By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
October 4, 2020
Matthew 21:33–46 (ESV)
33 “Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants and went into another country. 34 When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. 35 And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ 39 And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40 When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.” 42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: “ ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? 43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. 44 And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. 46 And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet.
Jesus speaks a great deal about vineyards. For those that do not have a background in agriculture we might just think that this is just one of many options in the agricultural life. But a vineyard is something different. A vineyard is a long-term investment. It takes a great amount of patience, investment both financially and physically, and time. With investments like this there is a great amount of risk, but like many high-risk investments they can be extremely profitable.
When we read through the pages of scripture, we can learn a great deal. The writer of Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a time for everything. There is a time to reap or harvest and there is a time to plant or to sow. In most cases the time to plant and the time to harvest occur within a year. With wheat you would be planting around this time, at least in this part of the United States. You plant wheat in the fall and it begins to grow, it will stay in a grassy stage all through the winter making it an ideal crop for many ranchers to plant because during the winter they can allow livestock to graze on the wheat grass without causing significant damage in the yields. As the temperatures begin to raise in the spring the wheat starts the second stage of its life cycle, it produces a head and that head pushes up above the surface of the soil. It is during this stage that cattle must be removed form the fields and farmers begin to pray that the temperatures do not drop below freezing because if that delicate head is damaged the crop could be ruined. In four months, the very livelihood of a farmer could change dramatically. The farmer waits through that long winter not knowing what to expect, their investment is in the ground, but the future is unsure. The cereal grain farmers wait a few months, but a vineyard that wait between planting and harvest is years. They will carefully tend the vines for years without any fruit. And during those first years anything can happen that would potentially harm the future of the crop. One does not plant a vineyard without careful planning.
Jesus speaks of vineyards because of the time investment involved. Often we want things to happen quickly, we want to see results in our investments, we want to see that our labor has a point, and when we do not see fruit from our labor we tend to get distracted. We get bored. Jesus uses the concept of the vineyard to remind us that the work we do is great, but the results and the fruit may not be seen right away.
He says in this story, a landowner or master of a house plants a vineyard. Planting a vineyard, a simple task. There are many other things involved. The first thing that we must consider is that this is not a crop like wheat that is basically a grass, but it is a vine. Vines grow differently than other crops. Grasses grow close to the ground and their cellular structure is formed to be flexible and generally are not required for a long lifespan, and even if it is a perineal grass the lasting structure is found in the roots not in the parts we see above ground. A tree is build for a long life, the cellular walls are very rigid and with each passing year the tree gains more strength, the tree requires greater care than the grass, but a tree can survive on its own. A vine is different, it is somewhat rigid, but it often cannot support itself. For a vine to be profitable you must build support structures. If you were to drive outside of Kansas City you would be able to see a few vineyards in our area, and if you were to visit one you would see that there are posts and wires placed throughout the vineyard. The vine dressers will tie the newly planted vines to the wires and as they grow, they will encourage the branches to grow out along the wires. That is just the beginning of the work.
These vines will eventually produce fruit and that fruit is something that is greatly desired and there are always robbers of various species that would like to taste the fruits of the labor. Because of this great potential loss through human and animal consumption a landowner would invest in security to attempt to keep the loss to a minimum, and they would construct a fence around the vineyard to keep the unwanted consumers out. Today this might not be a large investment because we could just pound a few posts into the ground, and sting wire between them, but in ancient times a fence would basically be a stone wall. This makes the land that the vineyard was planted in secure, but it also means that the land is committed only to that use.
The landowner has planted the vineyard, the rows are established, and the land is secured within a wall, but there is more investment needed. What will you do with the fruit that will eventually be produced? Grapes are nice to eat, but the fruit will only last for a short time, so for the vineyard to be profitable the landowner will need to convert the fruit into something that will be profitable for a greater amount of time, and that profit comes from wine. The grapes will need to be harvested from the vine and converted as soon as possible to preserve the profitability of the vineyard, so the landowner will construct a wine press to squeeze the juice from the fruit so that it can be collected and fermented so that it can be consumed at a later time.
We have covered just one verse, but the amount of time that would have passed in this one verse is a couple of years. This is a massive construction and agricultural process. Land was surveyed and carefully examined to determine how best to proceed. And after the initial work was completed, the landowner would have to wait. And during that time Jesus suggests that the owner decided to lease the land to tenants for them to care and tend to the plants, while the owner went to another country.
