Monday, March 3, 2014

It's just not about us! (a parable)

When reading Matthew this morning, I thought I'd go a bit deeper into Matthew 20:1-16, which is the "Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard." What is it about? And what can it mean for us?

A "parable" is just a short story that teaches a moral or spiritual lesson1. Jesus used these stories very often to help his followers understand what he is teaching. So before going into the parable itself, I looked turned back to the event which Jesus clarifies in this story (found in Matthew 19:16-26, 27-30).
16 Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied.“There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”
18 “Which ones?” he inquired.
Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”
20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”
21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 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.”
25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” 2
Jesus was speaking to a large crowd of people (Matthew 19:2) when a rich young man came up to talk to him. This young man seemed to already believe that he was good enough to get eternal life (verse 20), but Jesus knew that his obstacle was: a love for money. Earlier in Matthew, Jesus said that "You cannot serve both God and money" (6:24).

This young man then went away sad.

Jesus turned his attention to his disciples (meaning "followers"), and told them just how difficult it was for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (verses 23-24). Even though it seemed to be impossible, God could still make it possible (verse 26). However, the disciples didn't seem to like this idea:
27 Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”
28 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. 29 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. 30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.
Peter recognized that Jesus was saying that it is possible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (even though it is only through the immense power of God, himself). This seemed to frustrate Peter, because—unlike the rich man—the disciples did leave behind everything to follow Jesus (verse 27)! How could it also be possible for this rich man that hasn't? That just doesn't seem fair.

Jesus gave Peter two answers: yes, those who have sacrificed will receive both a great reward and eternal life (verse 29), but Jesus also tells him that "many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first" (verse 30).

This is why Jesus tells them a story. That last statement could be confusing, so Jesus explains what he means by giving them a parable (now we're finally at Matthew 20:1-16!).
1“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.
“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 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?’
7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
8 “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.’
9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘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.’
13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” 
This story just doesn't seem fair! I mean, this is the "Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard," right? Some of the workers were there all day, working in the heat, while others worked for shorter increments... even as short as just one hour! These last ones didn't seem to earn the payment they were given.

The one-hour workers received the same amount of money as those who had worked all day, sacrificing everything (just like the disciples in verses 19:27-29). However, the full-day workers still received their generous and promised paycheck. They weren't cheated, but it's just that the landowner was generous according to his own will and generosity, not based on the work of the people (verse 15).

Okay, okay. So if this is true, is there any benefit or blessing in sacrificing everything? Why not just be one of the one-hour workers if it all just depends on the generosity of the landowner anyways?

The answer is this: we've got it wrong. The parable isn't about the workers. It's about their employer.

Our frustration with this story arises when we try to find the application from this parable by looking at the workers, when we aren't meant to learn about the workers at all! Yes, those who sacrifice everything for Jesus will receive "a hundred times as much" as what they've sacrificed, as well as "eternal life" (verses 19:29-30) ...but we must not be envious of God's generosity. It his his own "money"—the gift of eternal life—that he gives to whoever he wants (verse 20:15), regardless of their work.

Jesus ends this parable by emphasizing his main idea: "So the last will be first, and the first will be last" (19:30, 20:16). This story really isn't the "Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard," but it's more the "Parable of the Generous Landowner." Instead of learning what it means for us—the "workers in the vineyard" (a.k.a followers of Jesus who have sacrificed everything for him)—we should ask: "What do I learn about God from this story?"

I learned all over again just how generous God is. I remember again that it's not about what I do, but about who He is.

What did you learn about God?

Thursday, February 13, 2014

I fell in love!

To be fully honest, I can't say that this came entirely as a surprise. When I moved to Europe eight months ago, I was hoping I that would find this kind of love... yet even while I was expecting it, this relationship has still succeeded in knocking my socks off!

I guess it has developed like any good love story: I'd known him for a while, but finally gave in to spending more time with him. I received love letters from him, in which he told me about all that he'd done to pave the way for our relationship... even before I realized he was around!

We shared a lot of late-night talks, he listened to me vent about my frustrations, and we even had a few great walks under the stars... plus, in my loneliest days, he sat with me.

As I write this, I nearly feel like my heart could burst! This love is so much more than I'd ever expected, and... well, some might see this as a ridiculous decision, but I've already decided that I want to spend the rest of my life with him, to follow him wherever he goes!

But you see, there's no way that I couldn't do this. Not after everything he's done for me... in fact, he had to suffer through so much, just so that I could be close to him.

We love because he first loved us.(1 John 4:19)

Oh yeah. Did I mention? This person who fills my life with joy, meaning, love, and peace... is no ordinary person at all. In fact, he is the God of the universe, the one true ruler. His love letter is the Bible, and that suffering he went through... is through Jesus, through whom I can be connected with God the Father forever!

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
His love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of gods.
His love endures forever.
Give thanks to the Lord of Lords.
His love endures forever.

(Psalms 136:1-3)

You know what? This love is so much deeper, fuller, and greater than any earthly romance could ever offer me. How could I possibly be "disappointed" to be "single" this Valentine's day? I've already got my groom, and he's greater than I could have dreamed. My heart couldn't be more full.

The bride belongs to the bridegroom.
The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him,
and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom's voice.
That joy is mine, and it is now complete.
-John the Baptist, in John 3:29

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Quest for Home

I feel like I finally understand Paul, why he longed for Heaven... He was so far from home.

He traveled from place to place and never settled. When he left a place, he longed so deeply for the people he loved in that church. These were people he lived with, ate with, laughed with. He cared for their health, he knew their families, he prayed constantly for them. He made plans to visit, wrote them letters, and sent back representatives to encourage, correct, and bless these faraway brothers and sisters. (2 Tim.  1:1-5)

To be an apostle is to live bleeding, to love with a broken heart. No earthly city can ever be our home again. Like a candle, our life is snuffed out in a breath. Where will we shine?

We--as apostles--need to be okay with hurting, and never block out God, our love, or passions just because we miss and love so deeply. Instead, we press on, clinging to our only true hope: the future, where we will be with our Savior forever. No more goodbyes... (Phillip. 1:21-26)

...but wait, what about the rest? Shall we not strive to bring as many with us as we can? Are they not worth it? This us what kept Paul going, boldly proclaiming the good news of Jesus even through persecution.

How could we possibly say we love these people if we failed to tell them the truth about love? Yet the thought of countless more faces keeps us pressing on. Like Paul...

Through trial. Through pain. Through loneliness and abandonment. Through homesickness and longing. Striving for the hope that is waiting for us... All because of Jesus Christ.

We press on. We leave our comfort. Because of love. (Acts 26:28-29)