Saturday, 23 September 2017

Apologies for missing last week - we needed to take our son to university ...

Matthew 20.1-16
The Labourers in the Vineyard
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.’

My text this morning is written in Matthew 20.15-16:
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.’
Another lovely parable causing readers to pause and think!
From the earliest times, people like Philo (the Jewish contemporary of Jesus) and Origen (one of the early Church fathers) warned us that we should not shy away from difficult passages of Scripture, for it is indeed these, that take us to new and wonderful depths. They also remind us to beware against taking them literally, for the end result would be folly.  This is one of those parables, which on the surface seems to applaud injustice. But if one understands the employer as God himself, it takes on a whole new dimension. Everything we receive from God, has nothing to do with what we have done to earn it, all we have is a result of God being merciful to us. So, we are accepted by God, not because of who we are and what we have done; we are accepted by God because of who Jesus is (God incarnate) and what he has done for us. This means that, even the sinner who repents at the eleventh hour will be as welcome as we are. Verse 15 holds the key to the passage where Jesus said: “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.’ As de Dietrich states: ‘… those who believe they enter it “by right” run the grave risk of being among the last.’
Matthew records Jesus as ending off his last discourse with a reference to the first and the last and, being focused on a Jewish audience, is the only one to include this parable. We can safely assume that he was directing what he was saying also specifically to the Pharisees, and their literalism and legalism, in response to their criticism of him for socialising and even inviting tax collectors and sinners to be part of his group – in fact – to be part of the Kingdom of God.
It has nothing to do with economics and business practice!
The landowner went out early in the morning and hired labourers for the vineyard. The workers would have been thrilled to have work for the day. The parable continues that the landowner hired more labourers at 9 o’clock in the morning. He never promised them a full day’s pay but that he would ‘… pay them what is right …’ He went out again at noon and 3 o’clock and again at 5 o’clock. The working day would have ended at 6 o’clock. To these later workers he makes no mention of the rate of pay.
At the end of the working day, the owner sent his manager into the vineyard to pay them all, starting with those who had been hired last. To their surprise, they all received a full day’s wage. While they waited, those who had been hired thought that they were in for much, more – but they too received what they had agreed to. They complained to the landowner, the words of their complaint are important; notice in verse 12. ‘… and you have made them equal to us …’
The landowner explained that he had done no wrong; he had given them exactly what they had agreed to adding (in verse 15) ‘…15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?’
The Pharisees and some of the Jews in Jesus’ day thought that there were especially favoured by God above others and that they held pride of place. What Jesus was teaching and doing therefore seemed scandalous to them. The second part of verse 15 includes ‘…Or are you envious because I am generous?’ The New English Bible translates this as ‘… Why be jealous because I am kind?’ Literally, the Greek translates ‘… is your eye evil?’ which is part of our vocabulary today as giving someone ‘the evil eye’  for ‘grudging envy and jealousy.’
We have already established that the landowner represents God and so this parable is all about the abundance of God’s grace. When God is gracious to us, we are humbled and should be deeply grateful, but it is also true that when we see God being gracious to others – and it seems that he is being more generous to them – then we give them ‘the evil eye’ because we think they are underserving.
We are God’s children by his grace; none of us could do anything to deserve this, or earn it, it is all a result of God’s free grace to us; all we have ever done, is receive the gift. Sometimes, being part of the kingdom means enduring scorching heat and burdens like the labourers that had to work all day, but, as Jesus reminds us, his yoke is easy and his burden is light. We should rejoice when we see others being welcomed in. Meier suggests that
The real problem is that the grumblers harbour envy (literally, ‘an evil eye’) because the lord is generous towards those with no merit to stand on. His generosity is an expression of gracious freedom, not spiteful arbitrariness, while their complaints are an expression of their lovelessness.
Some of my students have asked me if I do not think I have missed out, having become a Christian when I was relatively young. They suggest that they want to go wild and enjoy all the pleasures of life while they can, and it would seem a pity to miss out.