I want us to think of the time and investment involved in this story. A vineyard is not something you just decide to plant. You plant a vineyard because you are established and secure in the land and you can take that land out of grain production for several years without suffering hunger. The illustration of the vineyard is one that is used in Hebrew tradition throughout their history. Israel is often regarded as God’s vineyard. The people were carefully tended by God’s revelation, the land was secured, and the people were left there to be tended by judges, kings, and the priests. But a vineyard needs constant attention.
This parable that Jesus speaks is something that the people of Israel can identify with, because the prophets used a similar story in their history. In Isaiah, A similar illustration was given. The vineyard was planted, and the supporting structures were built, but in Isaiah’s illustration there was not any fruit because the vines had turned wild. When I was a child my family would drive around the countryside looking for wild fruit. We would pick these wild fruits and my mother and grandmother would take the fruit and make the best jelly you could imagine from them. I remember one year when we found some wild grapes. Wild grape vines do produce fruit, but the fruit from the vines is not like the grapes you buy from the store. The grapes are not plump, and the clusters are not full. This wild grape vine was large but the amount of fruit that we harvested was not. When Isaiah says that the vines were wild it means that they were not tended. A vinedresser carefully prunes the vines so that only the main branches are left. When a vine has too many branches the vine is using the energy to support the branches instead of putting it into the production of the fruit. Isaiah is saying that the vines were wild, or untended, the plant was full of leaves and branches but unfruitful. So, in Isaiah’s story, the landowner destroyed the vineyard. He tore down the walls and uprooted the vines. All the investment that was put into the construction was gone, and they would have to start over. This story told by the prophet was to encourage Israel to turn back to God or their destruction was at hand.
Jesus uses this language and this story while he converses with the religious leaders for the very same reason. God has invested in his people. God has put the time, the energy, and his riches into this vineyard. And God entrusted the care of that vineyard to a group set aside for that purpose.
Years down the road, the landowner comes back to this estate when the season for fruit is near. He sends his servants to collect the fruit, but the tenants have different ideas. Jesus says that the tenants took their master’s servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. He sends more servants and they face the same fate. Jesus at this point is drawing from the history of Israel, they knew Isaiah’s story of the vineyard and they knew what happened to the prophets that carried the words of God. The people knew that when the prophets spoke, they were often rejected, and the people continued to live as if they were the masters of their own destiny. But whose land were they living on?
God gave them that land. He gave the land to their father Abraham as a gift of his faithfulness. When God eventually allowed the children of Israel to enter that land, each family received a portion. Yes, they had to work with God to fully obtain the land, but the land known as Israel was a gift from God. And because He gave them the land, they were to give Him his portion. What is God’s portion?
Everything we have, and everything we are is a gift from God. God has blessed us with our abilities, God has placed us in a particular spot within time and space to use what we have, to bear fruit. We work, we invest, we take risks with the resources that God has placed under our stewardship, but we should always remember where it originated. In our American culture we like to think that we are self-made, that we have created our prosperity, but that is a myth. We have what we have because of those that lived before us, and the sacrifices that they have made. We build on what was given to us, we carry on the work that was started by our ancestors. We might take risks ourselves; we might invest in education and in business, but even then, we are relying on the investment of teachers and of customer to make our sacrifices worthy for the next generation. Everything we have can be traced back to one place, the creator of heaven and earth. God has worked through years, and generations to bring us to this place at this time. All that we have is his, all the fruit from our labor is just the fruit we harvest from his investment over the courses of history.
The tenants of the story have different ideas. They have worked the vineyard, not the landowner who has been out traveling in another country. They are upset that this master of the house demands their fruit. They kill the servants sent to them, and they kill more finally the owner decides that he will send his son to collect what is his. When the tenants see the son, they think if we kill the son then we can devastate the landowner and keep the heirs’ inheritance for their own.
Jesus ask, “what will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants?” The religious leaders rightfully respond, “he will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”
Jesus tells this story to explain the kingdom of God. We may not see the fruit of the vineyard, the fruit of our labor right away. We are laboring in a vineyard where it often requires years of careful delicate work to see the fruit emerge. Do not get discouraged during that time. There is a time and season for everything. We also need to continue to work so that the vines do not go wild. This requires discipline and practice. We need to draw close to God daily. And practice the lifestyle Jesus showed us in scripture in all that we do. Reflect Him through our lives so that others can see that there is hope. And we need to recognize that every resource we have available to us is a gift from God and should be used for his glory.
