Today’s scripture is one of those mysterious, this-isn’t-how-the-world-works kinds of things that always seems to grab my attention and make me wrestle with who I am as a person.
See, I believe in “fair.” I say I got a double-dose of it genetically, from my mother and my father. My dad was my swimming coach from the time I was twelve until I graduated from high school; my mom was the one who stayed up with me, watching the NCAA tournament and rooting on the underdogs (favorite NCAA moment ever? Harold Archineaux and Weber State defeating UNC!) Fair is what I’ve coached my soccer, swimming, and baseball teams; it’s what I’m teaching my children.
But like so many things about the kingdom of God, our expectations and Jesus’ reality meet in the middle and there’s an explosion. Today, we’ll look at the Parable of the Vineyard, and look at some of the other questions raised in the “Stump the Pastor” contest about how the kingdom of God works.
This parable is a good place to start, as it speaks to a few of the things that have become national news, like Obamacare and welfare. We know that Jesus spoke to the issue of money and spending more than he talked about many other things, like sex, occupation, and heaven itself- all of those would’ve made our lives easier, wouldn’t they?
Here, Jesus tells the story of a man who owned a vineyard and paid a group of workers a denarius, which they all agree to. But because the work is so plentiful, the owner goes out at 9 a.m., and noon, and 3 p.m., and 5 p.m., and contracts with four more groups of workers for the same amount of money.
Seriously, who isn’t getting a little hot under the collar here? He’s going to pay everyone the same, whether they worked for an hour or all day?
That isn’t fair! (See, you knew it was coming.)
I find myself saying that when I see a call go against my team when I’m watching a sporting event. Or when I see someone else go by me on the highway doing thirty over, and I’m the one who gets a ticket. Or when someone does something wrong, and I retaliate, and I’m the one who gets in trouble.
That isn’t fair!
But this parable says that the money doesn’t matter because the wage isn’t important.
It’s about the work that needs done. It’s about the people who need a purpose. It’s about the relationship of belonging between the owner of the vineyard, God, and the people who buy into the work, that is, the believers.
Consider today, how we know what it is that God cares about. Was it fair that Jesus would die on the cross for our sins? Was it just that an innocent man would be executed, beaten, and abused? Was it justice? No, it was mercy and it was grace.
God’s mercy and grace are the big answers to many of life’s questions. They fill in the blanks, they soothe our anxieties, they cover over our flaws. But we have so many questions, so many unknown answers, and here are more of my answers to the questions raised earlier this spring.
When God said, “let there be light,” who was he talking to?
John 1 comes to mind when someone asks this question: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” Christians commonly understand that God is three persons in two natures (seminary lesson coming!) where there are three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) who are eternal, without beginning or end. When God said, “let there be light,” it’s a figure of speech by which the world was created through the power of the Son. Jesus (and the Holy Spirit) were present with God the Father outside of time and space before the world was created. Internal dialogue or person-to-person conversation, either one allows us to see that God was creating within community.
As someone who doesn’t read the book of Genesis as entirely word-for-word historical account, I see God’s creation of the world as happening organically out of the abundance of God’s love. God is love and community, and wanted to share that, and poured out that love by way of making the Earth and everything in it. How exactly he did that is beyond us (for now).
Do you think that the nature of God changes overt time in response to his creation? I don’t believe that God’s nature changes, but I believe that God interacts with his creation intentionally, and that creation interacts with God in growing degrees of understanding. Again, I’m hesitant to explain Noah as a historical figure who had three sons, a wife, built an ark, let out a dove, etc. but I believe that there were people who God shielded or protected from the flood (considering that the flood narrative is a rather broad and basic element of many cultures’ origin stories). My reading there says the focus is on the grace of God to save some (even if they didn’t deserve it) in the ark story, and that grows to the point where some (even if they don’t deserve it) recognize the saving power of Jesus. All along the way, similar to the story of the man during the hurricane who doesn’t recognize the speedboat, the raft, or the helicopter as God’s answers to his prayers, I think God was working for good, for compassion, for salvation, all along, but humanity failed to full grasp it until Jesus.
Of course, there were some questions about the afterlife: Why do you go to hell if you can’t forgive or forget? What happens to your spirit/soul between the time you die and judgment?
First off, we don’t know exactly who goes to hell. Thank God! What we do know is that those who believe in Jesus Christ and put their full trust in his death and resurrection will spend eternity with God. That is the only thing I am willing to stand on top of and jump up and down, and call non-negotiable!