My response is always the same; those who only find Christ later in their lives are the ones who have missed out, for life with Christ is rich and full and meaningful. To find forgiveness and fullness and meaning and purpose, is to find freedom – what Jesus intends for all. Following Jesus and his ways is indeed the way of freedom; following the ways of the world are the ways of bondage and meaninglessness. Like the workers hired later in the day, the landowner found them ‘… standing idle …’ with no purpose. The ways of the lord are not like our ways; we cannot even begin to understand his generosity and love. Meier adds: ‘… those who think they can calculate exactly how God must act are in for a surprise.’
The law of the lord is the way of freedom, and this is why, the longest chapter in the Bible, Psalm 119, with 176 verses celebrates the freedom that comes from following the Law of the Lord in which delight is found. Before Jesus, the Roman philosopher Cicero also discovered this truth in his statement: ‘… we are slaves of the law so that we might be free …’ Charles Wesley articulates this beautifully in his hymn with the words ‘… my chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose went forth and followed thee …’ The Apostle Paul had freedom as central to his teaching, building on the message of our Lord.
The kingdom of heaven is now and then; it is about richness of life now, and the earlier one comes into the kingdom, the greater the fulfilment and blessing will be. We should never be jealous of those who only come in late, but have pity on them for having missed out on so much and for so long.
Some useful illustrations from
Generosity Is the Secret to Our Joy
“There is an old rabbinic parable about a farmer that had two sons. As soon as they were old enough to walk, he took them to the fields and he taught them everything that he knew about growing crops and raising animals. When he got too old to work, the two boys took over the chores of the farm and when the father died, they had found their working together so meaningful that they decided to keep their partnership. So each brother contributed what he could and during every harvest season, they would divide equally what they had corporately produced. Across the years the elder brother never married, stayed an old bachelor. The younger brother did marry and had eight wonderful children. Some years later when they were having a wonderful harvest, the old bachelor brother thought to himself one night, "My brother has ten mouths to feed. I only have one. He really needs more of his harvest than I do, but I know he is much too fair to renegotiate. I know what I'll do. In the dead of the night when he is already asleep, I'll take some of what I have put in my barn and I'll slip it over into his barn to help him feed his children.
At the very time he was thinking down that line, the younger brother was thinking to himself, "God has given me these wonderful children. My brother hasn't been so fortunate. He really needs more of this harvest for his old age than I do, but I know him. He's much too fair. He'll never renegotiate. I know what I'll do. In the dead of the night when he's asleep, I'll take some of what I've put in my barn and slip it over into his barn." And so one night when the moon was full, as you may have already anticipated, those two brothers came face to face, each on a mission of generosity. The old rabbi said that there wasn't a cloud in the sky, a gentle rain began to fall. You know what it was? God weeping for joy because two of his children had got the point. Two of his children had come to realize that generosity is the deepest characteristic of the holy and because we are made in God's image, our being generous is the secret to our joy as well. Life is not fair, thank God! It's not fair because it's rooted in grace.” From: John Claypool, Life Isn't Fair, Thank God!
Embrace the Sense of Community
“There’s a play by Timothy Thompson based on this parable in which he depicts two brothers vying for work. John is strong and capable; Philip is just as willing but has lost a hand in an accident. When the landowner comes, John is taken in the first wave of workers, and as he labours in the field he looks up the lane for some sign of Philip. Other workers are brought to the field, but Philip is not among them. John is grateful to have the work, but feels empty knowing that Philip is just as needful as he. Finally, the last group of workers arrive, and Philip is among them. John is relieved to know that Philip will get to work at least one hour. But, as the drama unfolds, and those who came last get paid a full days’ wages, John rejoices, knowing that Philip – his brother – will have the money necessary to feed his family. When it comes his turn to stand before the landowner and receive his pay, instead of complaining as the others, John throws out his hand and says with tears in his eyes, “Thank you, my lord, for what you’ve done for us today!”