God has invested in our lives. Through the courses of history, he has called people to himself, and they have responded. He has sent them to various places to share the hope that they have, and they have been obedient to that call, and each of us are here today because someone listened to the call of Christ in their lives. And we have that opportunity because God sent his son to live, die, and raise so that we could be reconciled to God. We are here because God invested, will we tend his vineyard? Will we carry on that which he started in his name, or will we reject it? All of creation is God’s and we are stewards in his vineyard, He is calling out to us today to tend and harvest, to give him what is his. How will we respond? Will we open the doors to the master of the house, or will we claim is as our own and reject the call? The kingdom of God is like that vineyard. God wants us to enjoy it, but it is not ours it is his, and it is for his glory. Will we join him in his kingdom?
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
September 27, 2020
Philippians 2:1–13 (ESV)
1 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
“If there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Paul is often given a hard time in today’s American Church. Many see him as being a little bit mean spirited. I think he is misunderstood. His words are very often taken out of context and misquoted to be used to support things that were often never intended. Some scholars have even gone so far as saying that there were two churches in those ancient days, the Pauline church and the church of the apostles. I think this is ridiculous mainly because when we take the time to study the words of Paul, we will find that he loves Christ. He loves Christ enough that he was willing to endure death for his Lord and God.
Paul begins this week’s passage, if there is any encouragement in Christ… be in full accord and of one mind. Paul does not point us to himself, but he encourages us to look to Christ and Him alone. To join Jesus’s life and lifestyle, whole heartedly. So, why then does he get such a bad reputation? I think this is simply because of who he is speaking too. The letters we attribute to Paul were written to specific people and often concern specific things that are occurring at that time in the Church. He is referred to as the apostle to the Gentiles, and these Gentile believers are worshiping beside those of Jewish heritage living in dispersia. These Gentile believers were often not fully aware of the teachings of the Jewish faith and because of this they were attempting struggling to fully understand what life with Jesus really meant. They often struggled with things that those of Jewish heritage did not because they did not grow up in a monotheistic worldview. And often there were clashes between those that had knowledge of the historic faith of the Hebrews and these new converts.
I do not think we fully apricate the struggle of those first Gentile believers. Many of us grew up within a Judeo-Christian worldview, and even if we did not grow up in the church we were exposed to Christian concepts. We know the basics; I can strike up a conversation with almost anyone and they can tell me something about Christianity to some degree. They may not have a full understanding, but many know some of the teachings of Jesus.
Imagine going into a culture where no one knew a single teaching of Jesus. Imagine going to a place where the very idea of a single God was foreign. Imagine attempting to teach those with no knowledge the truth revealed in scripture when they had nothing to refer it too. Many of Paul’s letters are taken out of context because we fail to recognize that he is writing to people that did not have two thousand years of monotheistic teachings based around honoring the One True God.
If there is any encouragement in Christ, be in full accord and of one mind, he says. I want us to think about what that statement is saying. I usually speak out of the Gospel passages. Very rarely do I use the epistles when giving a sermon, because of this statement. If there is any encouragement in Christ, then let us be joined with that. I am not saying that there is not value in the epistles, I love the letters that the apostles wrote, because they teach us something about conflict resolution, encouragement, and how to live life with Christ. They have value for us because they were written by those saints of old, out of their deep devotion to their God. They were written by people that loved others to such a great degree that they were compelled by the Spirit to speak up and encourage even if the issues at hand were difficult. They were compelled to write because their hearts were filled with such joy that they had to share it. They wrote because someone needed encouragement or counsel from a trusted friend. And those that received the letters kept them and shared them. We benefit from these letters. The letters show us how difficult walking with Christ really is, and they encourage us to look back to the gospel and the teachings of Christ to direct our paths.
