Blessed to be a blessing to others
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Pastor Joshua D. Rinas
St. Paul, Blissfield & Immanuel, Palmyra
Each of the Gospel writers share Jesus message of Good News in slightly different ways. The four Gospel books they wrote show remarkable similarity, but there are variations.
Matthew’s original audience was primarily Jewish and it did seem to influence Matthew’s telling of this parable. As a Jewish community, these were the people Jesus originally came for with a message of salvation. They were part of the religious order that Jesus himself was raised within and through which he came to be a Rabbi, a teacher. It was their scriptures that Jesus read and interpreted, and re-interpreted. It was in their synagogues Jesus taught and gathered listeners.
However, by the time Matthew was writing his own Gospel account, Jesus had already invited in many who were not Jews. Jesus invited people of other religions and people with no religion to also follow him, to also hear his teachings, and to also be included in a new understanding of what it meant to be God followers.
The inclusion of non-Jews, or gentiles, into Christ’s message of salvation caused strife between members of many early Christian communities. Jews felt entitled as those of the older covenants God had established. The lineage made them inheritors through customs and traditions going back thousands of years—and often times, they were offended that new coming gentiles were now included as God’s chosen people. Their logic concluded in a minority, but widespread opinion that real Christians had to first become Jews. Then and only then could they become rightful inheritors of God’s salvation.
If this sounds crazy and a bit unbelievable, this issue is recorded in multiple letters Paul wrote to the Christian Churches he founded…and many adult men lost their foreskins as a result. The consequences were all too real!
We hear this is what the kingdom of heaven looks like-- Like the landowner who pays those who work the whole day, half a day, or merely an hour all the same. Our sense of fairness is offended. But it’s enough to offend others too—
Truth be told, we’re not the only ones offended by unfair pay. Primatologist Frans de Waal's TED Talk on the behavior of capuchin monkeys who perceive unfair treatment illustrates how easily envy is ignited among them. Imagine two monkeys in cages next to each other—both are made of translucent plastic. They are tasked with handing rocks from inside their enclosures to a human. Upon doing so, they are paid with a cucumber slice—and each monkey is happy with the arrangement—and will go back and forth completing their work and being paid by cucumber slices. However, if the pay scale changes… Like by one of the monkeys receiving a grape instead of a cucumber slice for the same work, the capuchin monkey next door will become furious within seconds. It’s not that they haven’t been paid themselves, but rather the other has achieved better pay for the same work.
Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven as being governed by something other than our sense of fairness. What the landowner offers in Jesus parable is grace. Grace instead of fairness. Grace that all the workers get… Let’s look at the parable—each get’s the daily wage. This was standard minimum compensation for a day’s work. Just what Jesus taught all of us to pray for—our daily bread. Yet, what most of us think about when we pray those words is probably much more than what we need to live for that day. When most of us pray for our daily bread we are thinking of what we need for the week—and probably our 401K contribution too. Yet, the landowner distributes to all what they need for living—that day.
The parable really strikes at this—how we receive our daily bread. Are we grateful that we have what we need this day? Or are we envious looking at what our neighbors have?
Or maybe we should simply reflect on the summary question the parable offers?
Are we envious because God is generous?'
And if the answer is yes, can we come around? Can we come around? Can we come around to give up on fairness and accept God’s grace instead?
Some scholars have examined this parable considering early church communities. It may have been meant to call wealthier landowning disciples of Jesus to search out the unemployed and underemployed and pay living wages. Amy-Jill Levine writes that in so doing they support laborers (regardless of time on the job) and ensure that the necessary work gets done. As a result, each group gets what it needs from the other: "Maybe the concern is to work within the localized system and provide, if resources allow, funds so that everyone has enough food."
As this nation is faced with so many crises, we are also up against wealth disparity beyond all prior history. Never has the nation’s wealth been so unevenly distributed. Never has the majority of the country’s wealth been concentrated in so few and never have so many been left impoverished.
And never has our economic reality been so far from the priorities of the kingdom of heaven. For while the Jesus we find in scripture does not command all to have the same, God’s grace insists, even in the face of our own sense of fairness, that all have enough.
 Amy-Jill Levine. Short Stories by Jesus (New York: HarperOne, 2014) p. 216
Daily Bible Reading for Tuesday, September 22, 2020
Psalm 106:1-12 (NRSV)
1Praise the LORD!
O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever.
2Who can utter the mighty doings of the LORD,
or declare all his praise?
3Happy are those who observe justice,
who do righteousness at all times.
4Remember me, O LORD, when you show favor to your people;
help me when you deliver them;
5that I may see the prosperity of your chosen ones,
that I may rejoice in the gladness of your nation,
that I may glory in your heritage.
6Both we and our ancestors have sinned;
we have committed iniquity, have done wickedly.
7Our ancestors, when they were in Egypt,
did not consider your wonderful works;
they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love,
but rebelled against the Most High at the Red Sea.
8Yet he saved them for his name's sake,
so that he might make known his mighty power.
9He rebuked the Red Sea, and it became dry;
he led them through the deep as through a desert.
10So he saved them from the hand of the foe,
and delivered them from the hand of the enemy.
11The waters covered their adversaries;
not one of them was left.
12Then they believed his words;
they sang his praise.