.

If you teach a child something, you have to begin in a simple place. There is good, and good is what we must pursue. There is evil, and evil must be avoided.

The later, more complicated questions we ask as we mature do not change how the early, simple lessons need to be structured. And as our spiritual understanding grows and matures, the Bible is there for us every step of the way.

This is why it is so important for us to engage with the Bible continually throughout our lives. If we hear what seem like simple stories and lessons as children, and never return to the Bible as we experience more and more of life, we will think Scripture is irrelevant. And in the process, we miss so much that is useful as we continue to live.

When Jesus arrives on the scene in the grand narrative of Scripture, his teachings seem designed to take us deeper while also simultaneously emphasizing the early truths we learn.

Parables are a good example. Jesus teaches in parables to perplex us until we ponder for awhile, and in pondering we discover powerful new truths. Through Jesus―God among us, Immanuel―we learn that God loves us in ways the Jews had scarcely imagined. God pours out on the world what seems, from our perspective, to be this most illogical love, a love unearned and undeserved.

At the same time, Jesus teaches us to never let go of what we learned from the start. We are to come to God with the faith of a child, trusting that the basic lessons found in places like Psalm 1 really are true.

Yes, in the end, righteous, good people really do prosper; in the end, wicked sinners have nothing but failure and loss.

You heard me say “in the end” twice there, of course. So often, answering our difficult theological questions simply is a matter of perspective. We are confused because in our grief, in our pain, we have trouble with the bigger picture, which again, Scripture provides.

If you’re paying close attention, even Psalm 1 alone offers that bigger picture. As the psalm ends, the wicked and the righteous get their just deserts at the judgment, rather than right away. The path of the righteous may seem difficult, at times, but it is well-guarded. God ensures it leads to eternity with him.

Thousands of years ago, even suffering Job sensed the bigger picture in the midst of all his pain. In the 19th chapter of his story, he suddenly says prophetically, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”

We are blessed to know Job’s Redeemer as Jesus Christ. Knowing Jesus and believing in Jesus, we will have both justice and joy, neither of which will ever depart from our lives for all eternity.

 

Eyes Open

A Parable of Jesus, from Luke 16:19-31 (NRSV)

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.

“The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.

“He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’

“He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’

“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”


Parables are most effective when we can see ourselves living in them in some way.

Having heard the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, you may be having trouble seeing yourself in the story. That’s understandable. Big lottery jackpot weekends aside, most of us don’t seriously imagine a life of great wealth and constant feasting. I suspect our basic psychological makeup also makes it difficult for us to imagine having fallen so low in life that we could end up lying in the street with festering sores, stray dogs the only creatures who seem to notice us.

And yet, I find this parable to be almost universally applicable.

Certainly, the lesson is taught through extremes of wealth and poverty. But at the same time, it’s not really about the dangers of wealth, nor does it somehow invest poverty with a kind of holiness. Instead, Jesus gives us a lesson for the heart.

Notice something about both men in the first of the parable. They simply are described in their respective states. There’s no evidence they interact; at no point does poor Lazarus actually ask the rich man for anything, and at no point is the rich man portrayed as having denied Lazarus anything. They simply are in proximity to each other.

The parable points out the danger of a terrible sin, a sin we seldom talk about. It is the sin of self-absorption, of being unable to see a need that is before us. It is the sin of unsearching eyes; it is the sin of walking past someone and not caring.

We tend to think, “It is what I do that could send me to hell, to an eternity separated from God.” Jesus is telling us something very different—there is tremendous danger in what we fail to do.

The extremes of wealth and poverty are in the story for a basic reason. They make clear the rich man has no excuse for his failure to act. With such wealth, he could have easily cared for the poor man who had wandered into his circle of influence. The rich man would not have missed what Lazarus required for restored health and a decent standard of living.

The rich man is not being condemned for failing to care for all poor people, just for failing to help the one at his gate. I’m reminded of the story of the thousands of starfish washed ashore on a beach, gasping and dying. A little girl walked the ocean’s edge, throwing starfish into the ocean.

A man came along and said, “Little girl, there’s no way you can save all those starfish!”

“You’re right,” she replied, throwing another one in the ocean. “But I saved that one.”

The rich man could have at least said of Lazarus, “Saved that one.”

Some may protest this interpretation by pointing out how we are saved by faith, not works, and on that point, I would agree. We can do nothing without the grace of God at work in us, and we receive God’s saving grace through a belief in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection.

