Is the Kingdom of God Fair?

In Matthew 19:16-20:16 we read one of Jesus’ most challenging conversations, an exchange with a wealthy young man, which is followed by a parable about workers in a vineyard. It is challenging to read both because the wealthy young man struggles with Jesus, but also because the parable quickly touches upon some of our in-built cultural values in North America.

First, the wealthy young man cannot give all for following Jesus because the possessions in his life have too strong a grip on him. He cannot obey Jesus’ words, “go, sell your possessions and give to the poor…then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). The greatness of his wealth became a roadblock to his discipleship. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). The apostles are flabbergasted in light of the prevailing Jewish view that wealth affirms God’s blessing on one’s life. If those who are wealthy cannot enter the kingdom with ease (19:23-24) then what about those who are not wealthy? What about the ones, like them, who have little and have even given their meager resources for the kingdom? How much more difficult, they thought, will it be for people with little to enter the kingdom.

And so, Jesus goes on to tell a parable to expand on the idea that “many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (19:30). It is a parable of troublesome grace for those, like me, who operate on the system of fairness. A landowner hires five rounds of workers through the course of the day to work in his vineyard. While those hired first worked all day, those hired last worked only a few hours. But here is where the scandalous grace comes in: the landowner pays all the workers the same day’s wage regardless of when they began work. The earliest workers agreed to this (20:2, 13), but they are offended by the generosity of the landowner. In the back of my mind, a voice cries out like an alarm: “it’s just not fair!”

But that is just the point. The Kingdom of God is not about fairness, but about grace. What the earliest followers of Jesus thought was the system of fairness in God’s blessing was turned upside down. “Many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” Why? Because in His scandalous generosity, God unleashes grace without measure on all who come to Him. Whether early or late, we all receive an equal portion of the grace of God that is without measure or bounds.

Make every effort and see to it!

marathon

14 Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. 16 See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. (Hebrews 12:14-16)

In this passage the writer of Hebrews admonishes God’s people to live together centered on life in God instead of turning aside.  Two decisive verbs capture our attention in this section.

The first of those is “make every effort.” The believers are to make every effort to live in peace together and also to be holy or to be sanctified. As we discussed last week, there is a call to Christian unity in the peace of the Lord that requires effort and hard work. We have to help one another and stand together in the long endurance race of faith. It is not easy because we will grow weary and sometimes are wounded, but that is why we are called to make every effort. This is not contrary to the grace of God but our strength for the effort comes as an overflow of God’s grace.

This unity is fueled and sustained by holiness, without which no one will see the Lord. Holiness is essential to unity and we cannot sacrifice holiness on the path to unity. Otherwise, we are not talking about Christian unity but something else. Holiness means that we are increasingly reflecting the presence and character of God in our lives. To become holy means that we are turning away from sin and being increasingly re-formed to look more and more like Jesus. This is a work of God in us by the power of the Holy Spirit that will continue until the day that we are with the Lord face to face.

Holiness requires us to “make every effort”; not that we make ourselves holy, but we make the effort of putting ourselves steadily into the place where God can have His way in us. It is firstly a decision of the will, and secondly action within our lives. This is not opposed to God’s grace, but it is both our response to God’s grace and preparatory to God’s grace having its way in us.

The second of the decisive verbs in this section is “see to it.” “See to what?”, we might ask.

First, see to it that no one in the community falls short of God’s grace. Help one another. Walk together. Encourage one another. Correct one another. This is what it means to be the body of Christ. We are not in this for our own growth alone, but for serving one another as the body of Christ. This is why Paul the Apostle writes to the Philippians:

“if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2:1-4)

Just as the Apostle Paul finds joy as he sees the believers live in such tangible unity and care for one another, so, too, the writer of Hebrews calls them to see to it that God’s grace makes its way into each and every one of their lives together.

Secondly, they are to see to it that no one gets off course through sexual immorality or godlessness. Esau is given as an example of someone who just loses their way through godless living, eventually losing the birthright and blessing of God – something that he could not get back.

Brothers and sisters, if we see someone losing their way in sin, we need to gently, but decisively, address it. The writer calls out sexual sin because it was pervasive in the culture of the day but also because it is one of the clearest and most basic manifestations of a life that is at odds with God’s way. This does not mean that sexual sin is weighted as worse in the grand sense, but it is a sign that the same sort of godlessness decried in Esau is happening in us. We should not approach one another with condescending judgmentalism but with humility and grace. The goal of addressing such sin is not condemnation but encouragement and the strengthening of God’s grace in our lives matched by growth in holiness throughout the community.

At its heart these verses call us not to walk away from the essential faith in Jesus Christ. Verse 15 say see “that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many,” which is a reference not to bitterness but to idolatry – a turning away from God – that gripped God’s people during the Exodus. The warning in these verses calls us to stay on course with God and not to lose our way through sin. Make every effort…see to it!

[This is excerpted from my message, “Make Every Effort,” on Hebrews 12:14-29.]

What Love Is This?: a prayer reflection on Psalm 145

Gods-blessing

The Lord is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and rich in love.
The Lord is good to all;
he has compassion on all he has made. (Psalm 145:8-9)

In the stillness, I come to a place of quiet before You, my God. May the wonders of Your presence meet me this morning, Lord. My eyes are on You.

Thank You that You are gracious, giving good gifts to the undeserving. I know that I come to You like a beggar to a king at all times, and I marvel at Your grace to me. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). Who am I to receive such a gift? I am no one, other than one made in Your image and valuable to You.

Thank You that You are compassionate, showering love upon those who have not deserved it and forgiving those who have wronged You. Like a confused child, who selfishly lashes out in disobedience yet is disciplined and consoled by a good parent, so You have showered my life with Your compassion and correction. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). Such mercy! Such compassion!

Thank You for being slow to anger and rich in love. This is such perfection of restraint and lavishing of full charity. As a holy God, there are certainly things that bring forth Your anger. I praise Your firmness in justice and righteousness that calls forth righteous anger in the face of wrong. But thank You as well for being slow to anger so that a transformative turn might occur in human hearts. “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

Thank You for Your patience with me, mixed with compassion and grace, which has brought me to an encounter with the richness of Your love. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). Who am I to receive and experience such love? Who am I that I should experience Your patience—the slowness to anger—that leads to the fullness of love in Jesus Christ? All of this is grace from start to finish, transforming my days with the radiance of Your love and compassion.

Three Figures

Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. (Luke 23:32)

three figures floating above the ground
one with fire in his mouth
rages in desperation against existence
one begs for deliverance
in a strong moment, pleading
with the third for rescue
the last One speaks hope and peace
amidst such hopeless violence
split apart at the place of the Skull
He opens the cosmos wide
with painful grace for all
and welcomes us in


This is the fifth in a group of seven original poems composed for Holy Week, including:

 

The Weekend Wanderer: 16 November 2019

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.

92466“The Necessary Partnership of Truth and Charity” – When difficult issues arise within the faith, you may hear people say, “You need more grace!”, or, “We’ve lost the truth here!” Usually, there is some truth in both statements. However, grace and truth are not a polarity, but two aspects of the character of God that necessarily fit together. Often, we likely misunderstand somehow what grace and truth mean in a specific circumstance or particular issue. Tish Harrison Warren aptly writes here about the partnership of truth and charity.

 

Screen Shot 2019-11-15 at 9.53.06 AM“Amusing Ourselves to Death: Huxley vs Orwell” – Growing up, I heard often about George Orwell’s 1984, first from my older brother and then through my studies. When my own sons reached high school, it was one of the optional books for reading, and I remember more than a few conversations about the dark, post-apocalyptic world Orwell conjured into the imagination through that book. Neil Postman‘s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death makes the case that Orwell’s imaginary is less true to our current life than Aldous Huxley’s apparently more absurd Brave New World. I increasingly agree with that assessment. Here’s a comparative cartoon crash-course in both novels and what they say about our world.

 

Philip Jenkins“The 2010s: A Decade in Faith?Baylor professor of the history of religion and author of The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, Philip Jenkins, reflects on the most meaningful issues or changes in the church in the 2010s. Referencing issues within the United States and world Christianity, Jenkins shares his insights launching off from the questions: “So what will future scholars of Christianity highlight when they write the history of the 2010s? What tremors reshaped the landscape of faith?” This is well worth the read.

 

AND Campaign 2020“The AND Campaign: 2020 Statement on the Presidential Campaign” – Someone from my congregation shared this resource for me and it caught my attention for several reasons. First, here is an effort to stand within historic Christianity that also grapples with various social issues that are at play within the United States. Second, it is an interesting engagement with the political issues of our faith, something we all are going to grapple with in the next two years. Third, it represents a multi-ethnic approach to these issues which is sadly missing in much church engagement with politics.

 

Sandra McCracken“Hymn-writer Sandra McCracken: Worship music should focus less on emotion, more on community” – When I first became a follower of Jesus, the Senior Pastor at my home church invited me to “lead worship” on piano at Sunday night services utilizing contemporary worship music and praise choruses. There wasn’t a lot to work with, but I pulled in songs from the Vineyard or Maranatha, as well as reworked versions of hymns. Now, there is more music than we know what to do with, sustaining an entire industry of worship music. Some of it is helpful, but there are huge gaps. Sandra McCracken highlights one of those gaps in this interview.

 

Music: Sandra McCracken, “We Will Feast in the House of Zion,” from Psalms.

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]