February 21, 2010

The Great Reversal

Imagine something with me for a minute. Imagine that this week I had brought a guest speaker in to preach for me. When it came time for the sermon, no one had yet seen what this person looked like. As the choir finished singing their wonderful special, a diminutive figure rose from near the back. The figure, dressed in rather shabby, old-looking clothes, deliberately approached the front of the sanctuary. When she finally arrived up here, she gently laid a Bible on the pulpit, opened it slowly, and with a small voice began to preach. Let me ask you something: would you listen to her? Imagine that if instead of this scenario, the guest speaker was sitting right up front where I usually sit and was dressed in a snazzy three-piece suit. He had charismatically introduced himself to as many people in the congregation as he could before the service started and when it came time for the sermon he popped right up and confidently strode up to the pulpit. Would you have a stronger predilection for listening to him than the first woman I told you about? What if I told you that the woman.s name was Agnesë Bojaxhiu, perhaps more familiarly known as Mother Teresa, and that the man.s name was Jim Bakker? Does that bit of information change things for you at all?

In our culture, and frankly, for most of the world, we place a pretty high value on image and recognition and achievements and status. The reasons for this are pretty straightforward. Typically, folks who have some positive combination of those four have power over other people and generally have most of the things they want in life. They are able to do what they want, when they want, and how they want. Furthermore, if the world really is ruled by Darwinian forces such as natural selection and survival of the fittest, then the more advantages we can get over the people around us, the more likely we are to get “selected.” In a dog-eat-dog world, it pays to be the biggest, baddest dog. When we are running the rat race, This is why the wealthiest and most charismatic preachers and evangelists attract the attention of the world. That.s not to say there.s anything necessarily wrong with this; it.s just how it is. This is why the people who dress the best and look the best and speak the best and do the best receive all the accolades of a fawning world. We are taught from day one to show deference to such folks and somehow internalize the idea that if we put them up on pedestals we might someday be more like them. So we create industries to idolize them and help us try and live vicariously through them. Point of fact: if you know more about the latest hot celebrity gossip than you do about the hard time your neighbors have been having with paying their bills then something is wrong.

The other side of all this clawing and scratching our way to the top is that we expect something when we get there. I mean, if we have worked hard and sacrificed much, we expect to have something to show for it. This is particularly true when we see people around us get some sort of a reward we decide they haven.t earned to our satisfaction. The young and inexperienced upstart at work gets the promotion that should have been ours because they are younger. A neighbor who seems financially set wins the Publisher.s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. You can probably think of or have experienced a number of other similar situations. So perhaps it.s no wonder that when Jesus told the disciples in Matthew 19:26 that no one has a chance of getting into the kingdom of God on their own Peter responded by asking a question which prompted our parable of the kingdom for the morning: “We left everything and followed you. What do we get out of it?” What we will see is that this parable of the kingdom reveals that our priorities are simply out of sync with those of the kingdom. Indeed, in our efforts to come to a better understanding of life in the kingdom of God, our attention is drawn by Jesus. response to Peter in Matthew 20:1-16 to the things we value. In our study of the kingdom, what we come to see is that the things we most often value here as well as the ways in which we value them are foreign to the kingdom of God. In fact, the priorities and placements of the kingdom are opposite those of the world. Let us then continue our journey to understand life in the kingdom more deeply by looking together this morning at Jesus. parable about the workers in the vineyard and what it has to teach us about who is really first and who is really last in life.