So, second, the rest is conjecture, and theory, and unpacking. What can we know? What can we understand? Check these out…
In Matthew 19, Jesus tells Peter that when the Son of Man sits on his throne, all things will be renewed. In Colossians 1:16-20, it again says that Jesus was the means by which God created all things, and that God will reconcile all things in earth and heaven through the death on the cross. In Hebrews 11, we’re told that the “saints” who’ve gone before us are watching us and cheering us on, so we understand that they are without pain and safe, but also aware enough of us to be ‘rooting’ for us.
We see hell in figurative terms. A few weeks ago, we saw that the ungenerous, the rich man, went to hell because he had it all on Earth and didn’t behave like a member of the kingdom. Jesus says in Matthew 7 that the road to destruction is broad and the road to life narrow, that not everyone who calls Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom. Jesus says if you call anyone a “fool” you will be in the danger of the fire of hell…. But again, in John 14:6, Jesus definitively states that, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Sure, John is the most poetic of the Gospel-writers, but he might as well have said, “all other roads to anywhere aren’t God’s.” If you don’t have God, if you don’t have Jesus, then the alternative to heaven certainly seems to be hell.
There’s some discussion about what the Greek words mean around the “everlasting” portion of hell. Is it actually forever and ever? It is temporal (not existing prior to God creating the world) but if there’s free will, people have to at least be able to experience ‘not God,’ right? Is it really used as a means to provide change and growth? I don’t know for sure (I’m not sure anyone does). But I do know that it says that the wages of sin is death and the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.
Paul seemed to think that the deciding who’s in and who’s out game wasn’t for us, anyway. In Romans, it says that Christ died and returned to life so that he would be Lord of the dead and the living. “You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written: “‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God.'” So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another.”
Rob Bell wrote, “Often the people most concerned about others going to hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now, while people most concerned with the hells on earth right now seem the least concerned about hell after death. Lazarus is an affirmation that there are all kinds of hells, because there are all kinds of ways to resist and reject all that is good and true and beautiful and human now, in this life, and so we can only assume we can do the same in the next” (Love Wins).
But again, back to Paul, we know that this has so much good held out for us. Romans 8:19-23 says, “For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” So it’s not just us! It’s all of creation! The dogs, cats, plants, mountains, ozone, stars, sky—all are waiting for the renewal in this new heaven and a new earth.
What Jesus bought with a price (I Corinthians 6:20), what he actually died for (I Corinthians 15) is that we can be made right with God, that we be made right with each other. Our eternal life starts at the moment of our salvation, but sometimes we don’t live like that. Sometimes we are so tempted by the hope of our eternal, imperishable bodies (I Corinthians 15:40-45) that we fail to see that our current spiritual body is just as important to God. And if God breathed his spirit into Adam, and that’s what made him human, then we need to recognize the breath of God in each other, EVEN THOSE WHO DO NOT YET BELIEVE.
And that’s where the last question I’ll try and answer today comes in: “how can we be positive in a negative world?”
I think it starts with heaven. If heaven isn’t just a payoff for living a crappy life, for surviving, maintaining, not losing oneself but is actually a continuation without pain and suffering of the kingdom of God, then how could we not look for glimmers of it in the here and now?
Ask yourselves, “Are we living with the hope of eternal life? Has heaven ‘bled’ backward into the way that we treat each other? Do we pray for our enemies that their lives will be renewed and made better RIGHT NOW with the belief that they will be infinitely better in the future?”
I think that when we reflect on heaven, we get it wrong and think it’s boring and lifeless, sanitized hospital beds and white walls. To me, heaven looks a lot like the colors of the rainbow with gifts and graces showering down on all of us, like a Garden of Eden before the Fall.
John Eldredge writes that “Nearly every Christian I have spoken with has some ideat that eternity is an un-ending church service. We have settled on an image of the never-ending sing-a-long in the sky, one great hymn after another, forever and ever, amen. And our heart sinks. Forever and ever? That’s it? That’s the good news? And then we sigh and feel guilty that we are not more ‘spiritual.’ We lose heart and turn once more to the present to find what life we can” (Desire).
What if our definition of worshipping God in heaven is too small? Back in Genesis 2, he put man in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. Pre-fall, pre-sin, there’s an understanding that man was working in paradise! No one is retired there! We all take joy in the meaningful purposes of paradise. And how do we seem to lose sight of God’s desire for relationship over and over again? There’s this idea that somehow, at death, we get mindwiped of all our relationships, memories, ideas, etc. We tell little kids that their puppy or grandparent is looking down from heaven, but we fear that when we get there, we’re going to be mindless Jesus zombies.
