Matthew 21:23-32 23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ 24Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” 26But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ 27So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 28 ‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” 29He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
This week, Pastor Intern Andi Lloyd gave the sermon, Change of Heart. To read the sermon, click the button below.
‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; 4and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” 7They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” 13But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’
Matthew 20:1-16 Recently, a computer program developer named George Davila Durendal created an artificial intelligence algorithm using the King James Version of the Bible. Dubbed “AI Jesus,” Durendal hoped to develop a program that would speak on contemporary topics using King James English and inspired by the words of our sacred text.
The program digested the King James Version and learned to mimic its style and vocabulary. Then Durendal, sensing the near-apocalyptic nature of the world these days, asked AI Jesus to speak on three different topics: ‘The Plague,’ ‘Caesar,’ and ‘The End of Days.’ Complete nonsense came out:
“The Plague,” says AI Jesus, “shall be the fathers in the world; and the same is my people, that he may be more abundant in the mouth of the LORD of hosts.”
“And the ships,” continues AI Jesus, “that was [sic] before the temple and he said, ‘Thou shall not cause to be cleansed.”
Of course, these sayings and as well as others have a twitter handle, so we get to read these confusing creations, like this one, “Power and godly, and have commanded the children of the world, and will set my face against thee, and thou shalt be called the people.”
I think this is a really interesting and kind of silly project. Preaching and teaching in the Christian tradition is mostly about making the words and actions of Jesus come alive and relevant to our lives today. In some ways, what Durendal is attempting isn’t that much different.
But I also feel a little wrong about this project. The teachings of Jesus found in our scriptures are difficult enough to understand without these nonsensical creations. It makes me wonder if folks will look at AI Jesus as another example of how the lessons of our faith are confusing, silly, or not worth the effort.
Take today’s parable. There’s enough here to be confusing with wealthy landowners, day labors, vineyard work, weird hiring practices, and enigmatic endings. At least we can kind of imagine this one.
It’s harvest time, and the grapes are ready for picking. The landowner, like the wealthy elite in Jesus’ day, owned enough land that day laborers needed to be hired to harvest. So this landowner sends his farm manager, called a “vintner” in this case, to the market to hire folks.
This was a common practice in Jesus’ day. Day laborers, those who do not own land, and are not tired by social contact or servitude to another landowner, met in the market every day to look for work. Wealthy folks that needed extra help would come down to the market and hire people, usually for the going wage, which was one denarius for a day’s work.
Like last week’s gospel reading, understanding the unit of money is essential to the story. The crowd that Jesus told this parable to knew the value of a denarius. A denarius was just about enough money to live on for one day. It was enough to cover food, housing, and incidentals for you and perhaps a small family with nothing left over. The reference in the Lord’s prayer – “Give us today, our daily bread,” is a nod to the many folks that Jesus encounters that live day today.
So, what if you showed up early at the market, looking for work, but no one was hiring that day? You didn’t eat. What if you worked, but were stiffed at the end of the day by the landowner? Your family faced eviction. What if this was a Friday? You didn’t eat for two days because of the Sabbath. The margins for survival for folks that surrounded Jesus were so slim.
So in his story, Jesus talks about how the vintner returns to the market throughout the day bringing workers in, and at the end of the day, everyone gets what they need, enough payment to go on for another day, regardless of the hours worked.
Now, because of the way we are taught to think about issues like work, merit, fairness, and economic systems, we come preloaded with questions for this parable. How is it fair that everyone gets paid the same? How is the employer able to do this? Who are the workers that are still at the market later in the afternoon? Are they lazy or something? Is Jesus condemning a good day’s work?
The parable is silent on much of the details because that’s not the story Jesus wants to tell.
Instead, Jesus acknowledges that people have come to work. Whether they are there bright and early or still there later in the day, their need is the same, survive the day. Provide for your family. Hold onto your dignity. The landowner in Jesus’ parable understands this and allows this human concern to govern his bottom line.
I think Jesus has a much more expansive idea of what the kingdom of heaven, God’s alternative way of ordering life, looks like, and we give him credit for. It isn’t just about personal responsibility, piety, and being a nice person—God’s way of ordering life changes everything. The way we build community, the politics we practice, and the economic systems we adopt are all part of this divine shakeup.
In God’s economy, human dignity and wellbeing are the outcomes. People are more important than profits. The prosperity of talent, planning, hard work, and the land's bounty is seen as gracious gifts of God rather than unconditioned human endeavors. The harvest in our story, then, is not measured in the amount of wine made that year, but in the number of families and individuals in the community that eat, had shelter, and participated in God’s abundance.