Before we can get there, though, as with last week, we need to understand fully why Peter asked this question. Was he simply having a breakout of the “me-firsts” or was there something deeper behind this? Look back with me a few verses to Matthew 19:13. “One day children were brought to Jesus in the hope that he would lay hands on them and pray over them.” Wouldn.t you have been there doing the same thing? Jesus was recognized far and wide by this point in His ministry as a great teacher and prophet. Parents wanted Him to bless their children in hopes that whatever it was He had might rub off on their kids through His touch and blessing. This is the attitude that says, “I.ll never wash this hand again,” when you shake the hand of someone famous. Yet remember what I told you about children in this culture last week. They had no status. It wasn.t like they just had low status in the eyes of the people. They literally had no status. Children were worth less than slaves because they couldn.t contribute positively to society in their current state. They were a nuisance and a mouth to feed that did nothing productive to help earn the portion it consumed. This is why abortion and infanticide were common practices of the day. Thanks be to God the priorities and placements of the kingdom are opposite those of the world. Let.s continue: “The disciples shooed them off [unsurprisingly].” But then Jesus does this really weird thing. He invites them back and scolds the disciples. I wonder how those bus wheels felt. Jesus says, “Let the children alone, don.t prevent them from coming to me. God.s kingdom is made up of people like these.” Then He did exactly what the parents were hoping He.d do: He laid hands on and blessed the children. Let.s be honest. Jesus. words here would have left His disciples. heads spinning. “How is He going to scold us and then talk about the kingdom being filled with a bunch of children?” In fact, in the eyes of the culture, Jesus would have incurred shame at being associated with kids in this way. “Did you hear about that Jesus guy? Yeah, He lets kids run and play around Him and even blesses them.” I have to think this scolding from Jesus would have stuck with the disciples.

I wonder if they were still thinking about it another day when a much more distinguished visitor sought Jesus. blessing. Stay with me in v. 16: “Another day, a man stopped Jesus and asked, „Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?.” Isn.t this what life is about for so many people today? But for those who manage to convince themselves of the pathological lie that there is actually no evil in the world, we all know that things aren.t as they should be. We know that death comes to all people and many are obsessed with trying to stave it off or as long as they can. And with a number of religions offering a heaven of some kind, most folks are interested in knowing what they have to do to get there. They figure good deeds are more likely to get us there than evil ones and so we look for the right number or combination of good deeds to tip the scales of justice in our favor. They don.t understand that the priorities and placements of the kingdom are opposite those of the world. Jesus. response, however, like the one He had recently given to the disciples, would have raised every eyebrow within earshot. From verse 17: “Jesus said, „Why do you question me about what.s good? God is the One who is good. If you want to enter the life of God, just do what he tells you..” But, you see, this guy was smart. I mean, you don.t achieve the title of “rich young ruler” for being a dunce. You get such a title by working hard, making sacrifices, and being shrewd with your investments. If we invest in the right good things, then we can afford to be lax in some other areas. Thus the man.s question of Jesus: “What in particular?” So Jesus plays his game for a minute. But notice before we go on that this guy isn.t ever condemned by Jesus. We read this exchange and with self-righteous indignation dripping over the tip over our elevated nose exclaim, “I would never think to parse good deeds with Jesus. You are simply supposed to have faith first and then the good deeds will flow from there.” Jesus doesn.t go there. While we later find out that this guy has some serious baggage keeping him from being able to give himself fully to God (much to the shock and dismay of the disciples), right now he.s asking the right question: how do I get to heaven. When people are asking that question, we do well to make sure we can give them not only the right answer, but the right answer packaged in a way they are able to understand it. That.s exactly what Jesus does. Continuing: “Jesus said, „Don.t murder, don.t commit adultery, don.t steal, don.t lie, honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as you do yourself..” In other words, do what God tells you…kind of like Jesus already told him.

The man is pretty happy at this point, but he still recognizes that something is missing. He reveals that he has been doing all those things. How many of you look over that list and check off pretty much everything that.s there? I mean, nobody in here has killed anybody recently have they? How about adultery? Larceny? Excusing white lies for a minute since everybody tells those, do we have any liars? I know folks in here take good care of their parents and I suspect that most of you would tell me that you have the golden rule as your general standard of behavior. So then we are tracking with this guy pretty well thus far. Awesome! But like this guy we still know that something is missing. We may not be aware of this lack at all times, but in our most honest moments simply being nice to everybody doesn.t seem like it should be heaven-worthy by itself. We should have to do something big to really earn it so that nobody will be able to accuse us of not doing enough. This guy was thinking the same thing: “The young man said, „I.ve done all that. What.s left?.” In other words, what big thing can I do for God to show Him that He needs me in His kingdom? He was ready to do anything he had to in order to get into the kingdom. So Jesus tells him: “If you want to give it all you.ve got…go sell your possessions; give everything to the poor. All your wealth will then be in heaven. Then come follow me.” Okay, anything but that. Verse 22: “That was the last thing the young man expected to hear. And so, crestfallen, he walked away. He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and he couldn.t bear to let go.” Sometimes it is a truly heartbreaking thing that the priorities and placements of the kingdom are opposite those of the world.

