Matthew 21:23-32 (a sermon for Back to Church Sunday)

Today, in many different countries around the world, thousands of Christian churches are observing ‘Back to Church Sunday’. The idea behind the day is simple: regular churchgoers invite friends, who are not normally in the habit of churchgoing, to come and join them for worship. It’s not meant to be a big song and dance, and we’re not meant to put on a show that’s hugely different from what we normally do on a Sunday. It’s simply an invitation for people who may be standing on the edge of the swimming pool to put their toe in and see if they like the temperature of the water. Some might decide they like it, and dive right in. Others might say, “No thanks”, and turn away instead.

But some may well ask, “Isn’t this really just about recruiting? Aren’t you just trying to get more people to come to church and put more money into the collection plate? After all, we’ve all heard the statistics about how church attendance is declining; isn’t this ‘Back to Church Sunday’ just a desperate attempt to reverse those statistics so that you won’t have to close down more struggling churches?”

That’s a fair question, and there’s actually an even bigger one behind it: what is it that we actually want to see happen in the lives of those we have invited to come to church with us today? Is it just about persuading more people to join us for services each week? Is it just about getting more volunteers to help out with our job roster, and more money to help us meet our budget? Or is it deeper than that? Is it in any way about God, and about Jesus, and about the enrichment and transformation of our daily lives?

To answer this question we need to think about the reading we just heard from the Gospel of Matthew, and I need to start by filling in some back story for you.

Today’s reading comes toward the end of the biography of Jesus that Matthew wrote. Jesus and his followers have made a pilgrimage from Galilee in the north, where most of them live, down to Jerusalem for the annual festival of Passover. We who know the whole story of Jesus know that this story is going to end a few days later with his death and resurrection, but of course most of those who are actual participants in the narrative don’t know that yet.

At this time of year, crowds of pilgrims were streaming into Jerusalem for the festival, but when Jesus and his followers arrived they did something unusual. One of the prophets of the Old Testament, Zechariah, has a passage in which he talks about Jerusalem’s king coming to the city in humility, riding on a donkey. And so Jesus took a donkey and rode it into the city; his followers waved palm branches and shouted ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’. The title ‘Son of David’ was another way of saying ‘The Messiah, the anointed one’ – that is, the king God had promised to send to set his people free.

When he arrived in the city Jesus went straight to the Temple. In the outer court he found the place full of merchants who were changing money and selling animals for sacrifices and so on. Jesus drove them all out, kicking over the tables and acting as if he owned the place. “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’”, he told them, “but you are making it a den of robbers” (Mt. 21:19). Jesus then sat down in that very place; crowds of people surrounded him, and he taught them and healed the sick.

Now, how would you feel if you were one of the legitimate authorities in the temple, and this upstart with a funny accent had come charging into your domain and taken over the facility? To Jewish people it would have been clear that Jesus was acting as if he was the Messiah – the one God had sent to be the king who would set his people free. That would be a clear challenge to the existing authorities, and they didn’t like it.

And so, in today’s reading, the leaders come to Jesus and challenge him: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (v.23). In other words, “Uh, remind us of who you are, exactly? Who made you the boss of the Temple? Which royal court were you born in? A manger in Bethlehem, you say?!!!”

Jesus’ reply sounds strange to us, as if he’s avoiding the question, but in fact it would have been crystal clear to the original hearers. “I’ll ask you a question first; if you can answer it, then I’ll answer your first question. Tell me – when John the Baptist came preaching about the Kingdom of heaven and baptizing people, where did he get his authority from? Was it from God, or was it just an idea he and his followers dreamed up out of their own heads?”

Now the leaders were in a tight spot. They were standing in the Temple surrounded by a mob who venerated John the Baptist as a true prophet of God. If they said what they really believed – “We think he was a fake” – the crowd would probably riot. If they lied and said, “Of course we believe he was a true prophet”, then they would be admitting that Jesus was also a true prophet, because, you see, it was John who had baptized Jesus! At that baptism, the Holy Spirit of God had filled Jesus, and a voice from heaven had said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased”.

Now some of you are sitting there in your pews listening to me impatiently and thinking, “This is all very interesting, but what’s it got to do with the question of Back to Church Sunday and what you want to see happen in our lives?” Well, the moment has arrived to answer that question!

Here’s the issue: ‘Who does this Jesus think he is?’ The chief priests and elders asked it because he rode into their city like a king, marched into their Temple, drove out the legitimate businesses they had licensed to be there, and took it over as his private classroom! But if you hang around a Christian church long enough, you might ask that same question for a different reason. You might notice that we call Jesus ‘Lord’, that we bow at his name, that we venerate his words over all the other words in the Bible. You might notice that we pray our prayers ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord’ and that on most Sundays we remember his death by enacting a ceremony with bread and wine as he told us to. And you might well ask, ‘Who do these people think Jesus is?”