Jesus intertwines faith and action in his teachings, however, presenting them as the rope that pulls us from the pit. This parable has much in common with Jesus’ teaching about the final judgment in Matthew 25:31-46, where he sorts the judged to his left and right—to damnation or eternal joy—based on how they treated the stranger, the poor, the sick and the imprisoned.

The lesson is the same in both accounts: Our actions best reveal whether our hearts rest near the bosom of Christ.

This teaching is good news! We are actually being invited to participate in God’s restorative work in the world. All we have to do is pray that the Christ who saves us also makes us intentional about seeing the brokenness around us. It’s a simple prayer: Lord, let me see, and then make it clear what I should do.

I once worked in a nonprofit relief organization with a woman who required a family to allow her to make a home visit before they could receive any significant aid. I asked her one day why she did that—I could tell some of the families felt they were being scrutinized or even judged.

She laughed, telling me that yes, some of them probably felt that way, but the home visits let her see the needs the families weren’t revealing. Even the poorest people in rural Upper East Tennessee are generally a proud bunch, and the problem there was getting them to ask for all the help our little nonprofit could provide.

When I understood what she was doing, I admired her approach. She was actively searching for need so she could see it and address it.

The end of the parable emphasizes the overall point. The rich man’s last request is that Lazarus be sent to his presumably rich brothers as a warning about the danger of their hard-heartedness. Abraham makes it clear that these lessons about compassion have already been delivered by Moses and prophets, and that men who failed to hear those ancient words would continue in their deafness “even if someone rises from the dead.”

And there again is the great danger of unseeing self-absorption. When we fall into it, we miss God entirely. In God’s greatest work in this world, Christ rose from the dead, but self-absorption can leave us blind to even this great miracle.

Be alert. Ask God to show you the broken people in this world and trust God to help you play some small part in undoing their suffering. Your open-eyed awareness has eternal implications.


The featured image is a detail from Fedor Bronnikov’s “Lazarus at the Rich Man’s Home,” painted in 1886.

The God of Little Things

Mark 4:26-34

Yes, the devil can be in the details. But God is there, too.

There are lots of places a preacher can go with Mark’s seed-related parables. I want to focus on one fascinating, comforting takeaway. The infinite being, the one mighty enough to make and stand outside the entire universe, has a powerful interest in what looks to us like the little parts of creation.

We actually have two parables here, but both focus on the mystery of life, the kind of life that sustains other life, a nurturing presence springing forth from the seemingly insignificant. No matter how technically sophisticated or scientific we become, a seed remains a wonder, bringing out childlike curiosity in most people.

We tend to think of spiritual beings acting for good or evil in grand, sweeping ways. The last time I preached, we talked about a vision of God’s majesty—his angels alone are enough to overwhelm. Jesus is reminding us that the battle between good and evil also occurs on a level we might consider “small,” although I wonder if such concepts as “big” and “small” mean much on that spiritual plane of existence.

Indeed, the devil seems to enjoy thinking small. Often, small is where he can do the most damage. All we have to do is think of a cancer cell, a malformation in a strand of DNA, to understand how evil can do great damage at a tiny level.

And yet, God promises his kingdom is erupting from similarly small places, spreading and growing until evil is ultimately destroyed. As we learn more about physics, it seems the universe’s tiniest parts are wired with God’s will, undergirding God’s plan. For example, quantum physics tells us that if two tiny particles ever interact with each other in a process called “entanglement,” they continue to influence each other, no matter how far they separate. From a theological perspective, this can say much about the power of relationships and prayer.

God’s emphasis on the small also says much about our need to pay attention to the little things, what we sometimes call the details. As Christians, we are quickest to have this conversation if talking about work ethic.

And work ethic is important. As I thought about this, my mind went to some news stories I’ve read in recent years about the discovery of the Titanic’s wreckage. Researchers have even recovered some of the pieces, and it has become clear the problem with the great ship was not in her massive decks, stacks or bulkheads, but in her tiniest parts. Her rivets were not manufactured properly, making them brittle and prone to shatter upon impact with an iceberg or any other solid object. Someone somewhere failed to pay attention to something small, and havoc ensued.

The importance of detail is true in our spiritual lives, too. I’m not saying we have to become obsessive, but we do have to pay attention to what may seem like the small aspects of our lives.