There you have it. That.s the background for Peter.s question: A story about Jesus letting a bunch of worthless children stop Him from teaching for a minute in order to bless them, and a story about a guy who had it all together until Jesus needlessly erected an insurmountable roadblock. In the one case, Jesus fills the kingdom full of the last group of people in the world who deserved to be there. After all what could they do to earn it? In the other case, Jesus practically kicks out a guy who already had his seat at the banquet table picked out. I mean, if anyone should have been close to the kingdom, it was this rich guy. Yet, this isn.t a story simply about being poor to get into heaven. Even with Jesus. immediately telling the disciples that it.s harder for rich people to get into the kingdom of God than to try and shove a camel through a needles. eye, that.s not what this passage is about. And believe me: we want to make it about that. So did the disciples at first too. From v. 25: “The disciples were staggered. „Then who has any chance at all?. Jesus looked hard at them and said, „No chance at all if you think you can pull it off yourself. Every chance in the world if you trust God to do it..” We read that and understand what Jesus means and yet our heads and hearts simultaneously scream, “No!” Jesus saying this goes against every other religion ever conceived. Have you ever thought very much about that? Every religion in the world save one centers on humanity.s ability to save ourselves. If we do enough of the right good things then we can pull ourselves up out of the mess we find ourselves in every day. Don.t think that because we are in the one religion that.s an exception to this we are immune from it. Ever heard someone who was raised in the church claim they do a lot of good things as if to argue themselves into heaven without church? Remember, every other world religion has a nice laundry list of things we can do to get there. What was Israel.s single greatest temptation? Being like everyone else around them. And then Jesus comes along and knocks our feet right straight out from under us. Indeed, the priorities and placements of the kingdom are opposite those of the world.

Again, we hear this and even understand what Jesus is saying, but we don.t like it. Peter pretty well speaks for all of us in v. 27: “We left everything and followed you. What do we get out it?” In other words, “What about all these good things we.re doing? Don.t these count for anything? We.ve been here since day one. We.ve listened to all your crazy talk. We.ve been embarrassed by your behavior when you didn.t seem to be [remember the children episode before?]. What are we getting out of this?” I love the movie Field of Dreams. I could watch it 100 times in a row and love it every time. Do you remember the scene near the end of the movie when Costner.s character, Ray Kinsella, is talking to Ray Liotta.s character, Shoeless Joe Jackson? Kinsella.s mortgaged his farm. He.s built a huge baseball field in the middle of a valuable cornfield. He.s in debt up to his eyeballs and other than enjoying seeing the ghosts of long dead baseball heroes play in his backyard, he.s not apparently gotten anything out of it. After Jackson tells Kinsella he can.t come with them into the cornfield he gets mad: “Not invited? What do you mean I.m not invited? That.s my corn out there. You guys are guests in my corn. I.ve done everything I.ve been asked to do. I didn.t understand, but I.ve done it. I haven.t once asked what.s in it for me….I.m saying, „What.s in it for me?.” Isn.t that the attitude we are so tempted to take with us into the kingdom? “I.ve done all these good things for you God. I.ve made all these sacrifices of things I.d rather be doing. What.s in this for me?” Then Jackson looks at Kinsella with his piercing eyes and asks him a question that echoes in this passage: “Is that why you did this? For you?”

