Agitating the Privileged: Parables & Prophets

Parables & Prophets  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  22:29
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The parables and prophets of the Scriptures agitate our privileged vantage point, disrupting how we believe God's grace is "supposed to work" to illuminate the radical way of welcoming all, calling all to repentance, showing us all a belonging in the loving family of God.

Parables & Prophets
Will someone please just tell us the truth? Can we please just be transparent, open about what’s going on? Why all of the misdirection, why all the intrigue, why all the half-answers and veiled statements?
We long to hear the truth spoken, for clarity and for revelation. With every passing day, we wonder if there will ever be a clear path forward again, a clear direction for how to move ahead as a people.
We get how the hearers of Jesus’ message must have felt. They were longing for a leader who would liberate them from the oppression of the Roman Empire and corrupt religious leaders in Jerusalem.
We also get how the recipients of the prophet’s messages experienced the world. Amidst chaos and disorder, hunger and exile, the prophets came to announce God’s judgement and power. These people longed for redemption — but instead they heard the truth of their deceit and their destructive ways.
Please, give us the truth.
Thanks be to God, even though we don’t often recognize the truth being spoken to us, stories like parables and liberating words from the prophets DO speak that clarity and direction of truth for us. But they do it in a way that cuts deep. It’s not always an easy answer. Rather, Parables and Prophets tell the truth in slant. Their stories cut to the deepest parts of the truth we long for, even if its not the truth we want to hear.
Over the next couple of months, we are going to explore the Parables of Jesus alongside the lectionary prophetic texts. At this point in the liturgical cycle, we are wrapping up the cycle year and the texts get more focused on the revealing word of God to a people who long to hear it. The Parables of the Gospel of Matthew will lead us to the culminating moment of celebrating Christ, the liberating King, on the Sunday before Advent. The Prophetic texts will take us back into the Old Testament to glimpse the struggle for justice and righteousness that God’s people faced in exile and amidst a chaotic world.
And we need these texts today. In a pandemic world, a world filled with chaos and upheaval, we are longing for the truth to be spoken.
The question will be this: are we ready to hear the truth, even if it adds to the disruption and makes us uncomfortable? Put another way — will we let the truth change us, rattle us, provoke us, liberate us from our complacency? Perhaps it already has done this good work in us! Praise God! Now, will we let it unsettle the powers of chaos that still seek to undo our conviction and faith in God? Will we let the prophetic, parabolic call of these texts speak to us in ways that embolden us to carry out acts of justice, mercy, and peace?
I pray that we will.
Before diving in, one last note: We need these unsettling truths. We might not want them, we might not want to be told the truth, we might not want to be shown how to reconfigure out collective life together and upend the status quo — but if we will let these texts do their work, if we will let the Holy Spirit work in us, we will discover such Good News, gospel news. And that news is that the truth spoken here, in God’s word, is stronger, more foundational, than any word of “truth” that the peddlers of news and narrative and spin can ever give us. This truth of the Spirit speaking to us cuts through all the nonsense we are offered up day after day — the Spirit cuts to the bone. And when we hear the Spirit’s voice, speaking through these messages of Parable and Prophet, we will know we have encountered what truth really feels like. We will have come into the presence of the Living God. And we will be changed.

A Prophet

Today, we begin with a prophet. The reluctant prophet, Jonah. You know, called by God to redeem Nineveh, but instead, he takes the road to Tarshish and winds up in the belly of a whale? That guy.
Jonah is an intriguing character — he hears God’s call, but doesn’t want to offer the good news to Nineveh because he views them as something of a lost cause. And in our text today, he gets mad at God for God showing the Ninevites mercy and grace, just like God wanted to do in redeeming them. Jonah is flustered, agitated at how God works. In Jonah’s mind, God was supposed to bring calamity and judgement to these people. But instead, God offers mercy. Amazing — God provides mercy!
Now, the uncomfortable part for us (and for Jonah) is this: Jonah seems to have written the Ninevites off. He left it to God to judge and condemn them. He expected it. And this is why he heads the other direction — forget those folks!
But Jonah also seems to have this inclination that God might change God’s mind and redeem them. And he doesn’t like this. Ch. 4, vs. 1 says that God’s mercy angered Jonah. He has this retort to God in Vs 2 — “God, this is why I didn’t go to Nineveh in the first place — I knew you were going to change your mind, so why should I even bother. It’s not like my opinion or action mattered at all in the first place.”
Jonah is not a happy camper. He confuses the Ninevites getting their just due with how God works.
There continues to be a peculiar interaction with God and Jonah — Jonah goes off to pout under a bush and God offers shelter — God’s mercy extends to Jonah even though Jonah probably deserves judgement. Jonah is being petty about what graces he wants from God and what he believes should be extended to others.
And the prophetic book ends with this dissonance hanging in the air — God will not curse Nineveh, even though Jonah seems to think it would be fitting. God, instead, curses the bush that Jonah sits under, the thing Jonah actually cares about.
The long and short of it, for our understanding today, is this: Jonah’s priorities as a prophet were self-focused, not God-focused. Redemption was fine for Jonah, as long as it stayed within the framework he expected it to.
This prophet’s word gives us an uncomfortable, agitated privileged man who has to reluctantly accept that God has acted as God always ends up acting — in mercy and justice and grace. The comfort of the privileged seafarer who can choose his own direction is secondary to the radical grace of God.