We need to approach the epistles with careful thought, because we are basically ease dropping on an intimate conversation. For example, the letter to the Philippians was written mainly as a thank you note. Paul wrote to thank them for their gift, but as he expresses his thanks, he also lets them know how he is doing and encourages them in their current circumstances. What theological understanding can we glean from what is basically a thank you note? We get a glimpse at the heart. But what happens when there are verses in the epistles that seem odd or contradictory? Those instances are often situational and temporal. We can learn from the counsel but, those are often suggestions on what the leaders should try, and in many of the cases they are words for the actual leader and should not be applied to everyone. There is a great deal of counsel in the epistles, but all that counsel should be approached through the teachings of Christ.
Which brings us to what Paul is encouraging in the Church of Philippi. “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” If there is any encouragement. The word encouragement is a powerful word. It conveys comfort as well as strength. When we encourage someone, we are affirming who they are at that moment and expressing our acceptance of them for who they are, while at the same time empowering them to strive for something greater. Paul is telling these people of Philippi that if they recognize anything in Christ that brings them both comfort and strength then focus on that. What about Jesus drew you to him? What about Jesus compelled you to turn from the life you once were living and embrace the lifestyle of Christ? Paul wants us to examine why we are in this place at this time. With the same words he is also challenging us to examine if our expression is true and if there could be improvement in our expression of our faith.
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
When Paul encourages the church to be in full accord and of one mind, he is encouraging us to live the lifestyle of Christ. Jesus came to live among humanity, even though he was equal to or of the same substance as God. He came in a manner that was completely unassuming, he came as a baby, and not as a fully grown divine manifestation. That is what is meant in verse six when Paul tells us that Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped. Jesus came to experience the complete human life, but he also came so that we would have to struggle with that complete life. Is it possible that our faith is completely misplaced, and that Jesus was just a normal baby? Sure, but there is something more. There is something about Jesus that is greater than humanity, the disciples saw that, even the religious leaders in the first century Israel saw there was something more. They questioned and challenged Jesus, they listened to his teachings and they watched his actions. And there was only one question that remained: Who is Jesus? Is he God or is he man? It is something that we cannot fully grasp. We wonder and question and that is ok. But once we move one way or the other things begin to change.
When we, like Peter, say that Jesus is the son of the living God, the one that provides the wisdom of God, we have begun to commit ourselves to a journey toward the kingdom. Paul says to us, if there is any encouragement in Christ then we should be of the same mind, meaning we should walk as Jesus walked. Jesus emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant. If Christ did that, then that very action is what he is calling us too as well.
This again is a place we must grasp the reality of Jesus. Jesus is king, yet he was born to a family of common laborers. Jesus is the conduit of God’s wisdom, yet he did not have rabbinical training because we know that at the age of majority, he joined the family business instead of staying with the rabbis at the temple. Paul wants us to look at our faith, look at what we believe and come to some understanding. He is God, yet he is a servant. He is a king, yet he is a peasant. He is wisdom, yet he is common.
It is difficult to grasp an understanding of God. We struggle because often we see things from a human perspective. We see hierarchy, we see dominion, we see power and force. When we think of God we often think of the ultimate king, or we might think of God as a power or force that must be handled carefully, like electricity. We see God through human understanding. Over the course of human history these concepts of God grew and took shape, even within the Hebrew faith concepts surrounding the human understanding of God changed over time. We struggle because we are human. Struggle is part of our life since sin’s fall. When Jesus came to live among us, he came to restore and reconcile humanity with God. He came as God with us. God always wanted to be with humanity, we see that in the story of our first parents in the Garden of Eden. God had a desire to create and walk with his creation in the cool of the evening. But we as humans became suspicious and turned from God. We began to believe that God may have been with us, but God was not for us. We began to think that God was withholding something greater from us.
This relationship between humanity and God soon became strained. We began to bargain with God to make our lives better. And then humans began to bargain with aspects of God and personifying aspects of God to secure blessing in those areas, we did this to the point we could no longer distinguish the true God and we created a pantheon of idols based on our desires. These idols became cults of fertility, death, war, and pretty much every aspect of life we can think of. Humanity would go to these cults seeking personal gain. They family desired a child they would make a sacrifice to the fertility god. They wanted crops so they sacrificed to the lord of the fields.
God called out to Abraham, a man of Ur who according to Jewish tradition was the son of an artist that manufactured statues of idolatry. God called Abraham to leave Ur and to go to a place that he would lead him, and if Abraham did God would create a nation through him. A nation that would become the light to the nations and God would be their one true God. As Israel grew into a nation God called another man from within them and through this man, he gave the law. The interesting thing about the law is that it is communal. It is community oriented.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit. But in humility consider others more significant than yourself. This verse has been counsel that has struck me. It often seems as if it is contrary to human reason. If we do not benefit from our labors and application of knowledge, what benefit is gained?