Are we allowing God to work through us in the small places? Is he the God of our world’s details?

How we interact with a child who can barely talk may not seem like an important practical matter. The child cannot hire us, fire us or affect us in any real way. But like seeds, children have tremendous power to bloom into something great in God’s kingdom. Words, looks and actions can be either water or herbicide to them. Our actions and words should tell them about the love of Jesus Christ even before they can say his name.

What we do with the socially small, the people with no influence or power, also is one of the great tests of how we are doing as Christians. Jesus worked through such people, choosing them to be his disciples, to share his power and perform his miracles. Ignoring them is very much like ignoring Christ, the source of eternal life.

And then there are the little details of our personal lives. Do we treat them as being important to God? Do we consult him through prayer and Scripture in the small things, or do we wait to run to him when the devil’s little cancer cell has reproduced and grown massive? Perhaps this is the deepest meaning of praying without ceasing, reaching a point where God’s will guides every second of our lives.

We are called to be mindful that nothing in creation is “small.” All of creation has the potential to glorify God; that means in all things great and small, there are infinite possibilities.

Through the Wilderness: Provisions

Exodus 16:1-8

Last week, as part of our Lenten journey, we headed off into the wilderness with the Israelites to see how they would grow in their understanding of God. They first learned to orient themselves in the easiest of ways, by keeping their eyes on the highly visible sign God gave them, a pillar of cloud and fire.

They quickly received another powerful sign, a story most people know, the parting of the Red Sea. Through this miracle provided by God, they were able to escape the pursuing Egyptian army by crossing the sea bed on foot. They even watched that army drown when the walls of water came crashing down.

You would think they would follow that clear sign of power through the desert with a mixture of astonishment and deep trust. We’ll find, however, that the Israelites were much like us—they were a worried, very human bunch. Astonishment and trust faded as soon as they became concerned their needs would not be met. Specifically, they became hungry.

God responded with the promise of provision. They didn’t even need to carry food with them on their journey. Instead, God told them, it would rain down on them as quail and manna, described later as a substance sounding a little like Frosted Flakes.

The lesson was pretty simple: God will provide. In fact, God wanted the Israelites to go to bed every night trusting his provision would be there for them the next day—no long-term planning needed on this journey. There was work to be done, but they always had enough. (He provided them with water in a similar way.) The one exception was when God sent them enough food for two days when the Sabbath came. God also wanted them to rest!

God still seeks the same kind of trust from us today. Pray this prayer with me: “Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread … .” Stop right there just a second.

Hmmmm. At least weekly in worship, and maybe daily, we lift up this prayer Jesus taught us to pray. Do we mean it? Do we live it? What does it mean to live as if we trust our bread will come on a daily basis?

The idea certainly conflicts with our 401K/pension plan/Roth IRA world. We’re taught to plan for our own provisions 40 years or more into the future, with all of that planning affecting when we can retire. We’re sometimes even left with the strange concern that we might live too long, running out of money in the process. How do we reconcile these two very different world views?

First, I’m reminded of one of Jesus’ parables. He begins telling it at Luke 12:16:

“The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘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, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Jesus said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.”

The big problem for the rich man, it seems, is not really hoarding, although he certainly is committing a serious sin when he hoards. He is deluding himself about how much control he has, in the process failing to understand his basic relationship to God. Preparation seems prudent, but we should never let go of this basic truth: We don’t control the future. And no amount of planning or stored provisions remove us from our need for God.

There also is the issue of how we use the resources we are given. Do we live as if this life is the only one that counts? Or do we live as people who believe something greater is happening—that God’s kingdom is truly arriving, and that the kingdom is where we store our true treasures and live out eternity!

John Wesley had a sermon, “The Danger of Riches,” that explained his idea of how to balance proper planning and trust in God. (He was working from 1 Timothy 6:9.)

In the sermon, Wesley said that God provides for the roof over our heads, food, and other basic needs, allowing us to ensure the well-being of our families and even our businesses, if we are people who operate them. Beyond those provisions, everything we are given counts as riches, and they have been given to us to use “to the glory of God.” Often, this means using our riches to help those who are less blessed materially, playing a role in God’s provision for people’s basic needs.

Even for a tither, this is a concept that requires thought. It forces a reassessment of every decision we make regarding how we handle our income and possessions, simply because we learn to say, “It’s not really ours, anyway.”