The answer is, we think he’s God. We think that, in some mysterious way, the God who created everything that exists actually came to live among us as a human being on this planet. He was like an author writing himself into his own story, while at the same time continuing to exist outside the story as the supreme originator of the whole narrative.

Now you might find this an outrageous idea, and you may find it hard to understand how anyone could believe it. But what I want to say is this: this is one of the things we want to see happen in the lives of the people we’re trying to reach. We want to help people grapple with the question of who Jesus is. We want to help people look at the story of his life, the sort of person he was, the way he reached out to the poor and marginalized, the women and children, the lepers and the ones no one else had time for, the way he related to ordinary people, and the things he taught about what God was like and what life was all about.

But we also want to help people come to terms with some of the things Jesus said about himself: the way he assumed he had authority to forgive sins, for instance, or the way he claimed to be the one who had sent the prophets and preachers of hundreds of years ago, or his claim that he and God the Father were one, and if you had seen him you had seen the Father.

How do we make all this fit together? What do we do with a man who lives such an attractive and godly life – who says such wise and powerful things – and yet seems to have this fundamental megalomania about his own identity? What if the answer is that his claims – his direct and indirect claims – are true? What if God has come among us to show us the way and to save us from ourselves? Well, then, I’m sure you’d agree that if that is who Jesus is, it would be important for us to listen to him, and to follow him.

You might say, “Well, I’m not there yet. I’m prepared to consider the question, though, so what’s the next step for me?” Well, let’s read on in the gospel text for today.

Even though the religious leaders took the safe way out and refused to answer Jesus’ question, Jesus wouldn’t let the matter rest. He told a story to make a point (if you start looking into Jesus you will find that this is something he does quite often!). In this story, a man told his two sons to go and work in his vineyard. The first said, “I don’t think so”, but later on he changed his mind and went. The second said, “Sure!” but then did nothing about it. “Which of the two did the will of his Father?” Jesus asked. The answer was obvious and the leaders couldn’t avoid it: it was the first.

Jesus’ reply was devastating:

“Truly, I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him” (vv.31-32).

To the surprise of the chief priests and the elders, Jesus had them pegged as the ones who said they would work in the vineyard, but then didn’t! But when John had preached his message, hundreds of so-called ‘sinners’ had listened, and believed, and changed their lives. They were like the son who at first had refused to work in the vineyard, but had then repented and done what his father asked.

This is what Jesus wants – he wants people not just to think or talk about doing the will of his Father in heaven, but to actually roll their sleeves up and get busy doing it. And if we ask “What is the will of the Father in heaven?” Jesus is not shy about answering our question. The big picture is that we are to love God with everything in us and love our neighbour as ourselves. The detailed picture involves not accumulating lots of luxuries, but living simply and giving to the poor instead. It involves forgiving those who sin against us and learning to love not only our friends but also our enemies. It involves keeping our promises and being a person of our word – looking out for people in trouble and helping them – living to please God instead of trying to be popular with everyone else – and so on, and so on.

You see, coming to church is the easy part! We’d love to think that some of you who are our guests today would come back and join us on a regular basis, but that’s only the beginning. What we’re really about is helping people figure out who Jesus is, and then helping them to follow Jesus by learning to do the will of the Father in their daily lives.

So let me close with a suggestion. I make this suggestion not just to our guests, but to our regular members too, because I’ve learned over the years that regular churchgoers aren’t always as sure about Jesus as I’d like to think they are!

Here’s my suggestion. Maybe you’re not sure you believe in God. Maybe you believe in God but you’ve always thought Jesus is just a human being, not the Son of God or anything like that. Now today you’ve heard me say that it really matters who we think Jesus is, and this has got you wondering whether or not there’s more to Jesus than you thought.

I suggest you do two things. First, pray to God for help. Maybe you’re not even sure God is there; that’s fine. A prayer something like this would be good.

“God, I’m not even sure whether or not you exist, and if you do, I’m not sure whether Jesus is your Son – whatever that means – or if he’s just an ordinary religious leader, or if he’s a charlatan or a lunatic or something worse. But I really want to know. So I’m going to try to find out, and I want you to make it clear to me. Please help me to know whether or not you are real and whether or not Jesus is your Son. Amen”.

The actual words aren’t important – God knows what’s on your heart – but something like this will do the trick.

Here’s the second thing. There are four biographies of Jesus in the Bible – the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. John is a bit harder to understand, but the first three, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are very accessible. Pick one of them – it doesn’t matter which one – and commit yourself to reading from it every day. But here’s the catch. I can guarantee you that on some days, in the passage you read, there will be some command of Jesus that jumps off the page and hits you between the eyes. If that happens, stop reading right away, think about what it would mean for you to obey that command, and then ask God to help you obey it.