This requires deeper thought and context. To begin what is humility? We often regard humility from a faulty origin. We regard humility as looking down upon or not allowing ourselves to do our best. We approach it in this way because we have the false notion that being recognized for ability unrighteous. I want us to stop thinking that right now. Did Jesus ever say he was less than he was, or not do something out of a desire to look humble? No, Jesus lived his life in open honesty. And that is true humility. To humble ourselves, is to live honestly. Honest with others as well as honest with ourselves. Not thinking too highly nor too lowly of who we really are. And if we are to live in humility regarding ourselves, we should extend that to others too. We should regard them honestly. To regard others in humility we accept them for who they are and encourage them to greater things. We often look at this passage and get the idea that we should let people take advantage of us, but that is not the case. We should recognize who has the greater ability and who has the greatest need, and in our analysis, we make a decision that will benefit both equally.
I have worked a few years in the same position. I know how to do my job, and honestly, I am good at my job. Occasionally others have been brought to me for training, the counsel from Paul works well in this example, because in humility I can say that I am better than those I train in my position but if I am going to be honest in the relationship I must step back and allow them to do part of the work so that they can learn and improve. By letting them do some of the task I am in humility counting others more significant than myself. By letting them participate in the work, together we will eventually accomplish more so our gain is greater.
This is what Jesus did and does. He humbled himself, living with us. By doing so he lifts us up to a greater place, and together we expand the kingdom exponentially. This is the encouragement we find in Christ, the very encouragement that Paul urges us to incorporate in our lives. Living lives of humility. Loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. And there is true profit in that life and lifestyle. When we join in that life, we release ourselves and those around us from the bonds of unforgiven sins, and we free ourselves to live life more abundantly. And that abundant life Christ is calling us to is not bound in human understanding of success, but on God’s. God so loved the world that he sent his son not to condemn the world but to save it. Let us encourage those around us to embrace that life, and most of all let us embrace that life, because we cannot offer what we do not have.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
September 20, 2020
Matthew 20:1–16 (ESV)
1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ 5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘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.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.”
The Kingdom of heaven is like… I love the parables of the kingdom. I love the theology of the kingdom. I love the honest debates among friends about the kingdom. I love the kingdom because that is where Jesus wants us to be. Jesus calls us to become part of his kingdom. He calls us to be ambassadors of the kingdom. He says that we are sojourners or travelers through a foreign land where our citizenship is in the place he calls the Kingdom of Heaven.
I am probably fascinated by the language of the kingdom for many reasons but one of the reasons I love it is because I love reading. I enjoy historical fiction that takes place in Medieval Europe, and I am also intrigued by the Lord of the Rings series, the writings of C.S. Lewis, and similar authors in that semi-allegorical fantasy genera. I do not know why I am so attracted to these things, because I would hate to live in the Medieval world. I am very fond of our modern conveniences. I love the fact that I do not have to suffer through many diseases because we have vaccines. I love having a vehicle that can travel at speeds of seventy miles per hour or more. I love central heating and air. I would never want to live in a time where I would not have access to these things, but there is something about the life in those stories that intrigues me.
Although I enjoy the stories of knights, and I love the designs and evolution of armor those are not the reasons I am attracted to this time frame. Some might think that I am attracted to the Medieval era because of the central position of the church and the amazing architecture. I admit that the position of religion in the lives of the people does intrigue me in this era, but that is not the central reason I like this time frame. I really think the reason of love the concept of the Kingdom is because of the community. I strongly dislike many of the concepts of the Feudal system because I believe that people should be able to move up in society based on things other than birth. If someone works hard and has a gift I truly think they should be free to pursue that. So the feudal system is not what I am talking about when I speak of community. I like that everyone belongs, everyone has a place, and they take care of each other. I know that this is not always how it worked, and that there were great and gross abuses of position, but I read books that often romanticize the era.
I like the concept that everyone has a place, everyone belongs, and that we take care of each other. Life is filled with so many variables and unknowns, that leave many feeling as if they have nowhere to go or no one to turn too. With billions of people living in this world, we often feel alone. If there is something that is missing from our society today it is true community. And I believe that that is what Jesus is encouraging us to create when he speaks about the Kingdom.
