Matthew 18:1-5 – On Humility

At that time, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”He called a little child to him and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. (NIV)

God’s benevolent, gracious, and ethical realm is accessed and rests upon humility. Wherever there are humble hearts, there is change, transformation, and new life. Where there is the presence of pride, there you will find posturing, positioning, and peacocking – nothing changes.

Humility enables a person to see beyond the end of their nose. A humble posture allows an individual to observe the wounds and pains of those with little power and low societal status. A preoccupation with being great and believing we are indispensable is to amble down a blind path.

In the ancient world, children were on the lowest rung of society’s ladder. They were mostly looked upon as potential adults – little people who would someday contribute to the welfare of the family business and the community. Until then, kids were expected to begin learning their future trade with full submission and obedience. They had no power or leverage over others.

So, when Jesus told his disciples to take the lowly position of a child, he was not talking about innocence or cuteness. Christ meant for his followers to divest themselves of prideful positioning for greatness and embrace the helplessness and vulnerability of children. For Jesus, a child was closer to God’s rule and reign because they existed in truly humble circumstances, whereas an adult had too much concern with looking good and seeking every advantage possible.

Life is more upside-down than we sometimes realize. Adults have more to learn from kids than kids do from adults. To listen to a child is about as near to hearing the voice of God as you will get.

Let us consider how pride and humility work out in our daily lives. For example, when down and hurting, maybe you have had the experience of another person trying to one-up your pain, as if what they experienced was worse than you. In their pride, they ignore that pain is personal, as if it’s a one-size-fits-all. 

Invalidating a person’s state of being or feelings does no one any good.  It happens because of pride and a lack of humility. Imagine going to see a doctor who turns out to be arrogant in his approach. He fails to really listen to you. He just gives a quick exam and offers his diagnosis with a regimen of more pills to take. You are left sitting there while he is off to another patient, colonizing another person’s mind and emotions with his expertise.

I am not giving doctors a hard knock. I work in a hospital and have great respect for medical professionals who provide wise care plans. Yet, it is likely that you, like me, have had that occasional experience of the doctor full of him/herself with all the right answers on your pain and situation.

You may have also had the unfortunate experience of having a pastor, therapist, or counselor assess your situation with little information and even smaller compassion.  Like writing a script for pills, they give you a few Bible verses and tell you to quit sinning and live obediently.

If pride and arrogance are the original sin, then the remedy to that malady is humility. No matter who we are – whether doctors, pastors, laypersons, patients, or whomever – we are meant and designed by our Creator God to live a humble life.  That means we are to both give and receive humility-based care.

Humility is the cornerstone to every good thing in this life.  Jesus said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3, NIV)

The door of God’s kingdom swings-open on the hinges of humility.

The Apostle Paul, seeking to follow his Master Jesus in his teaching and humility said:

“Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” (Colossians 3:12, NLT)

Basic human interaction with one another is grounded in humility. The old prophet made his expectations clear:

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8, NRSV)

Life is truly life when it is humility-based.

Therefore, caring for another person is not a simple linear matter of offering your opinion or expertise; it is believing that the one needing care is the expert on herself.  The caregiver has as much to learn from the care-seeker. The beauty of humility-based care is that two people discover together how to grow, thrive, and flourish in a situation where it is not currently happening.

Breakthroughs occur in the soil of humility when the care-seeker comes out of the darkness and into the light through mutual discovery and insight.

We live with the confidence of the Psalmist:

“God leads humble people to do what is right and teaches them the way.” (Psalm 25:9, GW)

In the end, God saves and heals, not you or me.  That God chooses to use us to bring care to others ought to elicit the utmost of humility within us.

Lord God let me have too deep a sense of humor to be proud. Let me know my absurdity before I act absurdly. Let me realize that when I am humble, I am most human, most truthful, and most worthy of your serious consideration. Amen.

Matthew 20:1-16 – The Parable of the Vineyard Workers

The Red Vineyard by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So, they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So, when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

“So, the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (NIV)

We as humans have an innate sense of right and wrong, justice and injustice. We want life to be fair. It disturbs us when there is favoritism, discrimination, and preferential treatment. When things seem askew and others seem more privileged, envy can creep in and settle in our bones.