God’s justice arises out of a sense of community in which we see the “eleventh hour” workers as our brothers and sisters whose needs are every bit as important as our own.” From Philip W. McLarty, The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard
100 Points!
“A man dies and goes to heaven. Of course, St. Peter meets him at the Pearly Gates. St. Peter says, "Here's how it works. You need 100 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all the good things you've done, and I give you a certain number of points for each item, depending on how good it was. When you reach 100 points, you get in." Okay, " the man says, "I was married to the same women for 50 years and never cheated on her, even in my heart." That's wonderful," says St. Peter, "that's worth three points." Three points?"
 He says. "Well, I attended church all my life and supported its ministry with my tithe and service." Terrific!" say's St. Peter. "That's certainly worth a point." "One point? Well I started a soup kitchen in my city and worked in a shelter for homeless veterans." Fantastic, that's good for two more points," he says. "Two points!"
The man cries. "At this rate the only way to get into heaven is by the grace of God!" St. Peter smiled. "There's your 100 points! Come on in!" Traditional

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Apologies for lateness ... preparing for the start of a new term.

Matthew 16.21-end: (NRSV)

Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection:

21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ 23But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

The Cross and Self-Denial

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? 27 ‘For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’

Some ideas from J C Fenton ...

In the earlier verses of this chapter, we have the record of the time when Jesus revealed his identity as God’s Messiah to the disciples. This next utterance would then have been difficult for them to grasp, because their understanding of the Messiah would not have included any form of suffering. If fact this would be true for all Jews at the time. The concept of a suffering Messiah only came much later when Christians came to understand the significance of the death and Resurrection of Jesus and came to see it all as being part of God’s plan of salvation.

This is the first explicit prediction of the Passion. It is believed that Matthew used Mark as his source and it would also appear that Mark had compiled his version from imprecise sayings, but even the most sceptical of scholars do not deny that this sort of prediction was part of Jesus’ message to his disciples.

Jesus used stark words of condemnation to Peter, using the title Satan, because Peter was opposing the will of God. The ignorance of Peter is not just of the future of the disciples but also the future of Jesus: Jesus makes it clear that there is cost involved in following him. Jesus therefore begins to teach his disciples (pupils) that if they wish to come after him, and enter the glory of the age to come, they must follow him by being obedient to the will of God and this will mean suffering. They must not try to follow the secure way in this world, because this would mean losing their lives in the age to come.

Even though it seemed as though the disciples had understood the fact that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, they still did not get what this meant: they were still thinking of a conqueror, a warrior king, who would deliver them from their political oppressors. If the disciples had gone out and preached these ideas to the people, the result would have been rebellion. Before they could preach that Jesus was the Messiah, they had to learn what the true message was.

Central to the message was going to be the Cross and would entail a great deal of suffering. This was anathema to Peter who had been raised with the idea of a conquering Messiah and the idea of suffering seemed incredible, so he said that this must never happen. This is followed by the great rebuke ‘Get behind me Satan!’

Barclay suggests that we need to understand the following if we hope to make sense of this passage:

Jesus reacted in the way he did, because he was probably reminded of his great temptation in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry: he had been tempted to take the path of power, meeting material needs and compromise with the ways of the world. Peter was confronting him again with the same temptations. Again and again, throughout Jesus’ ministry he confronted these temptations: no one would want a cross, a degrading and painful death. Barclay writes: ‘The sharpness and poignancy of Jesus’ answer is due to the fact that Peter was urging upon him the very things which the tempter was always whispering to him, the very things against which he had to steel himself ...’ That is why Peter was Satan; that is why Peter’s ideas were man’s and not God’s. Satan is any influence which seeks to turn us away from the ways of God.

O that we might always be able to resist the ways of Satan ...

Friday, 18 August 2017

The Canaanite Woman’s Faith

Matthew 15.21-28 (NRSV)

21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ 24He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ 26He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 27She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ 28Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.

In the earlier verses of chapter 15, the question arose: ‘What is it that defiles?’ Here Jesus is dealing with the issue of Jews and Gentiles.  J C Fenton suggests that the two issues are connected, because the Jews at the time believed that in order not to be defiled, they needed to keep themselves separate from the Gentiles. Eventually the Church came to understand that in Jesus, the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles had been broken down – a reference to Ephesians 2.11-22.

The Ephesians passage has particular significance for me. It became the motto of our little multi-racial Presbyterian Church in South Africa, where my father was the session clerk and which I attended from its inception in 1962 – the first of its kind in South Africa. The logo was a broken wall with the text underneath and it appeared on our first hymn book which included hymns and songs in English, Afrikaans and Xhosa, published using a spirit printer and an old Olivetti typewriter, with translations happening on the hoof! (My 84 year old mother in Cheshire still has one on her bookshelf). My parents used to break curfew and have black, coloured and Asian friends over for meals and Bible studies. We were a small fellowship, and we were often infiltrated by the Special Branch (they were so obvious) but the witness of being part of this fellowship until I was 12 years old (1969) has been long-lasting.

The Ephesians passage is also special to me because I did an exposition on this passage on Christmas Day 1993 to over 700 people (two sittings), at the Jeffreys Bay Methodist Church – before the first democratic elections the following April.

This story was probably used by the early Church when there were discussions as to whom should be allowed to become members of the Church and so Paul wrote to the Ephesians and also to the Galatians (3.28). The message is also implied in 2 Corinthians 5.17 – all key texts as we challenged the Apartheid South Africa.

