The following sermon was heavily, heavily influenced by Short Stories by Jesus, a book by Amy-Jill Levine… and there may be some quotes I inadvertently did not expressly acknowledge. If you find something good and worthy of remembering, give her the credit—I was greatly impacted by her work!
As a kid, I used to play the what if game. What if I had superpowers? What if you were the king? What if my dad was smarter than yours?
What if? Let’s play that game with some tougher questions…
- What if the pressing question of the day wasn’t when we could meet in our church building again? (I know it’s important and greatly impactful, but bear with me)
- What if the most pressing question didn’t begin with my salvation or yours, or even the salvation of those in our community? (I’ll admit that what if seems like a stretch, but bear with me again)
- What if the most pressing question wasn’t about career choices, schools to attend, or jobs to pursue?
- What if the most pressing questions had nothing to do with the politics of the day?
- What if the most pressing questions were the ones Jesus might’ve asked?
And of course, that last what if means wondering what those questions might be—and we’ll consider that in a bit.
But let me warn you: the Jesus in the New Testament is far more radical than the Jesus we’ve talked about, preached about, and worshiped. This Jesus has a little patience for the things of this world, particularly where our priorities get out of whack with a gospel, God centered life and practice.
Yet, I thoroughly understand how important it is to understand scripture/ theology correctly, but, all the dotting of i’s and crossing of t’s is of little value if the heart isn’t striving toward God!
I promise you we are going somewhere today, but for the moment, let’s segue to the idea of the Church.
- It is important to understand that the church was not ordained to be a repository of opinions or our favorite beloved traditions.
- It was not organized to serve as a platform for competing debates and arguments over what I like versus what you like.
On the other hand, the church was intended to be a gathering of saved people—a community of those who believe intent on sharing the gift and message of Jesus to the world!
So maybe we ought to consider exactly what the message might be?
Every flavor of Christianity has its own important doctrines, theological points, and distinctive characteristics—every single group has those teachings that are revered and untouchable.
- Sometimes those sacred beliefs are based on scripture;
- Sometimes they come from traditions transcending the biblical text.
- Either way, they form a part of the identity of that particular group.
And because those particular sets of teaching are so entrenched with our identity, we get caught up in the resulting debates, competing ideology, and proving the other wrong.
Unfortunately, a debate that can be won or lost based on style points and how well the other is demolished usually means the Kingdom message hasn’t been advanced at all.
But I do get it. I have spent years discussing, arguing, and otherwise trying to prove my point. Sometimes I was more open to understanding what differences I had with others; most of the time not.
And again, I get it. I get that some of our differences are extreme and undercut the gospel.
But what if the questions the church was supposed to ask were entirely different than the finer nuances of a developed theological position?
What if we really should be more concerned about the questions that pertain to helping bring heaven down to earth?
Yes, the Church is a part of the kingdom. And yes, it is a hospital for sinners, a place for the broken to connect.
But it is also the vehicle by which we join together to share Jesus.
- Not the Jesus of popular culture or theology.
- But the radical, intense Jesus of scripture who was focused on justice and mercy for all.
In today’s parable that’s exactly what we see.
I invite you to read with me from Matthew 20:1-16…
Your Bible most likely calls this the Parable of the Vineyard Workers.
That’s a bit unfortunate–by calling it that, we have made the focus of the parable about the workers first, and about the location, second.
And that has led to any number of allegories where:
- The landowner (and we will talk more about that in a minute) is God.
- The grumbling workers are Pharisees.
- And those hired latter are the tax collectors, sinners, gentiles, or anybody else that is socially or culturally unacceptable.
- And since God is the landowner, this parable is about simultaneously smacking down the Pharisees while lifting up the downtrodden.
I greatly appreciate how this interpretation is comfortable–everyone likes the underdog—and we certainly have seemed to favor smacking down the Pharisees, whether ancient or modern.
Even so, I like it when we can make things neat, tidy, and easy to understand, but is there an overarching message that we might be missing?
- Is there a practical message we need to consider?
- Is there a question Jesus is inspiring us to ask?
If you are like me at all, inquiring minds want to know…
So, let’s go back to the text—particularly verse 1…
For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.
That’s how the Christian Standard Bible says it. Plenty of other translations use the same term. However, some use names like:
- Estate manager.
- Master of the house.
Basically, they all mean about the same thing, but the best way to see this term might just be householder.
Think about it like this—the parable is about a guy who owns a home and has a vineyard he needs help with.
- So, he hires a set of helpers—you see that in the text–It’s right there.
- Later he finds more people needing work and he sends them to his vineyard with the promise to give them “whatever is right.” Again, it’s right there in the text.
That phrase, “I’ll give you whatever is right” is incredibly interesting and impactful (and again, I am so indebted to Amy-Jill Levine for helping me see this).
Better yet, it gives us just what we need to live out this parable and quite possibly change the trajectory of our church family.
I’ll do what is right is a phrase that means justice, fairness, righteousness with a heap of charity thrown in.
Think about it… This homeowner hires people who work different amounts of time and he wants to give all a full day’s wage.
In the economy of this world, that just seems strange, but God’s reality, the Kingdom Economy is built on justice, fairness, righteousness, and charity!
- It’s all about recognizing our neighbor and doing the right thing!
- And that sounds suspiciously like something Jesus once said in answer to the question of what the greatest command was.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands. (Matthew 22:37–40 CSB17)
Let me suggest as strongly as I know how that the message of this parable—the message of the gospel—and the message of the church is love! (old devo song sung in the round—love, love, love love…)
How we love others has an enormous impact on reaching them for Jesus!
Listen carefully. I know we have our doctrines and dogmas that are identifying to us. I get that we have core beliefs and traditions that speak important things.
But maybe before we talk about those things…
- Maybe before we ever ask someone if they are saved or not…
- Maybe we ought to ask them if their children are getting enough to eat—or if they have water and power right now—or if they are working a job that is secure—or if they have real needs to be met…
- Maybe before we can ever help with spiritual needs, we need to love with fairness, justice, righteousness and a good bit of charity!
- And whether you are aware or want to be aware, there is a whole lot of injustice taking place in country right now!
So, what if? What if Jesus was more interested in how we love our neighbor in the here and now—would we pass that test? Would we be a people blind to differences but with wide-open eyes where love and compassion are concerned?
The world of economics is fascinating if not daunting at times, but we live with a Kingdom Economy of justice, fairness, righteousness, and charity.
And we remember what Jesus told the Pharisees, Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice. For I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners. (Matthew 9:13 CSB17)