The envy can go even deeper. For example, is it fair that any child should struggle with health issues like cancer, epilepsy, and mental disorders?  Is it fair to have healthcare disparities? Is it fair to have a spouse taken from you before their time?  Is it fair to lose your job because of a pandemic? Is it ever fair to be treated like a second-class citizen?

Pat answers to people’s genuine struggles will not do, such as “Well, you just need to work hard and hope for the best;” “We have to take what is given us and accept these things;” “Think of all those starving children in India;” or the more crass, “Suck it up buttercup; life was never meant to be a rose garden.”  Those statements simply do not help.

At the heart of envy is the belief that others are getting something that I deserve.

Plenty of jerks have healthy grandkids, grow old with their spouses, and retire in comfort with plenty of money. “It isn’t fair!” we cry.

God does not always operate according to our standards of fairness. God’s very nature is to be generous and full of grace. The parable which Jesus told about the vineyard workers is a story not of unfairness, but a story of generosity and grace. It is all in how you look at it.

Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard by Rembrandt, 1637

A normal workday in the ancient world was ten hours, not counting breaks. The workday began at 6:00am. A denarius was a typical day’s wage for laborers. The landowner went out at the third hour, 9:00am; the sixth hour, noon, etc. He kept returning to hire more workers even up to the last hour of the workday. Laborers were always paid at the end of the day. In this parable, the last workers were paid first, which prompted the first workers hired to think they would be getting more, even though they had been promised a denarius. So, they grumbled about not getting more. They thought the landowner was not being fair.

Grumbling. Complaining. Murmuring. It is the bane of our existence. Decades ago, when gas station attendants still filled tanks for customers, I was working at a station and had a lady go berserk on me for not checking her oil and cleaning her windshield, because I did it for the car in front of her. Even though there was a sign right in front of her that said checking oil and cleaning windshields is only done upon request, the lady thought she was getting gypped. 

In truth, the landowner did not cheat or defraud the workers in any way. He paid the agreed upon wage, just like he promised. Should he want to pay everyone the same even though the amount of work was different was his own business. The problem was not with the owner, it was with the worker’s envy of the owner’s generosity toward the others. God distributes gifts because he is gracious, not because we have earned anything.

Our standard of fairness is not the rule of the kingdom of God – grace is.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was physically thrown out of a church one Sunday because of a sermon he was preaching on the grace of God. Afterwards, when Wesley wrote about this to a friend, he said, “There is no Christian Doctrine more repugnant than the affirmation that we are saved by the grace of God through faith.”

Deep down many believe we control our destiny, and that we save ourselves by what we do. We discern that if we serve God all our lives, in the end, God will reward us. We believe that our pious activities, our acts of service and our work for the Lord, will bring us salvation, or, at least a leg up in the kingdom of God over others who have not worked as hard or as long as we have. After all, we do the right thing.

So, what about those who have not figured out Christianity… those who do not have the correct or proper beliefs… or those who have not straightened out their lives? According to a worldview of human fairness, they are out of luck. They should be in church. They should work harder, faster, and better. Then, they could get their lives in order. If they would only understand fairness, we reason, then all would be well.

Parable of the Vineyard Workers from unknown artist in the Middle Ages

But there is a problem, because the parable of the workers told by Jesus seems to be saying that is not how it works, at all.  Jesus seems to be saying that grace and grace alone saves, that God’s amazingly naive and irresponsible grace is available to anyone and everybody. And that troubles the workers to no end. 

Whenever we run headlong into God’s unfair grace and see that God’s way of doing things is so far removed from our way, there is bound to be grumbling.  After all, if God is going to run a vineyard like the one in the gospel lesson and give everybody the same pay regardless of their actual work hours, then what’s the use of getting up early in the morning to work? 

What is the good of sitting in church, listening to sermons from a crazy preacher who is no better than us, if these outsiders, these Johnny-and Jane-come-lately’s can waltz in at the last minute and receive the same treatment as the rest of us?  For many church folks who diligently serve, it is not fair to pay so much attention to outsiders and build ministry around people who aren’t even here, who don’t yet know Jesus.