Does that sound radical? I believe that anyone who starts making a serious attempt to actually put the teaching of Jesus into practice will sooner or later discover for themselves that Jesus is in fact who Christians say he is – the Son of God. And on the other hand, I think that people who are only willing to study Jesus on an intellectual level – or who are only willing to become churchgoers, and nothing more – will not be in a position to receive any sort of revelation from God about who Jesus is. They’ll be like the son who said he would go and work in the vineyard, but then didn’t.

So this is what we want to see happen. We don’t just want more people to come to our church, although we’d be glad if that happened. We want more people, in and outside the church, to understand who Jesus is, and to commit themselves to doing the will of the Father as Jesus has explained it to us. We believe that’s how God is changing the world, one life at a time. That’s what Christianity is all about, and that’s what Back to Church Sunday is all about too.

Ministers and Politics

Yesterday a friend whose opinion I respect questioned me about my decision, some months back, to go public on Facebook with my support for the Green Party of Canada. He was surprised that I felt it appropriate for a minister to do something like that.

Personally I don’t think my statement would have come as a big surprise to any of my friends. And my sense is that the St. Margaret’s congregational family were not in any way offended by it. We have members in our church from all political parties, and we seem to manage to get along with each other. I’m not offended or threatened by those in our church who vote Conservative, Liberal or NDP, or (provincially) Wild Rose. I trust that they’ve all thought carefully about their vote in the light of the teaching of Jesus, and they’ve made the decision that seems best to them. I hope they feel the same way about my decision.

I was, however, somewhat surprised to be getting invites from Facebook friends to ‘like’ pages supporting Stephen Harper and other Conservative politicians. I wanted people to stop inviting me to support a political party that they ought to have known (if they had known me better) that I do not support. That’s why I made the simple statement that I intended to vote Green in the next election, and I don’t anticipate that anything will change that. I consider our stewardship of the earth that God created to be the biggest moral issue facing Christians today, and I am using my vote accordingly.

But I would be interested to hear from members of St. Margaret’s, and other church members, on the subject tot whether or not they feel it was appropriate of me (as a minister) to declare my political opinion in public as I did. Were you offend by it, or were you entirely okay with it? I’m genuinely interested.

‘Patrick Spens’ – a rewrite

You have to have a particular kind of hubris to attempt a rewrite of an iconic traditional folk song like ‘Sir Patrick Spens’, I guess – especially with the ghosts of all who have done it before peering over your shoulder!

There are several older versions of the song in the Child Ballad collection here. Mainly Norfolk has a recording history of the song and a number of later adaptations of the lyrics, including what I think is one of the two best modern versions, by Martin Carthy. The other really excellent modern version is by Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer, with a tune which I think is their own creation; you can watch them perform it here.

My rewrite owes a lot to Carthy’s wordings, although I have drastically shortened it and changed the story at a couple of points. I’m still working on a tune for it, but it will work well with Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer’s tune. Here’s my first draft.

Patrick Spens

The king sat in Dunfermline town,
Drinking the blood-red wine
He said, “I need a mariner
To sail this ship of mine.
So send word for Sir Patrick Spens
To come at my command
For he’s the finest mariner
who ever sailed from land”.

When Patrick heard the King’s good word
His face turned grey with fear
“To Norway far we cannot sail,
It’s too late in the year”.
“To Norway you must go for me”
The King gave this decree,
“For you must go to meet my bride
and bring her home to me”.

“Prepare the ship”, Sir Patrick cried,
“We sail all in the morn,
through sun or sleet, through hail or wind,
through fair or deadly storm”.
But up and spoke an old ship’s hand,
“I fear we’ll come to harm
For/I saw the new moon late last night,
The old moon in her arm.”

They had not sailed a day or two,
I’m sure it was not three,
When all around the sky grew dark
And roared the raging sea.
Then Patrick stood on the quarterdeck
And took the helm in hand,
While/the lookout climbed the masthead tall
And tried to find the land.

“Oh make me a web of good sailcloth,
Another web of twine,
And lay them round our good ship’s side
Let not the sea come in”.
So they got a web of good sailcloth,
Another web of twine,
And laid them round the good ship’s side,
But still the sea came in.

Oh the rigging snapped, the topmast cracked,
the spars came crashing down,
And the raging seas swept o’er the ship
and whirled it all around
And the gale blew hard from north north east
So loudly did it sweep,
As Patrick Spens and all his men
Were drowning in the deep.

And long, long the King will sit
His sceptre in his hand
Before he sees Sir Patrick Spens
Come sailing back to land.
It’s east by north from Aberdeen
The good ship they must seek,
For/there lies Sir Patrick Spens,
Fifty fathoms deep.

 

Unfair Grace

This sermon is based on Matthew 20:1-16

I’ve heard it said that many people know the words of ‘Amazing Grace’ better than they know our national anthem. Isn’t it incredible that a hymn written in the eighteenth century still has such staying power today? And what’s even more incredible is the fact that ‘Amazing Grace’ is one of the most requested hymns at funerals! Why is that incredible? Well, at funerals most people want to talk about how good the dead person was, and how they’re now being rewarded in heaven for the good life they’ve lived.

