Thursday, 25 September 2014

Has God mistreated you? Matt 20

A common phrase used in advertising is, ”you deserve it”. I’ve seen it in car commercials- “you deserve a car this good”. I’ve seen it in bank ads, fast food ads, and beer ads. This phrase is everywhere. Why? Because it works on us. There is a part of us that feels entitled. Part of us is always feeling like things just aren’t fair and we deserve something more than we are getting at the moment. We have become hyper-sensitized to fairness. So we look at those who have more and we start to think we deserve what they have too. Be begin feeling entitled.
This way of thinking can sometimes creep into the church too. We can start to feel like we have been mistreated by God. We can think about how much money we have given to the church, or how much time we have given volunteering at the church, and then we reach some difficult patch in our life and we get upset at God as if God owes us something better for the way we have supported the church. Or we get upset because we believe the church owes us for what we have given. Don’t get me wrong, the church should treat her own well and we should be grateful to her own members. No good deed should go unnoticed or unappreciated in the church, but if we think God owes us because of what we have given or done for the church then we should re-think that carefully.
Has God mistreated you? That is a central question for our soul. Don’t answer that question without asking it seriously and deeply. How you answer that question will tell you a lot about your soul. The Christian spiritual teacher Dallas Willard has taught that if you don’t believe God has been good to you, you really can’t believe God is good. And that is a serious matter. … I think we all have moments when we fall into this way of thinking, but it is a pretty significant and poisonous error.     
In our Gospel reading today Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who hires people to work in his vineyard. Some who had no other work would stand around and wait to be hired for the day. So the landowner went in the morning and hired people to work his land for the usual daily wage- a denarius. He went again at noon, and then 3:00 in the afternoon and then again at 5:00. Each time he went out he hired more people. Quitting time was around 6:00 or 7:00 and so the landowner lines the workers up to get paid. He begins paying the workers and starts with those who only worked an hour. To their surprise he pays them a full day’s wage- a denarius. Those who worked all day start getting excited because they start assuming this is the hourly wage. But when it comes to be their turn they get paid the same as the workers who only worked an hour.      
Then we read, “And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 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.' But he replied to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?'”
Those who only worked an hour did not have any work all day and they likely still had a family to feed. The generosity of the landowner helped them with what they needed for that day. Those who worked harder and longer agreed to work for the usual day’s wage. He did them no wrong, but he wanted to be generous to those who had a hard time finding work and who had children to feed back home.
I think most of us can relate to how the workers were feeling. We see this kind of situation come up over and over in the gospel. Jesus tells another parable about a Father and two sons (Luke 15). The younger son dishonors his father by asking for the inheritance he would get when his father dies. He then takes his money off to another country and uses the money to party. Eventually the money runs out and he finds himself on the verge of starving. He goes back to his Father and is received with open arms. The older son who stayed behind and worked with his father is indignant. He stayed and did what was right, his younger brother who wasted the family inheritance on partying is received back with open arms and a party? It’s not fair. Like the landowner, the father’s generosity is seen as being unfair.
We might feel this inside ourselves when we read about Jesus’ interaction with the criminals on the crosses beside his own. One of them says to the other criminal, “… we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’” (Luke 23:41-43). Isn’t there a little part of you that goes, “what the…? How’s that fair? Life as a criminal then a deathbed repentance?” Over and over again Jesus tells us that we will be shocked (even scandalized) by the generosity and mercy of God. Jesus often gave his attention to the marginalized- those who were on the outside of the community, rather than to the Pharisees who gave their time to learning the law and trying to live it.   
Perhaps this was the feeling between long-time disciples and new converts. No doubt this was happening between Christian Jews and Gentiles. The Jewish people were chosen by God to enter into a special covenant. God worked with them through prophets, and poets, and priests, and philosophers to help shape them into God’s special people. Suddenly, these non-Jewish Gentiles want to join up. The Jewish Christians had generations of ancestors following God, living with scripture, and waiting for the messiah. The Gentiles didn’t have the family history, if they were Romans then they were a part of the people who were oppressing their people. So it would be tempting for Jewish Christians to treat Gentile Christians as if they were second class. It was as if they didn’t deserve as much because their families and ancestors hadn’t worked for God as hard.         
We can get into the mindset that God owes us for our service and our giving. We have offered more to God and served longer than the thief on the cross, so we deserve more. We can be like the older brother who stays home- we deserve a bigger party for our loyalty and service.
It is important to point out that when we give to God we only really give what God has already given us. In 1 Chronicles 29 we read “Everything in heaven and earth is yours. … Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand” (1 Chronicles 29:11,14).  When I was a child I remember my mom giving me money so I could buy her a Mother’s Day present. It’s a bit like that with God. He gives us everything and we give some back to Him. He gives us time, and we donate a bit of our time to Him. He gives us talent and we use some of it in service to God. Every breath and heartbeat is a gift from God to us. If that’s reality and we actually believe it, then how could God ever owe us? If that’s reality isn’t the bare minimum the whole offering of ourselves to Him? Don’t we owe him a life of service?
We can’t really think about our life with God as an economic transaction though. It’s not about earning and owing. Jesus called us friends. We serve and give because we love God. It’s not about earning anything. It is a relationship. We don’t keep track of the hours we spend with our friends and then think they owe us something for the hours we put in. You don’t earn a wage for spending time with a friend. That is just what friends do. Being friends with God means we will pray, and serve, and give. Not to earn anything, but because we love God.  And sometimes we won’t get thanked, but it’ll be okay because we know that God sees is and receives it as an act of love.    
Some saints talk about there being three spiritual stages.[1] The first is the stage of being a ‘Slave of God’. People in this stage can be deeply religious and devoted. They can have a strong desire to serve God, but they are motivated by fear. They see God primarily as the slave master that is ready to punish them. Some perhaps need to start here. Perhaps some criminals need the fear of judgment to break their addiction to their criminal activity.         
The second stage is being as ‘employees of God’. These people aren’t motivated primarily by fear, but rather are motivated by reward. They want to receive paradise. In exchange for their good works they want to be rewarded by God. They see the spiritual life as an economic exchange. They work for God and He pays them in blessings and eternal life. They want to get paid on the basis of their good works. This also leaves them feeling entitled as if God owes them. The employees that worked all day in Jesus’ parable would fall into this category. These people can do great things for God in the church and they can be very generous with their time talent and treasure. But their error is thinking God owes them.
The third and final stage is that of ‘children of God’ or ‘lovers of God’. In this stage people see god not as a slave-master, or as an employer, but as their loving father.  They don’t act based on fear of punishment, or on the basis of earning. Rather, they are motivated by their love of God. They are like a child comfortable in their Father’s home. They know they are members of the family. It is a relationship of freedom. Service is done out of love and generosity is celebrated.
Let us serve and give out of love for our Father, and not as employees or slaves. Let us recognize that God owes us nothing and that we owe him everything. But more than that, may God free us from thinking about him in terms of earning. May we recognize that a loving relationship with Him is the greatest thing we could ever need or want. AMEN.

[1] Gifts of the desert, kyriacos markides, ch 7

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