Likely this message is as difficult for our modern ears as it was for those workers that labored all day in the hot sun and felt cheated. In this regard, we might hear the complaints of the elder son in the more familiar parable of the prodigal son. How are we, mostly privileged people, who have worked for a lifetime and scraped and saved to look at this story? Maybe we see our ability to work as a gift. Maybe we see our chance to scrap and save as a form of God’s grace. Maybe we think less about comparing our lives to others. Maybe we understand that folks have different talents and varied capabilities. Maybe we realize that we all do well when we all do well.
Today, we might question the morality of our economy when we measure it only by the stock market. Today, we might probe why housing has become unaffordable according to the standard metric in all fifty states. Today we might work to end hunger because it’s totally possible if we wanted to. Today, we might consider the human impact of our choices, from buying local, hiring new folks, and voting in this year’s election.
See, Jesus’s words are confusing enough. And challenging enough. And pretty controversial enough. And also, relevant and timely, and needed.
May we hear this challenging parable of Jesus and not turn away. May the work we do individually and as a faith community be grounded in stories like these. For the sake of the world and all in it. Amen.
“The Unmerciful Servant” by Sir John Everett Millais, 1864. From a collection of twenty images inspired by the New Testament Parables of Jesus.Public Domain.
Matthew 18:21-35 New Revised Standard Version
21 Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ 22Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
23 ‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” 29Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. 31When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’
Matthew 18:21-35 Lamech is one of the Hebrew Bible's lesser-known characters, and maybe not a very nice one by what our Scriptures say. The great-great-great-grandson of Cain, Lamech, has a little song in Genesis chapter 4:
And Lamech sang this to his wives: “Adah and Zillah, here my voice: You wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, A young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, Truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”
This is the Hebrew Bible’s first poem, and it describes an escalating spiral of revenge.
If I am honest, revenge is one of my favorite themes when I read and watch movies or television. I doubt I am alone on this. There is something deeply satisfying, and troubling, in watching a tragic protagonist carefully plan and implement payback on the bad guy. The Godfather, The Shawshank Redemption, and Kill Bill are all famous revenge movies. The Princess Bride is one too, and if you’ve seen it, you probably remember the oft-repeated line, “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Sometimes, stories like No Country for Old Men and Gone Girl blur the lines between those that are good and those that are bad. Regardless, in revenge stories, it seems that no one escapes without being touched by some violence, corruption, or at least a guilty conscience.
It is interesting, then, that the first poem of our Scriptures is about revenge. We even get the sense from Genesis 4 that Cain’s family line has become more violent, warlike, and generally awful. And likely, this small poem from Genesis 4 serves as the context for Jesus’ remarks about forgiveness and subsequent parable.
After a few weeks off, we are back in the gospel of Matthew. We recognize Matthew’s gospel because we get another parable. We also recognize it because the gospel writer is threatening torturous hell again, a frightening ending added to many of Jesus’ parables in Matthew. Previously, Jesus is depicted advising about how to handle someone in the early church that’s caused an issue. He lines out a procedure that works diligently to restore the offending person to the community. But, if there is no confession of wrong and no forgiveness, the person is to be avoided.
In our story, Peter has been thinking about this advice from Jesus and what it might look like practically, specifically if the offensive person continues to offend.
“How often should I forgive an offensive person, like seven times?” It sounds pretty generous.
“Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Jesus says. And he realizes that this conversation has gotten pretty abstract. So, he tells a story.
A king is settling accounts with his servants, and one of them owed him ten thousand talents. Again, we know this is a parable from Matthew because Jesus is describing a silly situation. One talent of gold equaled about fifteen years of work for a day laborer. In a very general estimate, the total debt in today’s money would have been around four and a half billion with a “B.” Simply put, the debt was so significant that is was a silly number. Perhaps during Jesus’ time, a debtor could be sold into servitude to help recover a portion of the debt. But the king doesn’t do this. Instead, the king waves the debt entirely and sends his servant on his way. As the servant leaves, he runs into a buddy that owes him 100 denarii – still a lot of money, maybe around $12,000 by today’s standards, but nowhere approaching the astronomical number he had previously owed. The buddy can’t pay now, and instead of making arrangements or even waving the debt as the king had done for him, the servant has his buddy thrown in jail. Once the king hears about this, the cancelation of the debt is rescinded, and the unforgiving servant is sent to the dungeon to be tortured for the rest of his life.