A Parable

Let’s hold this truth about Jonah as we move now to the Parable. Today’s Gospel reading is one of my favorite parables, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard.
Matthew 20:1-16 says
The New Revised Standard Version The Laborers in the Vineyard

The Laborers in the Vineyard

20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And 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?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When 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.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘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.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

I am grateful for how the prophetic text from Jonah is paired with this Parable from Matthew’s gospel. I would not have seen the connections were they not paired in the cycle of readings like they are. They connect on the profound truth that God’s grace is not our own, God’s mercies are not our predicted operating procedure. And they are profoundly deeper, grander, more true (if you will) because these acts of God expose what we would perceive as the “right” way to deal with those who don’t deserve the same grace afford to us. And God, as always, opens the way to grace much wider than we may even be comfortable with.
Who is deserving of God’s mercy?
Or, to keep with the text, who is deserving of the day’s wages? The ones who put in the time, right? The ones who toiled and worked all day for their payment. That’s how it works, right? We don’t pay idle people a full days work because they stood around for half of it. You get what you put in.
But this is the problem with God’s mercy — it extends further than some of us might be comfortable with accepting. Not for ourselves, certainly. But how about for the ones who didn’t put the work in?
Hey, you just showed up, so get in the back of the line. Hey, you haven’t put in the time, so step back.
Putting this parable in the context of Jesus’ world, it’s important to recognize there are cultural and religious reasons this would have certainly agitated the privileged members of society who had put in their time. The faithful of Israel who had been a part of God’s family were watching this new teacher go through the countryside and offer grace to the poor, the outcasts, and the unclean. This was not ok! They didn’t do the work, they aren’t a part of the club!
And yet, agitation aside, the truth of both of these passages is that God’s mercy extends so much further than we are often comfortable with.

Bringing it Home

Who are you tempted to look askance at? Who are you tempted to say, “wait, you didn’t put in the work?”
The truth we need from these teachings is an awakening to how radically loving God is to all people. And for so long, the church has been like Jonah or the laborers from the start of the day: We expect to be rewarded and cared for while we expect others to need to toil and do the work. We’ve been at this for a long time, and we get our just due because of it.
The problem is that this line of thinking is inconsistent with what we see throughout the Scriptures. Time and again, the truth of God is one that cuts through power and privilege. Time and again, the truth of God is what lovingly redeems all people despite their cleanliness, despite their position, despite their “putting in the work.” The call for us is to hear humility, hear welcome, hear God’s providence for all who come to the field, not ranking or creating privileged hierarchies.
As I wonder at this text, it provokes me to look at where I want my privilege to put me above the other. Does my title or my education, my cultural heritage, my socio-economic background give me privilege and access? Yes, it does. So the choice becomes: do I expect this to be what gets me into God’s graces? Or is there something else for me to learn here?
What I hear, rather than lording my privilege or turning away from the work that “others need to do” in disgust, is that God is moving out ahead of us in the work of redeeming all things.
What if we turned this around, or what if we discovered that the truth of these teachings were inviting us to something radically different than what the world leads us to expect? Because that’s what Parables and Prophets do. They turn things upside down.
So today, the last shall be first and the first shall be last.
The wicked ones who we write off: They will be the source of our own redeeming, they will be the ones who illuminate the power of God’s saving love. What if we expected that, instead of throwing them to the dogs? What if we looked for how God was moving and opening up the good way of liberation and redemption through those who we would call unclean or broken? What if we have the opportunity to witness God’s restorative power in the ones who we would seem to believe it is least likely?
Perhaps the important teaching for us today is that God’s mercy and grace arrive in unexpected places. And these are the sites of liberation that we overlook. But when we turn our eyes to them, we see that God’s hand is moving, turning Nineveh back to God through their penitence and fasting. God is moving, welcoming even the late comers to receive the full wages of the day.
Maybe we are the early laborers and we’re upset by this grace. But I’d wager that many of us feel like we’re the ones that are late to the game and far from grace. So, perhaps the good word you need to hear today is this: God’s grace is extended for you. Receive it, hold it.
God, may we witness your mercy in the most unexpected, uncomfortable places. May it agitate us, not toward anger or dismissal, but in an unsettling way that shakes us loose of our pain, our presumptions, and our despair. May we know this grace, for ourselves, and for all creatures, as it extends from your loving heart.
In Christ, we pray, Amen.
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