There are a few ways we can look at Proper 20A’s Gospel reading. The general interpretation is that in Matthew 20:1-16 Jesus is speaking about entry into the Kingdom of God. Salvation isn’t reserved for the Jews but for everyone who believes, and even the people who are “saved last” (ie the Gentiles) will have the same reward as those who entered first. In a way, the last ones are even better off, for the Gentiles never had the law to guide them as the Jews did. A second interpretation is that Jesus is speaking here about grace in a more overarching way: God’s grace is the same to everyone who believes, regardless of their works, because in Christ our righteousness is equal. A final interpretation is more prophetic in nature. Jesus used the reality of unemployment and poverty in first century Palestine to school his audience in the Jubilee nature of the Kingdom of God. In this interpretation, practical (read: monetary) matters don’t fall outside the scope of God’s Kingdom. The wealthy and powerful don’t get a free pass to do with their finances as they please (a common enough situation in the society Jesus lived and taught in); their affairs are as subject to God’s Kingdom as the rest of them. In fact, in view of the workers’ resentment of equal wages, everyone should be careful not to idolise money. Of course these interpretations aren’t mutually exclusive. I want to focus on the kernel in each interpretation, which is this idea of “entry”–everyone gets to come in: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).
Time and time again Jesus taught that the only requirement to salvation (and through salvation the full participation in his family, his Kingdom and its work) is repentance. The only sin we need repent of to be “allowed in” is our unbelief. The process of sanctification is a result of this repentance, this metanoia or “turning around”, and as such its lack isn’t enough to deny our salvation, our entry into God’s Kingdom.
This is pretty basic, but I think it’s important to remember this in our “churchified” societies (in the Westernised world, at least). In many churches, entry into God’s Kingdom is wrongfully equated with the process of sanctification itself. It’s a works-based mentality that demands “evidence” of our salvation, when the only evidence needed is our salvation itself. God’s grace is in full evidence in our salvation, regardless of what we do with that salvation. The old objection, “So I can give my life to Christ and go on sinning till the day I die?” actually holds true. You could. That’s grace.
But, we Pew Fillers object, that’s unfair! And if we see grace as something that’s earned through our comparative goodness or obedience or God forbid, church attendance, then yes, it is unfair! It’s outrageous! But if we see grace as an undeserved gift – one the Giver, Jesus, can do with as it pleases him – then we realise that no, it’s not so unfair. The parable Jesus tells in Matthew 20:1-16 makes clear that the amount of work done has nothing to do with the wages paid. The “wage” of grace is always the same, it’s always complete and it’s always free because it isn’t a wage at all, but a gift. We cannot earn it.
The reason I wanted to discuss this particular interpretation is because any discussion of how unearned grace is must be encouraging. We cannot earn grace. This should be a relief whether our week has been filled with good deeds or bad ones, because damn it all, our effort or lack of it has nothing to do with what we get. We get it all. That’s been established. When we “continue to work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12), it means simply realising again and again that we have been saved. It’s happened. “It is finished,” Jesus said. That’s the beginning and the end of it. That’s why grace is freedom from sin and death: it breaks their rules. It breaks their cycle. It changes the world.
Who we identify with in this parable will tell us a lot about our faith, and in what, or whom, our faith is. Do we identify with the labourers who’ve been at it since morning? Are we the ones who showed up later still, or last? Are we still standing around at the marketplace, waiting? Grace tells us clearly that it doesn’t matter which of these “workers” we are. Our gift is the same: it is inclusion, it is grace, it is life, it is God looking at you and saying, “Yes, yes, yes.”
Sometimes it’s so hard to trust that You know best.
Hard to trust that You’re good and kind and faithful and just.
That You’re true. That You’re real.
The world is as convincing as a politician, and as full of promises. Promises that in times of hardship, difficulty, pain and uncertainty – oh, the uncertainty! – look if not better, then at least more likely.
And You never were a politician.
Never said what the “It” crowd wanted to hear.
Never stood with the powerful or the perverse.
Never wavered from the Kingdom way You proclaimed.
Father’s Son, You always spoke true
(and good and kind and merciful)
calling, inviting, encouraging.
Speak to me today. Speak to me of trust.
Speak to me of truth: Your truth.
Speak to me of mercy over judgment
and repentance over sin
and love over apathy, anger, and hatred,
of patience and gentleness and self-control.