The apostle Paul, as he writes in Romans 14, has something to say about a form of forgiveness, something that looks like graciousness or inclusiveness. He is quick to remind the early Christ-followers in the Empire’s capital Rome that attributes like forgiveness, nonjudgment, unity with diversity, and tolerance for others are hallmarks of Christian community. This early community, he exhorts, should be a space that feels safe enough for a diverse group of people who have different dietary practices, political stances, and holiday observances. Much of those differences, Paul contends, is between the individual and their Lord, whether that be earthly lords or heavenly ones.
It makes sense too that Jesus talks about forgiveness right after a section on the early church. Conflict and transgressions seem inevitable as humans rub against each other in families, working groups, and wider communities. The sharp corners of our personalities irritate and scuff against those with whom we interact regularly. If you happen to be doing this whole COVID thing with others in your household, you might be able to relate to the idea that people, even the ones you love, have sharp corners. Likely though, you are also aware of your own shape edges, the ones that can make living together difficult. So, we forgive. We forgive a spouse for little offenses and sometimes major ones because we value our relationships and wish to see them continue. We forgive others because it is essential to keep community, and family, and friends. We forgive because being without community is really difficult. We forgive because we know what it’s like to be forgiven and the relief we’ve felt. And we forgive because we know what it’s like not to be forgiven by friends, family, or co-workers and how awful that feels.
As I read this passage, though, I think there might be one big asterisk to Jesus’ teaching, and perhaps one great hope, a kind of foundational hope of our faith. It seems that both asking for and offering forgiveness makes us vulnerable. Vulnerability is a virtue in our Christian faith and practice. It is modeled by God and especially Jesus, in our gospels. But our faith also carries a core practice of protecting the vulnerable. There are times when parts of forgiveness, like the restoration of an offender to the community, is not easy or might be impossible. Forgiveness, then, is a mechanism for personal healing and should never be a way that perpetrators can continue abusive actions and behaviors.
That said, I see a great hope of our faith in these words of Jesus. Remember Lamech, the great-great-great-grandson of Cain. His quest for vengeance escalated. He kills for a minor slight and considers himself more wrath-filled that his more famous ancestor. Unchecked, this level of aggression is not sustainable, coercive, and destructive. I would have loved to read in the following verses that his wives Adah and Zillah, responded by telling their husband Lamech to sit down and chill out. But we see the cost of retaliation, payback, and revenge in this world, and how escalating tensions can cause the end of relationships or jobs, and in the social sphere, violence, and death.
I think back to the parable. Think of the gift given the servant. An unpayable debt was canceled. What if the king's graciousness had so moved him that he offered the same graciousness to his buddy? Where might it go from there, in a pay-it-forward sort of chain reaction? It makes me wonder if God is looking to counteract the escalating tensions in this world by a set of escalating practices of forgiveness, reconciliation, and graciousness. What if we dared to be more forgiving in our families? Would we see a different wave of goodwill and love grow? What if we practiced being more gracious when we consider others, whose experiences are not our own? Would a little humility make our communities and country safer for all people, regardless of skin color, sexual orientation, age, and income? What if we tried to reconcile with an old friend or adult child? It would be hard work, and there would be no promises of a positive outcome. But wouldn’t it make all the difference in the world. May we be inspired to forgive often, be gracious to one another, and do the hard work of reconciliation. For the sake of God, and our communities, and ourselves.
Matthew 16:13-20 13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ 14And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 15He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ 16Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ 17And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
It is generally agreed among Biblical Scholars and historians that the epistle 1 Thessalonians was the Apostle’s Paul’s first written and surviving letter to a church he had founded or visited. Much of the letter is deeply personal and instructive. Among the primary concerns that Paul sought to address was how to be faithful and remain in community during a time of persecution. The Thessalonians experienced anxiety and fear, grief, and loss during this dark time, and Paul’s words provide comfort for the afflicted and a challenge to continue to live a life of value and joy. His letter ends with a final exhortation to:
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
I’ve been deeply moved by Bill Schubart’s relationship with the Brooklyn street preacher Rev. Baybie Hoover and her deaconess of music, Virginia Brown. As you will see shortly, Baybie’s life was difficult and nearly every metric, yet, the spirit of joy and gratitude pulsed through her in every note she sang and message she delivered.
Our collective experience of 2020 could be characterized as difficult by many metrics as well, but my hope is that Babyie’s story will inspire us to see the joy that we have, the love that surrounds us, and how God can speak to us even today. Perhaps during the long days of this pandemic year, we too might hear the age-old exhortation: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances.