Sunday, March 5, 2023

Paula Stoltzfus: God's Economy of Grace

Jesus reveals the upside-down realm of God
Matthew: Jesus the Revealer
Psalm 16: 5-8; Matthew 20: 1-16

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I don’t know about you but depending on where my own barometer of justice is on a given day, and whether I’m listening either with my head or heart, I have varied responses to this story.  I can vacillate from bafflement to anger to awe.

But first, let’s remind ourselves that this book, the Gospel of Matthew was written to the Jewish community in Antioch around 70AD.  The Jesus followers within the Jewish community of Antioch were facing great complexity.  They would have grappling with the reality that the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, just south of Antioch.  They also were trying to figure out life together, between those who believed Jesus was the Messiah and those who did not.  Fractures were developing in their community of faith. If you had been there you may have heard conversations or rather debates of who was in God’s favor.

In the beginning part of the Gospel of Matthew there was a case being made to prove to the community that Jesus was the Messiah. Last week and this we are interacting with Jesus’ teachings which describe God’s kingdom which is upside-down from what the community was practicing.

“The first shall be last and the last shall be first,” is the last sentence of our Gospel reading today, which depicts this upside-down message. It is not only here but is also at the end of the story that precedes this one.

If you have your Bibles you can peek right before this text and see the story of the Rich Young Man who comes to Jesus and directly asks what will get him eternal life?  Jesus ultimately says, sell all your possessions and follow me.  It was hard for this man to follow through with Jesus’ invitation and he went away grieving.  

Jesus goes on to describe a new kind of economy where possessions and riches are not valued as highly as following Jesus’ ways. And so we hear in the last sentence, “but many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

Jesus proceeds to paint a picture, in our text today, of the kingdom of heaven where God is the landowner, hiring out work. It reveals God’s approach to God’s economy operating on grace, where everyone is given the same regardless of the number of hours worked.

It is easy to enter through the mind’s eye in which the sense of injustice is present. For this business model doesn’t calculate evenly. The business plan is not balanced and perhaps fringes on reckless. So it quickly becomes obvious that the landowner/God is not interested in it appearing fair or even responsible.

But this story is as much about God as it is in how it reveals our human predicament. We want order in life and in that order there is to be fairness.  People have built ideas of what makes one more valued over another, whether it is money, race, gender, sexuality, age, or skill set.  Sometimes it is based on perceived effort or expectation.

Our for order comes with the greatest of intentions (I hope) and indeed is needed in some instances, but falters in God’s economy.   

God’s economy is completely different. It works on different commodities, that of grace and love.  It also works from the platform of abundance. Everyone is viewed and treated the same. The kingdom of God honors everyone!

Unlike the community in Antioch (and perhaps our own world today), the accumulation of wealth is not what affords one into God’s kingdom.  The hardest worker who puts in the greatest number of hours is not what gets a valued member’s pass. Years of sacrificial service doesn’t get one first in line. The correct genealogy won’t give one a free pass into God’s kingdom.

Does it make you a little uncomfortable?  It will most of us.  I’ve worked really hard to do the right things in life, be responsible, learn and grow to be a valued member of the church and society. Many of you have too. Is that not worth anything?

It is a truth we need to face that no one of us is worthier, more righteous, or more deserving than anyone else.

In order to even begin to understand this, it calls us to dig into the story at a deeper soul level. It cannot be contained solely in our heads. This extravagant generosity of grace and love goes beyond what we can comprehend unless…unless we have personally received a measure of this generosity of grace.

It is in receiving grace (especially when undeserved) that we can begin to appreciate the gift and freedom of God's economy.

I happened to listen to a Brene Brown podcast this past week in which, unbeknownst to me, she opened with this parable. In the conversation the question was raised, how would we, the readers, feel if we knew the workers were all doing the best that they could? Because she too was recognizing that viewing the parable from our head was not allowing the deeper reflection.

This question begins to view the workers through the lenses of grace.

What if the worker hired at midday didn’t make it to the first hiring because they were helping their neighbor with a farm chore because the neighbor was sick?

What if the worker hired at the end of the day was taking care of their dying loved one and had a hard time getting out the door?

What if all the workers that were hired at varying points of the day were doing the best that they could with the circumstances around them?

It is all too easy to pass judgment on what we perceive but do not know. It is easy to get angry when life is unfair.  It is easy to justify holding resentment when others have an easier road than we ourselves do.

These are all real temptations.

What if we embraced Jesus’ depiction of grace in the kingdom?

  • A place where you are honored for who you are and what you bring, just as you are. 
  • A place where you are believed that you are doing the best that you can with what you have. 
  • A place where you trust that others are doing the best that they can with what they have.

We don’t know everyone’s story, family, background, and experience.  I have been a part of two seminars within the last 6 months that have identified that nearly half of children and around 70% of adults have experienced some kind of trauma in their lives.  And one of the seminars, the pandemic itself was named as a potential prolonged trauma, depending on one’s previous history.  

Our response in the church often has been to try harder, have more faith, or pray harder and longer, all which perhaps come from a noble place, but an approach that tends to shame, blame, and guilt ourselves and others.

God seems to have another way, that of grace. A way of meeting each of us by accepting who we are with what we have. God meets us with grace that accepts that we are doing the best that we can at any given moment.

What a gift. It is our choice to be present, orient ourselves to God, self reflect, and receive this gift.

It is in this spirit that you are invited to enter into communion today, confessing and acknowledging that we come as we are and not whom we think we should be. We come as Jesus receives us, doing the best we can. God’s grace is plentiful and for all.

Join me in prayer:

God of mystery and wonder, at this and every table, you dissolve the distance between the ordinary and the holy; you break the barrier separating the common and the sacred.  We thank you for this thin palace, this holy space, this well of grace. Amen                             (VT 948)

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