Monday, August 24, 2015

God Owes Me!

I recently read a parable in Matthew 20 that if we are honest with ourselves probably exposes two things within us: our selfish natures and our tendency to rely on works. A summary of the parable is thus: In the morning, a landowner went out to hire laborers for his vineyard. He hired some workers and promised to pay them a denarius for the day. The third hour he hired more workers and said he would give them what was right if they worked in his vineyard. He does the same at the 6th, 9th and 11th hours. At the end of the day, the landowner has his foreman pay the wages from the last workers hired to the first workers hired. The 11th hour workers are paid a denarius. When the first hired are also paid a denarius, they get upset, saying, "These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day." The landowner responds, saying, "Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?"

Before Jesus told the above parable, Peter had basically said, "We left everything to follow you, Jesus. So what will we get?" Jesus tells him that the disciples will be rewarded, but also says that many who are first will be last and last first. He then tells this parable and concludes it, saying, "So the last shall be first, and the first last."

As I read the parable, it hit me that the workers hired at the beginning of the day do two things. First, they focus on themselves as they compare themselves with all the other workers. When generosity is given to the 11th hour workers, they are incensed. It is unfair, they think. Those workers have not done as much so they should receive little. I should get more. But the landowner has not treated them unfairly. He has given them what he promised to give them.

Second, the first workers are looking at their works to measure what they should get. We have been here all day in the heat! We have worked all day long. That means we should get more! They are measuring themselves and the other workers by the works they have done.

I asked myself how this applies to us. The obvious interpretation is that those who are saved early in their lives and those who are saved later will both receive heaven. Receiving the gift of salvation is not dependent on works, but on the generosity of the landowner, the Lord.

But I believe we can view this parable also in light of our earthly lives. Jesus starts this parable by saying, "The kingdom of heaven is like..." And he has been preaching that the kingdom of heaven is here. He has been telling the disciples all throughout Matthew that they should be humble servants in the kingdom.

If we are honest, we might admit that we often look at others, comparing what they have to what we have. And if we are even more honest, we might admit that this thinking can turn on God, accusing him of being unfair. "God, I have done this and this and this for you. I have given up this and this and this. But that Christian over there? She hasn't done this and this and this. And look at the way she lives her life. She doesn't act like a Christian. How could you give her this and so?"

Walking in works does not happen just in regards to salvation. We can make works the avenue through which God "owes" us something. We can grumble and whine and complain that God give us what we think is equal to our works. When we do so, we act in selfishness and what we are truly doing is getting upset at the generosity and grace of God towards others. Hear that again. We are upset that God is generous and gracious. We don't want him to be generous and gracious to those who are "worse then us." It isn't fair. But, Christian, grace is not fair. If grace were fair, you would not get it at all.

I think this parable can serve as a catalyst for us to scrutinize our own lives, to ask if there are people we are jealous of because God has given them so much. To ask if we have made our relationship with God quid pro quo. To ask if we are upset that God has kept his promise to us, but has not given us all the extras we think we deserve for being so faithful. To ask if we are angry at God's grace and generosity. And if we are, to expose our attitudes, repent and change.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Get Rid of the Stumbling Block!

Matthew 18 begins with the disciples asking Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. It's always been a little funny to me how concerned the disciples seemed to be over the status of everyone in God's kingdom. Jesus sets them straight each time, and in this instance uses a child as an object lesson, telling them that you need to be like a child or you will never get into the kingdom. It is the humble, Jesus says, that is the greatest in the kingdom.

He then goes on to say that anyone who causes "one such child" to stumble would be better off having a great millstone fastened to his neck and drowned. Contrary to the way this verse is used out of context, the "one such child" is not referring to literal children. The context of the passage makes it clear this refers to disciples of Christ. And why the millstone? The context is Jesus talking about receiving a disciple in his name. Someone who causes a disciple to stumble would be rejecting Jesus. In other words, the rejector is headed to somewhere worse than being drowned with a millstone: hell.

Next comes the verse that I read recently that made me think: "Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes!" (Matthew 18:7). Woe is a term that announces judgment. The gospels often talk of the world as broken and in need of salvation (John 3:16), but here Jesus announces woe to the world because of it causing people to stumble. To stumble means to sin. As Jesus notes, stumbling blocks, temptations to sin, are inevitable. But woe to those that lay them down in front of people!

We live in a world full of stumbling blocks. Often these stumbling blocks are not only laid down to fall over, but praised. Many stumbling blocks are called good and right and brave. I thought of Romans 1:29-32, which says of the unrighteous, "being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them." Sin is lauded and praised. Sin is declared good. Sin is called normal and right. And many stumble because they have been led to the stumbling block.

This begs the question, am I in any way placing a stumbling block in someone's path? Are you? Taking Romans 1:29-32 as our examples, we ask these questions:

Do we engage others in gossip? Do we eagerly join in and listen to gossip?
Do we slander others? Do we like statuses where people slander others?
Do we act prideful, looking down on others? Do we commiserate with other prideful people and put down those who aren't like us?
Do we disobey our parents? Do we encourage others to dishonor their parents?
Do we withhold love and mercy? Do we give a thumbs up to the harsh, unloving words and actions of others?

We need to evaluate our own lives. It's a hard question to ask, but one in light of Matthew 18:7 I believe must be asked. Do I hold a stumbling block in my hands? Have I set it in front of anyone? How can I remove it? Jesus was quite clear that we should do all we can to remove stumbling blocks. In hyperbole, Jesus says it would be better for us to cut off our hands or feet that cause us to sin or tear out our eyes than the be thrown in hell intact. I believe this is a call for us to evaluate ourselves and to do what it takes to remove sin from our lives. And to stop being a stumbling block causing others around us to sin.

Are you stumbling? Are you the source of the stumbling block? Today, throw it away. Today, get rid of the block. May it not be said of us that we are the source of someone's sin.