The conclusion and point of the parable: The last will be first, and the first will be last. In Luke’s prodigal story, the elder brother grumbles and gripes: “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.  But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fatted calf!”  It is the firstborn son that complains. (Luke 15:11-32)

In both the parable of the prodigal son and the parable in today’s lesson, “good” people are the ones who fail to see the heart of the Father and of the landowner. The “firsts” got off track because, over time, they forgot the kingdom hinges on grace, not effort, on not simply doing the right things over a long period of time.

God controls the flow of mercy, not us. 

We will likely be surprised in heaven with those already sitting at God’s banquet table, and equally surprised with who is not there. Resentment can move us away from the table of mercy God is preparing. The problem comes whenever we think we are above other people.  We might be sinners, but we are not as bad as some other people are!  We commit ordinary sins, not mass murder!

Here is the unvarnished truth: God does not owe you or I a thing, and God cares about all kinds of people, not just us and people who think and live like we do. Our hearts need to be big enough to center ministry around other people who are different than us.

If our hearts are small, we easily get jealous when God pays attention to prodigals and profligates. Grace becomes too repugnant a doctrine for us.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is about grace. Life is not all about being decent. It is not all about morality, and it is certainly not about our own goodness. The gospel is about being steeped in and surrounded by the grace of God in Christ, so that we, in turn, can show others grace. Grace is the way God deals with us beyond what we deserve or feel we have earned. 

Grace is unfair; we get what we do not deserve. 

May we allow God’s grace to so permeate our hearts and lives so that we will give it to others as freely as we have received.Praise be to you, almighty and everlasting Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In Christ, you have given us every spiritual blessing in heaven. In Christ, you chose us before the world was made. You chose us in love to be your holy people—people who could stand before you without any fault. And before the world was made, you decided to make us your own children through Jesus Christ. It pleased you to do it. And this brings praise from us because of your wonderful grace, given to us freely, in Christ, the one you love. We have forgiveness of sins because of this lavishly rich grace. Thank you, O my Father, for your grace extending to me in Christ! Amen

Matthew 19:23-30 – Come-to-Jesus Meeting

Jesus and the Rich Young Man by Chinese artist, 1879

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again, I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 

When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” 

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” 

Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” 

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. (NIV) 

We all have a chronic struggle and relapse with some besetting shortcomings. We compulsively do them even though they harm us. Whether it is what we typically think of as addiction (alcohol, illicit drugs, etc.) or things we don’t readily notice as addictive (gossip, food, shopping) we need to be weaned off our damaging obsessions.

In Holy Scripture, the most pervasive and compulsive vice is the addiction to wealth and money. 

We all have our own unique tussle with money. If our initial knee-jerk reactions to money issues is to think of someone else (“I don’t have as much money as…” or, “So and so really has a problem with this…”) then this is what we call denial. The truth be told, all of us offer some disclaimer about how our trust is not in paychecks, bank accounts, and material stuff. For me, money buys books, of which my voracious appetite is never satiated.  

Even people who truly have little money and scant resources can have an addiction to money by thinking about it and wishing for it to an unhealthy degree, as if wealth is the thing that would make them happy. Folks in denial rarely have any idea how much they harm others, themselves, and even God. In fact, the consistent witness of the early church fathers is that the sheer accumulation of stuff is the same as stealing from the poor. 

Orthodox icon of Jesus and the rich young man

Sometimes, because of denial, people need an intervention. They need to be jolted back to their senses.  Intervention is a gift. Someone cares enough to intervene. Yet, many interventions do not work because the person can walk away and refuse to change. 

Jesus performed an intervention with a rich young man (literally, a twenty-something).  The young man was obsessed with wealth and money, but he did not see it. He thought of himself only as godly and spiritual. It is really a sad story because the man walked away unchanged by his encounter with Jesus. He failed to see himself as desperately needing to change. He held to his denial. (Matthew 19:16-22) 

Jesus exposed the young man’s divided loyalties of trying to serve both God and money. He would have to choose between the two. This is our choice, as well. God wants an undivided heart and loyal allegiance. Jesus is looking for those who are poor in spirit and recognize their great need for God, rather than believing they are okay and just need to add a little Jesus to their lives. God wants spiritual beggars who understand their desperate situation and do not practice denial by sugar-coating their actual spiritual state. 

Just like an addict who either cannot or will not give up the addiction, the rich young man would not give up his disordered love for money and possessions. So, Jesus did an intervention. Christ does not ask everybody to do exactly as he called the rich young man to do. For example, Jesus asked neither the wealthy Zacchaeus to do it, nor the disciple Peter to sell his fishing business. However, Jesus does ask all of us to do what seems impossible and let God meet our needs. 

Christ had the original come-to-Jesus-meeting with his disciples in debriefing about his conversation with the rich man. If it is so impossible and so difficult for a rich person to be saved because his wealth gets in the way, who then can be saved, the disciples wondered? 

We cannot save or redeem ourselves. We need grace. We need help. 

So serious is Jesus about this business of genuine discipleship, about what it really takes to follow God that he repeats himself using a colorful illustration: “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”  Jesus wants us, who have lots of stuff, bank accounts, and so money to see ourselves in the illustration. Only the discouraged, the hopeless, and the helpless will see their absolute need for grace and will seek the miracle of salvation Jesus offers. 

Peter, always the big mouthpiece for the disciples, blurts out that they have left everything to follow Jesus. So, what then will there be for us? What’s in it for me? We may avoid the idol of money only to find ourselves with the idol of pride. Twentieth-century theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, once said that a person had to achieve a great deal of good to be able to commit the sin of pride. 

Yet, grace always has the last word. Jesus gives grace and assures us of reward even when we are stinkers by asking prideful questions.  John Calvin commented on the rewards mentioned by Jesus: “The promise of a hundredfold recompense does not seem to square with experience. Usually those who for the testimony of Christ are deprived of parents or children and other relatives, or their marriage partners, or have lost all their money, do not recover but struggle out their life in lonely and deserted exile and in poverty. But I reply that if anyone rightly assesses God’s grace by which he alleviates the miseries of His children he will confess that is to be preferred to all the riches of this world.” 

The first step in facing any harmful compulsion is to be honest about it – without telling our story in a way that makes us look surprisingly good so that others are pleased with us. Rather, it is about following Jesus. To follow Jesus, we must not be in denial.  Perhaps the best way to express our faith is to tell someone about our obsessions to work compulsively to feel better and pad our savings, that we are afraid to charitably give because we worry about the future, or that we love to buy things that you don’t really need to feel better. 

An honest awareness of our compulsions sometimes causes us to feel awful about ourselves. We might beat ourselves up for always screwing up, never saying “no” to others, or feeling unable to stop the anxiety. Grace abundantly overwhelms all addictions, shortcomings, and pride when it comes money or anything else.  God has unlimited patience with his people; he never tires of inviting us to follow him. 

God’s love and acceptance is not based on our victories or screw-ups, but on Christ’s forgiveness through the cross. 

Let the words of Jesus sink deep into your life so that you ooze the grace of God in your life. Camels cannot pass through the needle’s eye through dieting, positive thoughts of belief, or luck. It happens not because the camel can squeeze through the narrowness of the needle’s eye but because there is a wideness in God’s mercy. God’s grace will pull you through. Unlike the rich young man, once you hear and understand that piece of delightful news, you do not walk away sad but with boundless joy. 

God of wisdom, help me in the mess of my finances; in my fear of taking charge of the resources entrusted to my care; in my preference for ignorance  over honest acknowledgment of the ways I use and fail to use my wealth; in my anxiety over debt, and in all the pressures of my financial life.  Help me to take one step at a time toward honoring you through my use of money and honoring others from whom I buy and borrow.  Make me humble to seek counsel, grateful for my abundance, prudent with my limited means, and patient with myself as I seek to be a better steward of all you have given me. Amen. 

Mark 11:20-25 – Forgiveness

In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots.Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”

“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered.“Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore, I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” (NIV)

Sometimes forgiveness seems about as possible as moving a mountain or withering a fig tree. Yet, it can be done. It needs to be done. An unforgiving spirit only causes gangrene of the soul and rots a person on the inside.

The heart of the good news in the Bible is forgiveness of sins. It comes through the person and work of Jesus Christ. Forgiveness is both an event, and a process. Forgiveness is to be a constant dynamic within our relationships because we live in a fallen world. People sin against us, and others hurt us. We sin against other people and hurt them, too. Relational pain is a reality this side of heaven. Revenge and/or passive-aggressive behavior are neither biblical nor healthy ways of handling our hurt. So, what is a person to do?

We practice forgiveness. The following is some biblical guidance as to what forgiveness is, and is not:

Forgiveness is hard work.

God did not promise forgiveness would be easy. He knows exactly the kind of cost it brings. Through the death of Jesus there can be and is forgiveness. The price of forgiveness for Jesus was not cheap.

“The blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean.  How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (Hebrews 9:13-14, NIV)

Forgiveness is a process.

Forgiveness is an ongoing process of putting off bad relational habits and putting on good ones. It takes time and cannot be hasty. Forgiveness must be deliberate with no shortcuts to it, otherwise it will not stick. 

“Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling, and slander, along with every form of malice.  Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:21-32, NIV)

Forgiveness does not mean we condone bad behavior.

Forgiveness is not blanket amnesty. It does not simply give another person a “pass” on their hurtful words or actions. Forgiveness means we do not hold the offense over the other person’s head.  Dr. Fred Luskin from Stanford University, an academic researcher of forgiveness, states, “Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past.”  We cannot undo the past. Yet, we have control of the present, and can choose to forgive. True forgiveness calls a spade a spade and names the specific offense in all its ugliness, and lets it go.

“You’re an evil man! When you begged for mercy, I said you did not have to pay back a cent.  Don’t you think you should show pity to someone else, as I did to you?” (Matthew 18:32-33, CEV)

Forgiveness does not always result in reconciliation.

It takes two to reconcile. It only takes one to forgive. I have often been told that it will not do any good to forgive another person because it would not change them. I respectfully retort: That is not the point. We forgive because it is our responsibility to work through our forgiveness issues and do it. We are not in control of whether another person will feel sorry for what they did, or not.  We regulate our own decision to forgive, no matter what the other person does or does not do, or whether they feel the gravity of their sin, or not.

“If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people.” (Romans 12:18, CEB)

“I [Jesus] say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44, NRSV)

Jesus said [on the cross], “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34, CSB)

Forgiveness is primarily for our benefit.

If we hold on to bitterness toward another for their offense, we only hurt ourselves. Drinking the poison of bitterness will kill you, not the other person. Avoid the magical thinking that they are going to come to you all slobbery sorry for what they said or did. That often does not happen. When it does, it is a beautiful thing. Regardless, of another’s decisions, we are to forgive everyone who sins against us just as God has forgiven us.

“Forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us…. If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:12, 14-15, NLT)

Forgiveness is to be frequent and generous.

The relational currency in God’s kingdom is forgiveness. Without it, we can neither operate well together, nor can we enjoy a satisfying life. However, with forgiveness, there is a demonstration of the practical effects of Christ’s crucifixion to life, not to mention a good witness to a watching world.  

“Peter got up the nerve to ask, ‘Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?’ Jesus replied, ‘Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.’” (Matthew 18:21-22, MSG)

Forgiveness is an act of faith.

To forgive is risky business. If we have taken on a grudge like a warm security blanket, to toss aside the odd comfort of unforgiveness will seem strange, even fearful. When we are hunkered down in bitterness, we rarely see how it causes faith to weaken. The longer the lack of forgiving goes on, the harder it will be to give it up. Faith steps out and acts, believing that God is in it. On the other side is the hope of freedom and peace. Besides, the consequences of unforgiveness are downright unpleasant.

Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others. Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil. (Matthew 6:13-14, MSG)

Forgiveness is a blessing.

The end of the matter for many people comes down to the intensely practical. So, here it is: Do you want to be happy or miserable? I am not familiar with anyone who wakes up in the morning and says to themselves, “Mmm, I think I will be miserable today.” No, we want to be happy and blessed. Forgiving others is the path to blessing.

It is a great blessing when people are forgiven for the wrongs they have done, when their sins are erased. (Psalm 32:1, ERV)

May you know the blessing of being forgiven and forgiving others. May this freedom allow you to enjoy the peace of God the fellowship of others. Amen.