When we learn to make such decisions in the light of God’s dawning kingdom, we not only trust God daily, we begin to participate actively in the kingdom’s growth. We let God work through us so others see their daily bread arrive.

When all Christians adopt such an attitude, God’s presence will be as visible in this world as a pillar of cloud in the sky and Frosted Flakes on the ground.

Next week: The importance of perseverance.

The Oil Merchant

I’m not offering you a Sermon Short this week because I borrowed (and personalized) a sermon from J. Ellsworth Kalas’ “Parables from the Backside: Bible Stories with a Twist.” This is one of my favorite Kalas sermons, as it brings out some important points regarding Matthew 25:1-13 in a unique way. I was blessed to have Dr. Kalas as a preaching professor during my time at Asbury Theological Seminary. I admire him as a person and as a preacher, and I highly recommend any of his books for devotional reading and spiritual development. His title for this particular sermon is, “I Wish I Could Sell You More.”

FYI, I’ll be off the next couple of weeks, taking a little vacation time.

Unfair!

Matthew 20:1-16

Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard lets us thoroughly explore a subject we just barely began to touch upon last week. God’s grace can seem strange to us—perhaps even unfair.

There is no trick to interpreting what Jesus means in this parable. It’s just that confronting the plain meaning can be troublesome. Would you want to work all day in a field, see other workers arrive in the last hour and work alongside you, and then watch them receive the same pay as you? Any of us would be indignant.

Let’s explore that sense of injustice a little further. As is pointed out in the parable, the workers who bore “the burden of the day and the scorching heat” really don’t have a sound economic argument to make. They receive a fair wage, one clearly prearranged before they began work. They have not been cheated in any way.

No, their anger, their desire to cry “unfair,” seems rooted more in the simple fact that no one wants to feel like a fool.  They see what has happened and think to themselves, “I could have waited in the marketplace day labor camp until almost evening, done hardly any work at all, and gotten exactly the same amount of money.” Stupid, stupid, stupid!

There is a parallel in the Christian life. Some will receive God’s grace early, devoting their lives to Christ in the process. Some will come to Christ later. Some will come so late, perhaps on their deathbeds or in a last fleeting moment, that they leave little evidence in this life of their conversions. The reward is the same, however, eternal life with God.

And again, it is not hard for those who come to Christ early to perhaps feel a little indignant, deserving of something more, although it’s difficult to imagine what “eternal life with God plus more” might look like. The convenience store robber who pleads to Christ for salvation as he bleeds out from a bullet in his chest—he is equal in God’s eyes to Mother Teresa? Really?

When I was in seminary, a teacher illustrated this well, turning a mid-term exam into a lesson about God’s grace and the importance of not resenting what is given to others. Grace is a gift; it cannot be earned, only accepted.

If you study today’s parable and other texts illustrating the magnitude of God’s grace, the situation can become even more perplexing, particularly if you immerse yourself in a centuries-old argument. Is God’s grace so great that everyone will be saved?

Does God create some path, some sort of opportunity in this life or beyond, for everyone to see the work of Christ clearly and say yes to what is seen? One controversial early church father, Origen, built an elaborate argument that all creatures—even Judas, even the devil—ultimately will be restored to God.

I think no pastor can preach such an idea as biblically true. As attractive as the notion is, I cannot be a universalist. Now, I should acknowledge there are biblical texts that talk about the full and complete restoration of creation.   Romans 5:18, 1 Corinthians 15:22, Philippians 2:10-11 and Colossians 1:19-20 are sometimes cited as examples. But there also are many texts about hell and eternal separation from God for nonbelievers, some of those warnings in the same gospel where we find the parable of the laborers. The subject simply cannot be resolved in a clear enough way to establish doctrine.

The concept of salvation for all can shape our hopes, however. Can we sincerely desire eternal life for the worst people we can think of, perhaps the people who have wounded us most grievously?

Such questions serve as a litmus test for Christians, a way of determining if we’re able to reflect God’s love for all. Essentially, we’re trying to emulate the mind that makes possible John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

If you carry such hope in your heart, God bless you. You are a remarkable person. The rest of us may find we need to sink deeper into God’s incredible grace.

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To give credit where credit is due, my introduction to the idea of  of salvation for all as a matter of hope came from an article by Father Richard John Neuhaus in the August 2001 issue of the journal First Things, titled, “Will All Be Saved?