the tentmaker

daily thoughts on the common lectionary

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Location: Sharpsburg, Georgia, United States

"...because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked together — by trade they were tentmakers." Acts 18:3. Tentmaker is a title taken by bi-vocational pastors. As such, I am both a pastor and a project manager. I am a pastor of a local congregation of moderate, accepting and affirming people who worship in the Baptist tradition. We call our church "Hope Memorial Baptist" and we are about 40 in number. I am also a project manager of major construction projects for the State of Georgia. My home and church is in rural Coweta County, between Peachtree City and Newnan, with a mailing address of Sharpsburg, Georgia.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Sunday 9/18/05 - Year A - Proper 20

Jonah 3:10 - 4:11
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

Psalm 145:1-8

1 I will extol thee, my God, O king; and I will bless thy name for ever and ever.
2 Every day will I bless thee; and I will praise thy name for ever and ever.
3 Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; and his greatness is unsearchable.
4 One generation shall praise thy works to another, and shall declare thy mighty acts.
5 I will speak of the glorious honour of thy majesty, and of thy wondrous works.
6 And men shall speak of the might of thy terrible acts: and I will declare thy greatness.
7 They shall abundantly utter the memory of thy great goodness, and shall sing of thy righteousness.
8 The LORD is gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy.

I had an employer once, who used this week's Gospel passage to justify inequality in his hiring practices. Applying a literal interpretation of this parable to his business practice would not have been very good for business. But his particular interpretation of this parable meant that he could hire people doing the same job for vastly different salaries. It doesn't take much insight to realize that Jesus is not talking about literal wages and literal hiring practices. Even if you take the parable literally, it is clear that Jesus is using this example to tell us something about God's rule. "The Kingdom of heaven is like [this]..."

Jesus is always teaching about God and His rule over us. Much of his teaching is about what we should expect, and not expect when we let God have complete control over our lives. One thing we should not expect is a badge of honor for doing his will, or any other reward that separates us qualitatively from our brothers and sisters.

This vineyard owner hires several workers early in the morning. Then he returns several times; at 9:00 AM, Noon, 3:00 PM, and 5:00 PM, and hires more workers each time. Then when he pays them at the end of the day, he pays them all a full day’s wage. No matter when the laborer was hired, he received the same wages.

I can imagine that if this happened where you work, neither you nor your fellow workers would be very happy. Nor were the laborers who had worked twelve hours; the parable says "they grumbled against the landowner."

Jesus responded that in God's upside down kingdom, "the last will be first, and the first will be last" (20:16). In the previous chapters, Jesu had made this same point. James and John wanted to be first and second in the Kingdom, the rich young ruler wanted eternal life without true sacrifice, Peter wants to be sure that he and the others will be properly compensated for the fact that they had left everything to follow Jesus. We can be sure he is reinforcing a point that is near and dear to his own heart. His point is not one about profit margins or minimum wage laws, but rather about the lavish generosity of God's grace in contrast to the competitive score-keeping that characterizes so many of our relationships.

He cut to the quick when he responded to the grumblers: "Are you envious because I am generous?" (20:15). The Jesus Way, in other words, is a world of grace and not merit, status reversal instead of status reverence, undeserved generosity rather than pay for services rendered.

The Old Testament reading for this week provides an good illustration of Jesus's parable. When God had compassion on the pagan Ninevites, Jonah complained bitterly: "I knew that you were a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity" (Jonah 4:2)

God's prophetic call had come to Jonah, telling him to go to Nineveh and preach a message of repentance. But he refused and fled some 750 miles in the opposite direction. Nineveh was east of Palestine whereas Tarshish was west, probably in southern Spain.

Consider what God had called Jonah to do. Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, Israel's traditional enemy and eventual conqueror. With a population of 120,000 people, some classical accounts say it was the largest city in the world in its day. The text tells us that its pagan sinfulness was legendary, as was its cruelty: “It was the people which scorched its enemies alive to decorate its walls and pyramids with their skin.”

God had asked Jonah to go to this city and preach repentance. I was like asking a modern day Jew to go to Damascus in Syria and preach repentance to the Muslim Syrians. What an impossible task for Jonah. And Jonah fled form the face of the Lord rather than do this thing.

Have you ever thought that God's sending of the great fish was to punish Jonah? I know that was the way it was explained to me many years ago as a boy in Sunday School. When the ship Jonah was on encountered a great storm, Jonah told them to throw him overboard. Jonah could only expect to drown. But Jonah did not drown. Why? Because God sent the fish to save him and put him back on dry ground.

Think about God's bountiful grace. Jonah ran away from God rather than obey him. Jonah then had a suicidal death wish acted out and God still was able to turn the situation into an occasion of grace and provision.

And God's word came a second time to Jonah. This time Jonah obeyed. He traveled to Nineveh and preached to Israel's pagan conquerors. He preached on the street corners for three days. He fully expected the Ninevites to reject God. He fully expected them to do harm to him. Or, at least, to throw him in prision. Jonah was a righteous man. He knew that the sins of the Assyrians would surely mean death and destruction at the hand of an angry and righteous God.

But the people of Nineveh, from the King down to the lowest slave, repented.

Jonah must have been some kind of preacher. And he accomplished what God sent him to get: the repentance of the people of the city of Nineveh. They repented and God spared them and Jonah was angry. Jonah was not happy at all at the sparing of the Assyrians of Nineveh.

Jonah was looking for the wrath of God. He relished the thought of these people being punished for their sins. When God failed to punish and instead forgave them, Jonah felt like he had been betrayed by God.

I think what Paul had to say may shed some light here, "The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life." Can we say that what is being taught here is: no matter when, in the course of history, or in the course of a life one finds the saving grace of Jesus Christ, the reward is the same, eternal life.

When the church was still in its infancy, the Jewish Christians wanted the new Gentile converts to go through the initiation rites of a Jew first. It was the apostle Paul who championed the cause of the Gentile believers. He said "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."


Blogger Bad Alice said...

On the passage in Matt, you migh find this post on Dissonant Bible interesting:

9/21/2005 8:33 AM  
Blogger Bad Alice said...

Well that URL didn't come through, but if you visit Dissonant Bible, it's a recent post.

9/21/2005 8:35 AM  

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