It’s amazing the lengths to which people will sometimes go to give this impression. The story is told of the children in a prominent family who decided to give their father a book of the family’s history for a birthday present. They commissioned a professional biographer to do the work, carefully warning him of the family’s ‘black sheep’ problem – Uncle George, who had been executed in the electric chair.

“I can handle that situation so that there will be no embarrassment”, the biographer assured the children. “I’ll merely say that Uncle George occupied a chair of applied electronics at an important government institution. He was attached to his position by the strongest of ties and his death came as a real shock”.

Well, that may be a little far-fetched, but I’ve officiated at a lot of funerals over the years, and I can tell you, there’s a lot of creativity that goes on! How strange, then, that people so often want to sing a hymn by John Newton, a converted slave trader. Newton wanted the world to know that he had been an undeserving wretch for the first twenty years of his life, but nevertheless, God had reached out to him and given him a free gift, a gift he did not and could not ever deserve! His life was an illustration of a saying of Jesus’ that is repeated more often than almost any other in the gospels, and is in our Gospel reading for today: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). In other words, don’t think you can predict who will be the first in the Kingdom of God by outward appearances, because this isn’t about human achievement; it’s about God’s free gift.

To illustrate this point, Jesus told the story of the workers in the vineyard. Some of the details in this story seem very strange to us, but in fact this is just the kind of thing that could happen regularly during the grape harvest in Israel. Storms could easily ruin the crop and it was important to get the harvest in as quickly as possible. And so, for a time, anyone who wanted a job could have one. The work was hard; working hours were from dawn to sunset, which in a Mediterranean country means a twelve-hour day. The wage was a standard one, a ‘denarius’ or silver coin. A denarius was the average daily wage for a worker, but it’s important to know that it was also the average cost of daily survival for the masses of poor families in Israel. It didn’t allow any room to manoeuvre; a denarius would buy your family what they needed to stay alive, no more and no less: basic food on the table, but not Shaw cable or Internet service!

During the grape harvest, the day labourers would go to the marketplace and stand around; it was like going to an employment centre in the morning to look for a job for the day. If they were hired, they would work the twelve hours, and then they would be paid at the end of the day so that each man could go home with money to buy food for his family. If a man was unable to find work on a particular day, then his family would not eat. If he found work for only a part of the day, and thus was unable to earn a whole denarius, his family would eat, but not enough to stave off hunger pangs.

Thus far, there are no surprises in Jesus’ story. But now come a couple of unexpected twists, and these are the details that would have stood out for the people who first heard the parable. So let’s spend a few minutes looking at these unexpected features in the story.

First surprise: It was not the custom for the owner of a vineyard to go himself into the marketplace to hire workers. The usual practice would be for the owner to send his manager, or some other employee. In fact later on in the story, when the time comes to pay the workers, we do see the owner working through his manager in this way; if you look in verse 8 we read ‘When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay”’’. But when it came to the actual hiring, he went out into the marketplace and looked after it himself.

So what we have here is a very unusual boss. He actually cares about the down-and-outs in the marketplace who are desperate to earn a silver coin so that they can feed their families for the day! He cares about them so much that he goes out, not once, but five times during the day to see if there is anyone there, standing around looking for work.

What is this telling us about God? The gospel teaches us that God doesn’t stay far off in heaven, safely insulated from the pain and sin of a broken world. Jesus told us that God is like a shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep who are safe in the fold and goes out into the wilds to look for the lost one. And of course in that story Jesus is describing himself. We Christians believe that this is who Jesus is: in him, God has come among us to search for the lost. He cares about every human being in this world, and so he has come among us to live and die so that we can come home to him.

To be frank, this doesn’t fit into some people’s ideas of what God is like. Years ago I had the privilege of knowing Archbishop Ted Scott, who was the primate of the Anglican Church of Canada from 1971 to 1986; I use the word ‘privilege’, because I always found Ted to be a very humble and compassionate and Christlike man; he hated being called ‘Your Grace’ and much preferred people just to call him ‘Ted’! He liked to tell the story of how, when he was a minister in Winnipeg in the late 1940s, he helped to fill sandbags during a major flood. Someone recognised him working there, came up to him and said “You don’t look like a minister today!” To which Ted replied with the crucial question: “So what does a minister look like?”

And this of course is the problem a lot of the Jewish people had with Jesus. He didn’t look like God; he looked like an ordinary wandering preacher who spent time with the wrong people. But if they had come to him and said “You don’t look like God today!” I wonder if he would have replied, “What does God look like?” Maybe it’s our image of God that is wrong. Maybe we’ve pictured him too far away and have never imagined him getting involved in the dirt and pain of everyday life. If he’s like the vineyard owner in Jesus’ story, then he certainly does get involved in it. That’s the first surprise.

Here’s the second surprise: Everyone, even the latecomers, gets a full day’s pay. Of course, that was what the contract said. They’d all agreed to work for a denarius. But when the ones who had worked all day long saw the eleventh-hour types getting a denarius, they naturally thought that they themselves would get a lot more. After all, they’d worked twelve times longer!

We can certainly sympathise with their thinking. In fact, a few years ago there was a very similar story in the news in Canada. A lawyer who divorced his wife had agreed to a certain level of child support for each of his two children. However, he had then gone on to become extremely wealthy, to the point that he could well afford to give much more than the legal agreement specified. He refused to do so; he argued that he was not breaking the law, he was giving exactly what he had agreed to give, and they should be satisfied with that. But we might well agree with his ex-wife and children when they argued that a man making over a million dollars a year ought to give a lot more than he had originally agreed to. And that’s the situation these workers were in. Of course the owner had a contract with them for a denarius a day, but surely if he was going to give the latecomers the same wage, then he was morally obligated to give them a lot more, wasn’t he?

Their problem was that they understood the money as a wage, and it makes sense that they would see it that way. But consider this: is a landowner who gives a full day’s pay to someone who has only worked for one hour paying a wage? Of course not: he’s giving a gift. Paying them all at prime rate was not an economic decision; it was an act of grace: amazing grace.

And it’s the same with our place in the Kingdom of God. We are citizens of the Kingdom of God today, not because of anything good we have done, but because of God’s free gift of grace to us. It was secured for us long before we were born, when Jesus gave his life on the cross for our sins. What he did there for us was a perfect work, to which nothing needs to be added. We don’t have to earn it; in fact, nothing I could do in my entire life would ever be enough to earn it.

John Newton understood this; that’s why he wrote that first line, ‘Amazing grace – how sweet the sound – that saved a wretch like me’. A man who uses the word ‘wretch’ to describe himself obviously doesn’t buy into the idea that we’re all basically wonderful people who just need a little more education before we get all the problems of the world sorted out. No; he understood that there’s a basic flaw in human nature; ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’, as Paul puts it in Romans 3:23. This sin is not primarily about sex or drugs or stealing or cursing; it’s about selfishness and self-centredness. In the English language the word ‘sin’ has an ‘i’ in the centre of it, and when I put myself at the centre of the universe, then I am living a wretchedly sinful life.

But we don’t like to face that fact about ourselves. I’m sure that the people in the religious establishment who first heard Jesus tell this story were quite sure that they were the labourers who had started work at six in the morning; they weren’t the shirkers who only worked an hour. They had earned God’s love by their years of keeping commandments; God owed it to them to give them the best seats in the kingdom.

They needed to have their eyes opened to the reality of the situation. In verse 15 the landowner asks these workers, “Are you envious because I am generous?” In the original language, the words are “Is your eye evil because I am generous?” This is the real problem: a flawed vision. We think the world is divided into good people and bad people; the good people go to heaven and the bad people go to hell. Jesus thinks that the world is made up of sinners who all need to be forgiven and loved; there’s no room for me to point a finger at someone else, because I’ve got plenty of faults of my own to worry about.

So let’s get out of our minds the whole concept of what we deserve; the kingdom of God does not operate on that basis. C.S. Lewis once received a letter from someone who was complaining about an evil act that had been done to them, and was praying that God would give the perpetrator ‘his just deserts’. Lewis replied gently “I would rather pray for God’s mercy than God’s justice – for my enemies, my friends, but most of all for myself”.

The good news is that God doesn’t give us what we deserve – he gives us what we need, whether we deserve it or not. And that’s the whole point of the fact that every worker was given a denarius. As we said, a denarius was what a family needed in order to survive. Those who had worked only for an hour may not have deserved a denarius, but if they didn’t get it, their families would go hungry that night. So the owner gave them what they needed. And that’s what God has done for us in Jesus. That’s the wonder of the gospel: I may be a wretch, but God’s amazing grace has saved a wretch like me. I may be a sinner but, as the letter to Timothy says, ‘The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1:15). That’s good news; it means we all qualify.

In the first half of the twentieth century a Christian worker called Sister Doreen Gemmel worked for many years in central London among the prostitutes. When the respectable people in the London churches asked her how she could do it, she always replied “I keep reminding myself of this one truth: the ground is level at the foot of the Cross”. In other words, none of us comes to Jesus at a higher level than anyone else. At the end of the day – at the end of every day – all I can do is come to him with the words of the confession: “I have not loved you with my whole heart, and I have not loved my neighbour as myself”. The miracle is that when we come to him day by day, asking for mercy, forgiveness and grace, we receive it – over and over and over again.

But the catch is that we all receive it in exactly the same way – not because we’ve earned it, but because of God’s generous love. ‘The first shall be last, and the last first’. The ones who you think would deserve more end up receiving exactly the same gift as the ragamuffins and scumbags who sincerely cry out to God for his mercy and grace, because God has the generosity to give us, not what we deserve but what we need. That’s what grace is all about. And I, for one, am very thankful for it.

More on Bombings and Beheadings

Edmonton Ecumenical Peace Network board member Ike Glick had this letter published in the Edmonton Journal Friday September 19th:

Re: “Are beheadings a sign of miscalculation or desperation?” Commentary, Richard Spencer, Sept. 15

The West has been embarrassed by the ultimate put-down and the powerless feeling imposed by the beheadings of Western captives by ISIS. It is not hard to get consensus that “something must be done.”

But it is not likely that the bombing response will be any more effective than the Bush administration’s knee-jerk overreaction to the 9/11 embarrassment has been. Somehow the current response seems similar.

While giving the West a semblance of taking control and a hubristic demonstration of power, there has been no apparent attempt to understand the deep resentments toward the West by much of the world, nor recognition that our response only intensifies those resentments. By what logic do we imagine that repeating a more intense version of what didn’t work after 9/11 will be effective now?

Is the West’s conventional response because we lack the imagination for any other approach? Or just because we can? Perhaps we fear being reminded of our exploitive economic policies that favour the West and continue to make the rich richer at the expense of the poor, including unfair minimum wage levels in our own country.

Whatever the reason, a negotiated conversation with ISIS leadership, if such is possible, might at the very least provide some clues as to why young Canadians are being enticed to their ranks.

Ike Glick, Edmonton

Interestingly enough, it seems as if at least one Post Media writer might agree with some of what Ike has to say. In Friday’s Edmonton Journal Michael Den Tandt wrote:

OTTAWA – Tom Mulcair is deeply uncomfortable with the precious little we know, so far, about Canada’s involvement in the expanding war between the West and the Islamic State. He wants answers, more debate and a vote. For his troubles he will be dismissed as a naïf, willfully blind to the “dark and dangerous” reality in which we now live.

If only the NDP leader weren’t right…

He ends the column (which is well worth reading in full) by saying,

What do Canadians, even highly trained special-ops soldiers, have to teach the Kurds of northern Iraq about warfare on their home soil? If the 69 Canadians are JTF-2, which seems likely, it stretches credulity to suggest they are merely providing helpful advice. These are the most lethal, capable soldiers in the Canadian military.

In the earliest days of the Afghan war, though it wasn’t publicly known at the time, JTF-2 operators fought under American command. Mulcair correctly notes that, early on, that conflict too was billed as winnable through a combination of special forces and air power, with local armies and militias bearing the brunt on the ground.

As it turned out, Western ground forces were indeed eventually necessary in Afghanistan, in their hundreds of thousands – including 40,000 Canadians, over a decade – and even with that, the war was lost. In year eight, more or less, of a 20-year nation-building project, the international community – including one Prime Minister Stephen J. Harper – decided to cut its losses.

It is all well and good to rail against the Jihadists, chronicle their barbarisms, and insist that, as civilized people, Canadians have no choice but to join in the fight. Perhaps that’s true. But we’ve seen this narrative before. It didn’t end well. Mulcair is wise to ask tough questions. The government would be wise to answer them.

Indeed. And for Christians who are trying to figure out what it means to follow the challenging teachings of Jesus, who we call ‘Lord’, the questions get even tougher.

(Cross-posted to Edmonton Ecumenical Peace Network)

Kacy and Clayton live on KEXP Seattle’s ‘Roadhouse’ blues and roots show

A fine performance by two of my favourite young musicians, Kacy and Clayton. It won’t come as any surprise to my regular readers that I love listening to this kind of music.

 

‘Kacy and Clayton’s entire lives have been steeped in the rich catalogs of folk music masters. They are second cousins who grew up a short distance from each other in a ranching community in southern Saskatchewan. As children they were surrounded by rural musicality, absorbing the knowledge and skills of Kacy’s Grandfather (Clayton’s Great-Uncle) Carl Anderson.  Landmark figures of their musical roots include Leadbelly, Shirley Collins, Alan Lomax, The Stanley Brothers, Charley Patton, Mississippi John Hurt, and Davey Graham. Kacy and Clayton’s ears are expertly discerning, and their musicianship is practiced to a sophisticated level of proficiency. They are very young, but have already matured beyond the precociously talented stage by rapidly earning a reputation among their fellow musicians as fully expressed mature artists in the prime of their lives. In fact, the Deep Dark Woods – one of Canada’s most successful and accomplished roots bands – has eagerly recruited Clayton as a guitarist, and Ryan Boldt (DDW’s lead singer) has proudly taken on the task of producing Kacy and Clayton albums. Clayton’s musical partnership with Kacy remains a primary focus for his creative output.’

(From Kacy and Clayton’s website).

Preliminary sermon thoughts on Matthew 20:1-16

This is not a sermon; it’s just my initial musings on the text for Sunday.

1 ‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; 4and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And 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?” 7They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” 8When 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.” 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, “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.” 13But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’

 This is one of Jesus’ ‘The kingdom of heaven is like’ parables. And we need to start by reminding ourselves, as we always do when we’re dealing with Matthew’s gospel, that when Jesus talks about ‘the kingdom of heaven’, he is not talking about what we mean today by either a ‘kingdom’ or ‘heaven’.

Starting with ‘heaven’, this is Matthew’s way of saying ‘kingdom of God’, which is the term used by the other gospels. Traditionally scholars have said that Matthew was observing Jewish sensibilities here, given that many Jews feel the word ‘God’ is too sacred to be pronounced or written (you will see it written sometimes today as ‘G-d’). However, Matthew doesn’t seem to be shy about using the word ‘God’ in other contexts, so there must be some other reason behind his habitual use of ‘kingdom of heaven’.

Be that as it may, ‘kingdom of heaven’ is not about dying and going to heaven. It is about God’s will being done ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ – about heaven’s rule breaking into this wicked and broken world, replacing injustice and war with justice and peace, bringing healing for hurts and a vision of ‘Shalom’ – wellness, peace, prosperity etc. So when Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like…”, what he means is “When things are done on earth the way God wants them to be done, this is what it will be like…”

And then there’s that word ‘kingdom’, or ‘basilea’ in Greek. There aren’t many kingdoms left in the 21st century world, but we still understand ‘kingdom’ to mean ‘a geographical area ruled over by a king’. Legally, Canada is a monarchy – albeit a ‘constitutional one’, which means that the powers of the sovereign are not unlimited but are strictly defined by the constitution of Canada – and we understand that to mean a geographical area under the authority of the Queen and Parliament of Canada.

But ‘the kingdom of heaven’ is not a geographical area under the direct rule of heaven or God. There is no geographical area or ethnic grouping that corresponds to ‘the kingdom of heaven’. ‘Basilea’ in this context is not static (‘the land within the borders of that country’) – it is dynamic; it means the personal rule or reign of God in the world. It has no borders or boundaries, no ethnic characteristics, no language or national government. It is not identical with the Church, although the Church is meant to be a signpost of the reign of God. Nor is it within our power to create it; every reference to it in the New Testament assumes that it is a gift of God and its extension is an act of God. It does, however, have a particular character, a particular world view, a particular way of life, and we are called to align our own lives and the life of our Christian ekklesia with that character, that worldview, that way of life.

So what is the kingdom of heaven like according to this parable?

1 ‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard’.

We’re on familiar Old Testament ground here; the idea that ‘Israel is Yahweh’s vineyard’ is a common one in the Old Testament. Usually, however, the emphasis is on the fruit which Yahweh is looking for, fruit which all too often Israel did not bear. Here, however, we’ve got a different emphasis: the Vineyard as a place of grace where the workers receive, not what they have earned, but what they need to survive.

The scene is a familiar one. The town marketplace is the local labour exchange, and every morning at 6 a.m. the unskilled day labourers gather there and wait for someone to hire them for the usual twelve hour working day. The landowners send their stewards or managers down to the market with instructions to hire a certain number of labourers for the jobs that need doing on that particular day. No doubt the workers all know each other and the stewards or managers know them all as well; they know which workers are strong and reliable and which ones tend to slack off and take longer coffee breaks! The wage is set by custom: it’s ‘a denarius’ (translated throughout this passage in the NRSV as ‘the usual daily wage’) – a Roman coin, equivalent to one quarter of a Jewish shekel. Jesus likely used a Jewish equivalent in his original parable; Matthew, writing in Greek, is likely translating here for the benefit of Greek and Roman audiences.

Dick France points out that the day labourer did not even have the minimum security which the slave had in belonging to one master. There was no social welfare program on which an unemployed man could fall back, and no trade unions to protect the workers’ rights. An employer could literally ‘do what he wanted with what belonged to him’ (v.15). In such a setting no work meant no food for the family. (see R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, Eerdmans, 2007).

Two things are unusual at the beginning of this parable. First, it was not usual for the landowner himself to go down to hire the workers; usually his manager or steward would do that. This is an unusual landowner, one who takes a personal interest in the workers rather than just seeing them as tools for getting the job done. Second, although it is not stated in these first two verses, it is strongly implied in the rest of the passage that he has actually hired all the workers who are available in the town marketplace that day. I say this because later on he goes back again to see if there are any more available to join the ones he has already hired. I’m guessing that this would be unusual; I would think that usually a landowner (through his manager) would hire only the best workers, and the least number necessary to get the job done.

3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; 4and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And 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?” 7They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.”

This is where we start to suspect even more strongly that all is not as it usually is. It’s hard to believe that the landowner actually needs all these workers to work in his vineyard. Certainly they need the work, or how will they feed their families for the day? Certainly this is on their minds as the hours pass and they have not yet been hired; the denarius is the bare minimum necessary to survive, and if they only work for half a day it will be short commons on the family supper table that night. So they are no doubt relieved when the landowner comes down and hires them – even down to the ‘eleventh hour’, with only one hour left to work before the usual quitting time.

