Hey, is that fair?

Let me be honest: every now and then, Jesus says something that rubs me the wrong way.  I can feel that resistance inside myself that says, I don’t want to hear that right now. Could we just talk about that some other time? 

This Sunday’s readings are one of those times. We hear the gospel parable about the workers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16). The property owner goes out early in the morning to find people to work in the vineyard.  Once the early birds are working, the owner goes out several times during the day to find still more workers standing around idle (read that: can’t find work), so he hires these other workers as well.

The Late-arriving Workers by JESUS MAFA*

At the end of the day, the early-bird workers are paid the full day’s wages.  But then a surprising thing happens:  the other workers are also paid a full day’s wages, despite the fact they worked fewer hours.

Naturally, the early-bird workers, who toiled long hours in the hot sun, are jealous of the Johnny-come-lately workers. They complain to the owner, who responds, in effect, Hey, what’s the big deal? Didn’t I give you the full day wages I promised you, for your full day of work? Can’t I be generous with my own money if I want, and help these other men feed their families tonight if I want to? 

The parable ends with Jesus saying these now-famous words:

the last will be first, and the first will be last…

The point of the parable is not about how much a person is paid per hour, but rather about the generous love of God. Jesus is speaking about the kingdom of heaven, in which God’s love and mercy are abundant and infinite.  In the kingdom of heaven, the newly converted Christian takes his or her place at the table along side those who followed Christ their whole lives. Those who are of “little account” in the world will have a great place at the heavenly table.

I think some of us are reluctant to dig deeper into this parable because it challenges our status quo.  We who are the “early-bird Christians” might secretly feel we are better than the newly converted Christian.  The people whose families have been in the United States for generations secretly (or not so secretly) despise the new Americans. Those who are heterosexual may have trouble accepting people who are in same-sex relationships. People working long hours may resent those who receive government assistance.

Jesus’ parable reminds us today that God’s love is far more abundant and far-reaching than we can imagine. We may be jealous of others, or secretly think we are better than others–and therefore more deserving of God’s attention and love–but to this Jesus says we are wrong.  God loves those “other people” just as much as God loves me or you. God’s generosity, mercy, and compassion are without end and for all people–much more than we can begin to fathom.

And if God is loving, merciful, and generous towards all people, doesn’t that mean those of us who claim to follow Christ should do the same?

 

*Artwork credit:
JESUS MAFA. The Late-arriving Workers, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.  http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48296 [retrieved September 22, 2017].

 

My sheep hear my voice, says Jesus

I’m working on a sermon for Sunday, and pondering these words of Jesus:

Bon_pasteur_BnF_Ethiopien_389_fol_1v-large--Good Shepherd--Vanderbilt

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.”
                                                                      –Jesus (in John 10: 27-28a)

I know almost nothing about sheep. They give wool and go “baa..” Children play sheep in Christmas pageants. I may have petted a baby lamb at the zoo sometime, maybe (I’m not even sure!).

People of biblical times, however, would have been familiar with sheep, shepherds, and the sheep-herding process. Their meals included sheep cheese and lamb. Their clothing and blankets were woven from the sheep’s wool. The lamb also was a symbol of God’s deliverance during Passover, and associated with other religious rites.

Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice…” and the sheep follow that voice.  In those days, as the shepherds grazed their sheep, the sheep from various flocks would intermingle while the shepherds chatted or lunched at the watering hole. When it was time to return home in the evening, each shepherd had a special way of calling or whistling to his sheep, and they would quite naturally separate into the right groups.

Below is a video of a modern-day shepherd, calling to his sheep. Notice how the sheep magically appear out of the hillside mist. The sheep hear the shepherd’s voice and come running:

Here is another current-day shepherd. She has her own way of calling her sheep. Notice how the sheep are reluctant to cross the little patch of water, but her constant calling reassures them it’s safe:

When Jesus calls us, where will he be leading us?  We might have to come down off the mountainside to be feed in the meadow. We might have to jump over little puddles or even walk through the “darkest valley” (Psalm 23), but even then Jesus is with us, leading us beyond, to a better place.