Ray Kinsella expresses the attitude of the world. Before we rebuke Ray and Peter, though, let us remember that Jesus doesn.t. Yes, Peter.s question reveals that he still doesn.t understand what the kingdom of God is all about, but doesn.t our similar question reveal the same thing of us? Instead of a rebuke Jesus gives hope, encouragement, and a warning. There are rewards for those who have dedicated themselves to seeing the advancement of the kingdom regardless of the costs. We will receive rewards now—some spiritual, some tangible—and we will receive even greater rewards later when we fully and finally enter the kingdom. We can and should look forward to the rewards of the kingdom because they are real and promised to us many times in the Bible. Yet we must approach such anticipation cautiously. It is in this context that the warning comes: “This is the Great Reversal: many of the first ending up last, and the last first.” Indeed, the priorities and placements of the kingdom are opposite those of the world.

All of this leads up to and sets the context for Jesus. parable of the kingdom. Look at the text with me starting in 20:1: “God.s kingdom is like an estate manager who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. They agreed on a wage of a dollar a day, and went to work. Later, about nine o.clock, the manager saw some other men hanging around the town square unemployed. He told them to go to work in his vineyard and he would pay them a fair wage. They went. He did the same thing at noon, and again at three o.clock. At five o.clock he went back and found still others standing around. He said, „Why are you standing around all day doing nothing?. They said, „Because no one hired us.. He told them to go to work in his vineyard. When the day.s work was over, the owner of the vineyard instructed his foreman, „Call the workers in and pay them their wages. Start with the last hired and go on to the first.. Those hired at five o.clock came up and were each given a dollar. When those who were hired first saw that, they assumed they would get far more. But they got the same, each of them one dollar. Taking the dollar, they groused angrily to the manager, „These last workers put in only one easy hour, and you just made them equal to us, who slaved all day under a scorching sun.. [In other words: “We.ve done what we needed to earn our way to more. We.ve done the right things and have the right image. What are we getting out of this?”] He replied to the one speaking for the rest, „Friend, I haven.t been unfair. We agreed on the wage of a dollar, didn.t we? So take it and go. I decided to give to the one who came last the same as you. Can.t I do what I want with my own money? Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?.”

So do you see what happened here? There were some folks who were saved as youngsters and worked hard at growing the kingdom over a lifetime. There were also some folks who were called to kingdom work right before the end of things. When the rewards were handed out they all got the same thing. Does this offend
your sense of justice? Because if it does, you.re not alone. In a world that places value on things and people based on image and status and financial net worth, to have Jesus come along and say none of that matters is hard to swallow. Yet, the priorities and placements of the kingdom are opposite those of the world. What Jesus does here is introduce a new way of determining value. God doesn.t value us because of anything we accomplish or have. Pretty people won.t have bigger mansions in heaven. We are valued simply because we are. We have worth because God says we do. We are needed in the kingdom regardless of when we enter it. In this world, the rat race is what sets the rules. In this system the biggest, fastest, smartest, most cunning rat gets the cheese at the end of the maze. The problem with this should be obvious: what about all the other rats? What about those who don.t get naturally selected or who aren.t the “fittest”? Well, in a system that says those folks have no real worth you tell me? Jesus is offering us a way out of all of this. He.s saying that the more permanent reality of this world looks a lot better than this. The priorities and placements of the kingdom are opposite those of the world. From verse 16: “Here it is again, the Great Reversal: many of the first ending up last, and the last first.” When we throw God away in order to keep up near the front in the rat race we are going to find that at the end we.ve lost everything. Or perhaps you feel like you.ve been doing your fare share for the kingdom and are waiting the appropriate reward. This reversal is a warning if you find yourself in either of these places. For all those, though, who are drifting through existence here lifelessly because you don.t think or feel you measure up to the standards necessary to attract the attention of a fawning world, take heart. Your worth isn.t connected to any of that, and don.t be fooled into thinking it is. Christ died to bring you life not because of what you have, but because of who He is. My friends, jump out of the rat race. Put a stop to the crazy cycle. Seek to be the last in this world in order to gain everything in the kingdom. The priorities and placements of the kingdom are opposite those of the world.