Last week we spoke about a king that wanted to settle his accounts, and he brought before him a servant that had a debt of ten thousand talents, which is a debt equivalent to ten thousand years of labor. We are not told how this man accumulated this kind of debt or why, but he had a substantial debt. The king placed the call to settle the account, and the man begged for his life and for the life of his family. The king was stirred to core of his being with compassion for this man and debt was not only deferred but forgive.
Jesus told that story to illustrate forgiveness and how heinous withholding forgiveness truly is. That man that was forgiven of such a great debt left the king’s courts and he found a fellow servant that owed him money, and instead of reflecting the grace of his king, the man began to physically demand the repayment of the debt. A debt that was only the equivalent of one hundred days of work. The community told the king what happened and the man that was forgiven of his debt was brought again before the king, and faced even greater trials. It is a harsh story, but one filled with truth.
Jesus tells us that kingdom of heaven is similar to that story. Do we have a problem with that? Often when we hear about the Kingdom in churches our minds are transported to the ideas of heaven and that reward just beyond the veil of life. There is more to the story. Jesus said the kingdom is like a king…but his story did not end when the man was forgiven of the debt, it followed the man back into the community where he met and interacted with another man. Jesus continued to tell the story because the kingdom is on earth as it is in heaven. We are in the kingdom today just as much as we will be in the future. And the king is still presiding over his domain.
Today Jesus tells another story. The story about forgiveness prompted the religious leaders to give Jesus another challenge, this challenge dealt with divorce. In this teaching the disciples rightly observed that according to the purity of Jesus’s teaching it would be best not to get married. Marriage is hard. It requires constant forgiveness and reconciliation, but there are benefits to the practice of reconciliation.
All of these stories brought people closer to Jesus. Children wanted to be close, and even people with worldly wealth and success were encouraged to consider the teachings of Jesus. One man came to Jesus who was young and wealthy. He asked what he must do to have eternal life. It is the answer to this question that today’s story emerges. This man comes to Jesus, and Jesus urges him to follow the law. The man says that he has kept all these from his youth. He, like so many people, look at their lives and they believe that they are good people. How could a good God find anything wrong with them? We like to think that we are all good on our own merit, but the truth is that we often might do the right things for the wrong reasons.
I have never killed a person, but when patients runs thin I have entertained ideas that are not exactly savory. I have not purposely bent a knee to an idol, but I have put some temporal concerns in front of faithful devotion. I am a good person yet I am not perfect.
Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a man that owns a vineyard. That man needs people to work the vines, so he goes to the place the day laborers congregate and he hires some with the assurance that he will pay them what is just. These men accept the contract and get to work. The man returns to the town and hires people even when there is only an hour left in the work day. And as the day draw to an end he gathers those men together and he begins to give them their pay. The problem is he pays the last first and the first last.
This parable can be confusing because of all the ideological concepts we hold in our minds. We rightfully agree that an individual should be paid a just wage but when all those that worked get paid the same even when some worked only an hour, we feel that there is injustice at hand. It raises the question as to what Jesus means when he says that the kingdom of heaven is like this.
It is important to remember that this parable is spoken directly after the conversation with the man we often call the rich young ruler. At the end of that conversation Jesus lamented of the difficulty of the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. He went so far as to say that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom. Of course, that cryptic example has had biblical scholars trying to understand exactly what was meant by the words. They have attempted to say that it was a very short and narrow gate for special uses, no such gate has ever been found nor has one been written about so we are left with just the words and a needle. The disciples looked at Jesus in astonishment and said, “Who then can be saved?”
The disciples ask this question because they realized the complete devotion required to follow Jesus. Jesus told that man that he should let go of his entire estate, give it away to others, and to walk away completely to follow him. We credit the disciples with having that kind of faith, yet even they did not walk away completely at this point. We have several instances where they get back on the boats to do a bit of fishing while they were with Jesus. Even after the resurrection we hear the voice of Peter in scripture saying that he is tired of waiting and is going out to fish. That statement is not a man wishing to commune with God in nature, but what we might call back sliding. Peter was contemplating turning away from Jesus to return to his old lifestyle. Just like the rich young ruler, Peter and all the disciples had areas to where they did not fully trust God.