Speak to me the good words of obedience
and faith, of resurrection life, of You, Your Spirit, and our Father.
Speak, Lord. It’s Monday, but Your servant is listening
(or trying to, anyways.)
In Matthew 18:15-20, we saw that Jesus took the very human impulse to shun outliers from fellowship and urged his disciples to treat them as “pagans and tax collectors” – which seems harsh until you remember how Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors! In this week’s reading, Matthew 18:21-35, Jesus’ teaching becomes more explicit as he first tells Peter to forgive sins “seventy times seven” (an infinite amount) and then cautions his disciples via the parable of the ungrateful servant to forgive as they’ve been forgiven.
Theoretically, we Christians should be great at this. We’ve experienced first hand (and daily continue to) the love, mercy and forgiveness of Jesus Christ. Yet it seems like we’re often the worst of the worst when it comes to mercy! We erroneously assign ourselves as the gatekeeper to the sheep pen rather than as sheep under the guidance of our Shepherd, Jesus Christ, and use this “gatekeeper” mentality to try and put up walls between people – imperfect people, people who don’t look, act or think the way we do, people we feel threatened by or superior over – and Jesus. It’s the height of arrogance, and I think it’s rooted in a very simple misconception: we think the debt is ours to forgive.
In the parable of the unforgiving servant, we learn that the servant owes a huge amount of money to his king – ten thousand talents, a talent being equivalent to twenty years of a day labourer’s wage. It’s an insurmountable debt. Jesus was using hyperbole to demonstrate how ludicrous the repayment of such a sum was and to show how much was being forgiven.
When the forgiven servant finds another who owes him a hundred denarii, or the equivalent of a hundred days’ of a labourer’s wage, he flies into a rage. But if we read this attentively, we realise that the money the forgiven servant was demanding back probably wasn’t his to begin with. He’d lent it from the coffers of his own fraud. That he’d demand back stolen money as if it was his own makes his cruelty and ingratitude all the worse.
Christians often act the same way. When we see people whose “sin” we don’t agree with (or aren’t guilty of in our own estimation) we put on the brass knuckles to pummel them…”for God”. Whenever we move into God’s judgment seat or attempt to take the reigns of his wrath, we’re laying claim to a debt that was never to us or ours to begin with. Like the ungrateful servant, we go around demanding back what doesn’t rightfully belong to us: God’s grace.
The Nashville Statement is a good example of this. A body of Christians used their brand of theology to “defend” God’s righteousness and salvation against anybody who doesn’t look, act or think the way they do. Rather than use the enormous gift of grace they received themselves to shine the beacon of freedom in Christ, they’ve used their reprieve to withhold reprieve from others.
Friends, how arrogant are we when we behave this way! The Nashville Statement is a very visible example, but opportunities to act as a debt collector for a debt that isn’t ours – to steal, in others words, much like him of the thieving and destroying – are everywhere. Proper 19A’s narrative reading is a great time and place to remind ourselves and those around us just what we have in God’s grace, and that our calling is to humbly enlarge this circle of God’s light, not to patrol its borders with exclusionary theology, fear and judgment.
As You invented the seven-day week model, I hold You personally responsible for Mondays. A big part of me wants to hold you responsible for this Monday in particular; for everything from my bad night’s sleep to floods in India to the real possibility that I’ll check Twitter at some point today and see that North Korea and the US’s posturing men children leaders have started a nuclear war. I want to hold You responsible for the prayer request I received from a woman in a terrible situation. I want to hold You responsible for me.
This is very unfair of me I know, and hardly deserved. Still, sometimes the gulf between knowing something and feeling something is nigh insurmountable. I think You know about that gulf: after all, against all caution, You created us and hoped… Someone’s clearly an optimist.
I think it’s that hope I need most this week: hope against all hope. Hope against all hope that sleep will be caught up, that Tuesday won’t loom as large, that cooler heads will prevail, that the places that need sunshine more than rain will get it and that the places that need rain rather than sunshine will get it too. Hope that a married man will come to his senses or fall down a hole (either will do). Hope that I could be less of a Dumpster fire (I did say hope against all hope).
I need Your hope. The whole world needs Your hope.
Praying for it today, Lord, and for Trump’s Twitter app to crash.