The disciples tried to send the Canaanite woman away – just as later Jewish Christians would oppose preaching to the Gentiles and in fact to have any contact with them (Acts 11.1ff). Jesus admitted that he had not gone beyond Israel in his own ministry – I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel – but it is clear from passages like this that the Gospel is – as we Methodist stress – for all.

John Meier has some interesting thoughts on this reading ...

Jesus has just torn down the wall of laws about clean and unclean which kept Jews and Gentiles apart, now he acts out his teaching in one of the few contacts with a Gentile. This occasion is similar to the one with the Centurion (8.5-13). But note how the Gentile here addresses Jesus as Lord. Jesus responds to this faith as well as her humility. This is an important reminder for me. It is all too easy to become complacent, even presumptuous about our contact with God.

Mark refers to a Syrophoenician woman; Matthew changes this to ‘Canaanite’ –which conjures up the Old Testament image of the early enemies of the Jews. But her use of the titles Lord and Son of David shows that she believes that Jesus is the promised Messiah who has been rejected by his own people. Jesus remains silent at first; the annoyed disciples want to get rid of her and Jesus breaks the silence to say that his mission was limited to Israel which needed to be saved because they were like lost sheep. The woman persists.

Whenever I read the parable that follows, on my liberal western ears it sounds harsh and uncharacteristic of our Lord; it comes across to my modern ears as rude and almost racist. True, Jews did treat Gentiles with disrespect and sometimes referred to them as dogs; but I find it difficult coming from the mouth of our Lord. But Meier offers some interesting observations as he paraphrases the woman’s response where she agrees with the parable, but turns it to her advantage:

‘Yes Lord, your statement of priorities is correct, and as a Gentile I acknowledge the rights and privileges of Israel; indeed the Jews are admitted to be the “masters” of the pagans. Yet, precisely on the terms of your parable I have hope; sooner or later some crumbs will inadvertently fall from the table to the floor, to be snapped up by the dogs.’

Jesus cannot be convinced by any claims or even merit, ‘... but he is overcome by the prayer of faith, expressed with humility and humour.’

It was faith that gave the first Gentiles access to our Lord – both to healing and salvation – and so the woman’s daughter was healed.

Once more I am caused to pause and think about my presumption as I relate to our Lord, and am touched by this tender encounter.

Barclay suggests that there are a number of things worth noting about the Canaanite woman. (i) She was filled with love, having made the misery of her child her own. Our love for our children is always a reflection of God’s love for us, His children. We will do anything for our children, and it was her love that, realising that she would probably be shunned, or even treated harshly and unfairly, that spurred her on. It was probably also love that enabled her to see our Lord’s compassion beneath his strange initial response to her request. Barclay adds: ‘... there is nothing stronger and nothing nearer God than love ...’

(ii) This woman also had faith: Her faith grew when she made contact with Jesus. She began by calling him Son of David – which was a popular, political title and the way of seeing Jesus as a great and powerful wonder-worker – but it was a title which looked on Jesus in terms of earthly power and glory. Initially she came for help to a powerful man. But she ends by calling him Lord. It was as though Jesus forced her to look more closely and to see more, the divine. Jesus wanted her to ‘... see that a request to a great man must be turned into a prayer to the living God ...’ and her faith grew in her confrontation and drew her to worship – she begins with a request and ends with a prayer.

The woman also had indomitable persistence – and could not be discouraged. It is suggested that some people pray, not really expecting anything to happen. But the woman knew that Jesus was her only hope and so was in deadly earnest. Her prayer was a passionate outpouring of her soul – she had no choice. This reminds me of that tender moment in Shadowlands the story of the relationship between C S Lewis and Joy Davidson. On her death, Lewis was grief-stricken and also said that he prayed because he had no choice, it was just something that flowed through and from him.

The woman also had the gift of cheerfulness: she was in the middle of trouble, but still kept her sense of humour. Jesus loved this light of hope. She brought with it all great love and together with her faith, found an answer to her prayers.

This is how philosopher Dallas Willard puts it, as he defines exactly what is a disciple: "One of those who have trusted Jesus with their whole life, so far as they understand it. Because they've done so, they want to learn everything he has to teach them about life in the kingdom of God now and forever, and they're constantly with him to learn this. Disciples of Jesus are those learning to be like him" (Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ, 241).