It is in this area of hesitancy that Jesus challenges them with this story. What are we to do with this metaphor of the kingdom when it seems to go against human understanding? We try grasp it by saying that the owner of the vineyard is God, and that this is a story of the end of days, but that does not resemble the general regard of Jesus’s other parables. When Jesus spoke about the unforgiving servant, he spoke in that manner because he wanted the disciples to begin the practice of reconciliation here and now. He wanted them to do that because if we are living lives of unforgiveness we are binding ourselves from experiencing the fullness of the promised abundant life. If the parable on forgiveness has application to our lives here and now, this parable also applies today.
When I first came to this Meeting to serve as a pastor, we prayed together to formulate a statement of who we are and our mission. We prayed for several months over this and we came up with something very profound. That statement is Loving God, Embracing the Holy Spirit, and Living the love of Christ with others. I love that statement because it resembles the holy rhythm I see in the life and lifestyle Jesus. He made it his custom to worship in the synagogues with the community, that custom of worship is our expression of loving God. He would withdraw often to isolated places to pray and a life of prayer is embracing the Holy Spirit. After spending time in prayer Jesus would then move into some form of ministry. He would teach, heal, or move to a different community. When we live our lives of worship and prayer, it should lead us to ministry of some form. That is how we live the love of Jesus with others, we live the life we see in the pages of scripture. We use those things that we have available to us in ways that will bring glory to God and encourage others to embrace the life we enjoy with Christ.
When Jesus told this parable, he is telling us something profound. He is telling us that the kingdom of heaven is different than the kingdoms of men. Jesus wants us to look at the man. A man that has worldly means. He has a vineyard large enough that he is required to hire laborers to complete the work that needs done. I am not sure how large this vineyard is, nor does it even matter, all we know is that he needs help and is willing to pay others to do the work. This man finds people to do the work and they agree on the payment. But the man goes back out, again and again, why?
A business is important to a community. A well-run business provides jobs which provides income, which is used in the purchase of goods and services in the community. Each business, no matter how large, is good for the community. Even the kingdoms of men recognize this fact, but the man in Jesus’s story takes this a different way. He has a vineyard and from the information we are given we can assume that it is a successful vineyard. This man looks beyond personal profit and looks at the community. He sees people standing around out of work and he knows that they will not be able to feed their children that day unless they earn some money, so he offers them a job because he has work to be done. He walks through the town again, he might have stopped by and talked to a few friends along the way. Maybe in one of those conversations this man learned that some businesses were struggling because their customers did not have money to spend. And the man looks up and he sees that there were people standing around waiting to be hired. He becomes concerned. His vineyard is fine, but the baker is struggling. The baker will not accept charity because there are others that need it more than he, so how will this man who loves his community help? He walks over to the men standing and waiting to be hire.
He goes to them knowing that they are waiting to be hire because their labor for some reason is not needed, and each man that is standing there is one less loaf of bread that his friend the baker will sell. His friend cannot hire those men, but he can. He hires the extra workers because his community is important. He is using what he has available to him to encourage those that are discouraged. To him it is not about profit, it is about community.
Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like that man. A man that see someone in his community that is in need and figures out some way to encourage them. We all have a place in the community, each of us working together makes our community better. Every seemingly insignificant thing we do, adds something to our community. We need each other, yet often we can get distracted. The laborers in the story were distracted, they ones that were hired first were upset because they felt as if they deserved more. Sometimes we are like that. We do not see the larger picture of what is going on around us. We only see that aspect right in front of us. They saw a man that only worked an hour get a full day’s pay and they felt that it was injustice. But do they see the larger picture? This man was not concerned with himself; he was living a kingdom lifestyle. His objective was to make sure as many people could eat as possible. His objective was to encourage as many people as possible. Every time he went out to hire men, the baker saw, the fish mongers saw, every business in the town saw and they all knew that those laborers would be visiting their stalls to make purchases.
We often miss the point of this parable. We focus on the labor, or the generosity of the landowner, but we forget to read the context. Jesus told this parable to highlight the reality that it is difficult for people to enter the kingdom. It is difficult because so often we fail to see the responsibility we have to use all that we have for God’s glory. The kingdom of heaven is like the man who owns a vineyard and is willing to face ridicule for his generosity. Are we becoming the blessing that people need?