God constantly uses broken people to help build the kingdom on Earth so why would he rub out all of our differences, our creativity, or made-in-the-image-of-a-beautiful-and-creative-God-ness when we die?
C.S. Lewis wrote in Problem of Pain that “He makes each soul unique. If He had no use for all these differences, I do not see why He should have created more souls than one. Be sure that the ins and outs of your individuality are no mystery to Him; and one day they will no longer be a mystery to you…Our soul has a curious shape because it is a hollow made to fit a particular swelling in the infinite contours of the Divine substance, or a key to unlock one of the doors in the house with many mansions… But God will look to every soul like its first love because He is its first love. Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you and you alone, because you were made for it—made for it stitch by stitch as a glove is made for the hand.”
There has to be some degree of community, identity, and relationship in heaven, otherwise why would God be 3 in 1? If Jesus commanded his disciples in Matthew (referencing the Shemah of the OT) to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,'” then there’s something about heaven that has to be relational as well. We can’t love God if we’re not loving each other—right now AND later. We can’t really get heaven if we can’t appreciate the here and now, the work and the play, the highs and the lows, the hope of the future– RIGHT NOW.
We will be given new bodies: painfree, perfect, beautiful, and recognizable bodies. Augustine wrote in The City of God that “all that is excessive will be removed without destroying the integrity of the substance. In the resurrection of the flesh, the body shall be that size which it either had attained or should have attained in the flower of its youth, and shall enjoy the beauty that arises from symmetry and proportion in all its members.”
C.S. Lewis captured this beautifully in The Last Battle. (Can you tell I love C.S. Lewis?) The heroes have battled at last and are surveying the place that Aslan, the Christ figure, has brought them to. They don’t recognize it at first but slowly they begin to understand that what they are seeing reminds them of what they have left behind, only somehow… BETTER.
“And yet they’re not like,” said Lucy. “They’re different. They have more colours on them and they look further away than I remembered and they’re more . . . more . . . oh, I don’t know . .”
“More like the real thing,” said the Lord Digory softly. “When Aslan said you could never go back into Narnia, he meant the Narnia you were thinking of. But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia which has always been here and always will be here: just as our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world. You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy. All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door. And of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream. . . .”
It was the Unicorn who summed up what everyone was feeling. He stamped his right forehoof on the ground and neighed, and then cried: “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this.”
Instead of a Lifeboat theology (Paul Marshall) that assumes the world is the Titanic and we’re all headed for an iceberg, why not adopt a more Scripturally sound Ark theology, where we recognize that we’re not selling fire insurance—we’re providing people with real life? We’re reminding them that in the midst of the floods, and the fire, and the wars, that God has a plan that he has been faithful to since the world began? There is plenty to be positive about there!
The United Methodist Church asserts:
“that the reign of God is both a present and future reality. The church is called to be that place where the first signs of the reign of God are identified and acknowledged in the world. Wherever persons are being made new creatures in Christ, wherever the insights and resources of the gospel are brought to bear on the life of the world, God’s reign is already effective in its healing and renewing power. We also look to the end time in which God’s work will be fulfilled. This prospect gives us hope in our present actions as individuals and as the Church. This expectation saves us from resignation and motivates our continuing witness and service.”
So what do we do about the kingdom, and our ideas about heaven and hell, fair and unfair? I say we give them all to God. Confess our sins and put our full faith in Jesus’ resurrection. Share your faith, knowing that if you believe this to be true, there is no greater love than this to share, whether it’s easy or hard, knowing that your faith is a journey. Relinquish our desire to determine who gets in where. God doesn’t need us to defend him. He doesn’t need us to worry about fair. He has already busted the lid off of justice and mercy, and let the contents spill all over us. If we don’t live like that, then it doesn’t matter what we think about heaven.
A few years ago, I wrote this: “if we believe that an absolutely loving God absolutely loved us enough to want to be with us forever, we need to absolutely love each other and everyone else so that absolute love will reign absolutely.” That’s the final piece there: if we believe this, even the smallest ounce of any of it, then we should be changed.
Our idea of “fair” has to change. And our ideas about justice, compassion, generosity, hope, grace, and, ultimately, love.
This kingdom of God thing is a beautiful mystery. It’s here now, and coming. It’s God’s best for us, and we get to actively be part of it.
What changes will you make this Lent to be a citizen of the kingdom? A resident Christ-follower?
There is much work to do, and many who need to hear about it. Why wait to start?