At this point in time they are not expecting any special financial treatment; “I will pay you whatever is right” (v.4), says the landowner; no doubt the ones who were hired later in the day are expecting a vastly reduced wage.

8When 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.” 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.

According to Jewish law labourers were to be paid on the same day as they had worked, before sundown:

‘You shall not defraud your neighbour; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a labourer until morning’ (Leviticus 19:13).

‘You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy labourers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to Yahweh against you, and you would incur guilt’ (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).

So this is what is going on in this part of the passage; the labourers will get their pay at the end of the day and will then be able to buy the food needed for the evening meal at their home. Except that those who were hired later in the day would naturally not expect to receive as much; in their homes, the parents may well have to go without so that the children have something to eat.

Now at last we read about the manager; all day long he has been invisible as the landowner himself has hired the workers, but now he gets involved in the paying of the wages. The labourers are gathered together and the manager starts to pay them according to his master’s instructions, starting with those who were hired last and have only worked an hour. And to their surprise, they receive a full day’s wage – a denarius! No one will go hungry in their house tonight! Imagine, then, the excitement of the workers further up the line! This is an unusually generous employer! If one hour’s work earns a denarius, what will twelve hours earn?

Their hopes, however, are dashed; when it comes their turn, they receive exactly the same, a denarius. Those who worked for twelve hours, for nine, for six, for three and even for one all received the same wage. Surely this is not right?

11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, “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.” 13But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

Sure enough, there’s a shop steward in the crowd! He points out the injustice: what’s with paying everyone the same? They’ve only worked an hour; we’ve been at it all day! How is that just and right?

In reply, the landowner reminds them of the contract they made at the beginning of the day; they agreed to work all day long for a denarius. That is what they are legally entitled to. What they are not legally entitled to do is to prevent him from being generous with his money. Obviously when a master pays eleventh hour workers the same amount as people who have worked a full twelve hour day, we are not talking about wages here: we’re talking about generosity. The workers are not getting what they deserve; they are getting what they need. If they don’t get a denarius someone in their house will go hungry, and the master knows that. His concern is not with getting the work done or honouring the letter of the law: his concern is with providing for the needs of the poor. And so, as Jesus so often says,

16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’

Dick France points out: ‘The extraordinary behaviour of this landowner in adding extra workers after he has already recruited all he needs in the early morning therefore probably indicates not that he could not calculate his labour needs in advance, but that he was acting compassionately to alleviate the hardship of the unemployed. It is unlikely that he needed the extra workers, and his excessive payment of them speaks for itself. Commercially, the man is a fool. And God is as uncalculating as that.’

How are we to interpret this story?

This parable reminds us that the kingdom of heaven is about grace from start to finish. The Gospel is that God does not give us what we deserve; he gives us what we need. The truth of the matter is that none of us are particularly satisfactory workers. If our job description is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves, we have all fallen far short of this. If God gave us what we have earned, the reward would be scant indeed. But, as the Bible reminds us over and over again, God is a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in love. ‘God welcomes sinners and invites them to his table’. Forgiveness of sins, adoption into God’s family, the gift of the Holy Spirit and the Father’s constant love are available to all; the arms of Jesus are opened wide on the cross, calling all people to come to him. ‘Today’, he says to the penitent thief – an eleventh hour conversion indeed! – ‘you will be with me in Paradise’.

There are not degrees of salvation; the blessing of eternal life is the same for all. Some are not more saved than others; the latecomers are not at a disadvantage when it comes to receiving the blessings of God’s grace.

And indeed, historically, we Gentiles are the latecomers. The Jewish people entered the vineyard and started to work at 6.00 a.m.; we came on the scene much later. No doubt this was in the mind of the first hearers of Jesus’ parable and the first who heard Matthew’s retelling of it. To the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, they were the ones who had been working hard for God in all the heat of the day, and now Jesus was inviting tax collectors and prostitutes and ‘this crowd who do not know the law’ to join them on an equal footing at the feast in the kingdom of heaven? Outrageous! It was unjust. It reminds us of the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son:

“Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” (Luke 15:29-30).

By the time Matthew’s gospel was written the Gentiles were pouring into the church. No doubt Jewish Christians, and non-Christian Jews, reflected on these things. “We’ve worked hard all these years to keep the law. This lot haven’t even bothered! How can they be invited in as equal partners with us?” And even today we Christians might feel the same way. Those of us who have been churchgoers all our lives might be tempted to look down our noses at new converts who have only recently come to know Christ and follow him.

Grace is the antidote to all of this. The kingdom of heaven is all about grace. If it were not so, none of us would have any hope whatsoever. So we who have been received with grace and have received it at the hands of God need to treat our fellow-Christians with the same grace.