Jesus knows us well, each one of us individually. This knowing is not a mere intellectual knowing, but an experiential knowing  from being with us, and loving each one of us, all along the way of life’s journey. Jesus is lovingly present in our midst at all times, so he knows our special talents, challenges, past joys and future hopes.

Jesus calls to you, and to me:  Come here, my beloved… Come!

Where is Jesus leading you (and me)  today?  That is, what might Jesus be inviting you to do in your life?  Anything new? Anything needs changing in yourself?  Any way you might assist another?

Dare you go where Jesus leads? Will you trust that the Good Shepherd will be with you, lovingly, through thick and thin?  (I’m preaching to myself here…)

Amiens26-large--Good Shepherd image-- Creative Commons licence--Vanderbilt Library

 

Will you follow?

 

 

Image credits: 

Top image: Unidentified. Jesus as shepherd with the lost sheep, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55688 [retrieved April 15, 2016]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bon_pasteur_BnF_Ethiopien_389_fol_1v.jpg.

Bottom image: Le Breton, Jacques ; Gaudin, Jean. Jesus the Good Shepherd, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=51560 [retrieved April 15, 2016]. Original source: Collection of Anne Richardson Womack. 

Things Jesus Said . . . and meant (8)

The store near our house is nearly done with the clearing of Easter goodies, but in church communities all over the world, the 50-day celebration of Easter has just begun (or is about to begin this weekend in the Orthodox Church).

Today I’m pondering a passage from John’s gospel that will be read in many churches for the Second Sunday of the Easter Season. In this passage, the disciples are hiding behind locked doors in fear. They must have been afraid that if their leader, Jesus, was killed, they might be next on the list for the same treatment for following him.

Suddenly, the Risen Jesus appears in their midst. Peace be with you, he says. I think it’s important to notice what Jesus did not say. He could have easily said, where were you guys when I needed you?  You said you would stick by me no matter what happened!  He could have castigated Peter for denying him three times before the cock crowed. But no…Jesus says, Peace be with you!

Sunrise over Atlantic Coast--Clement of Alexander quote--Spiritual Drawing Board(click on image for full effect)

Not only does Jesus offer them peace. He gives them a special calling: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” They, too, are called by God to carry on the work of Jesus Christ–and he gives them the spiritual strength and gifts they need to do this ministry by breathing on them and saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit…”

As I mentioned in the post about Jesus breathing his last breath on the cross, the words for breath and spirit are often closely related in the original languages of the bible. Jesus handed over his spirit to the Father when he died on the cross. The Father breathed life into Christ again in the Resurrection–a new kind of life, an eternally living, breathing, incarnated and risen way of existence.

Now Jesus is passing his Holy Spirit into the disciples to empower them to carry on his work. This Holy Spirit has been “breathed” into followers of Jesus throughout all the centuries since that time.

Today, Jesus “breathes” his Spirit, the Holy Spirit, into each one of us who seeks to believe and follow in his path.

Come, Holy Spirit, fill our hearts this day with your peace, inner strength, and gifts to serve others with love! 

 Until next time, Amen! 

 

Photo: Sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean — photo by Julie McCarty–all rights reserved.

 

Things Jesus Said . . . and meant (7)

In Luke’s gospel, the final words Jesus says are a prayer:

44 Lent--Holy Week--Words of Jesus--Father into your hands I entrust my spirit

“Father, into Your hands I entrust my spirit!”

In the bible the word “spirit” is sometimes closely associated with “breath.”  It is Creator God who breathes life into the first human by giving Adam life. It is the Holy Spirit who gave Jesus earthly life in the womb of Mary. The Holy Spirit was revealed in a form of a dove when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan and began his ministry.

And now, Jesus is breathing his last human-life breath. Luke tells us that Jesus’ last words were a prayer: “Father, into Your hands I entrust my spirit.” Luke says with those words, Jesus breathes his last breath.

Jesus’ mission is over–he no longer has any control over what will happen with the future (in the earthly, human sense). What does he do? Prays. And in praying, gives us a prayer that is also good for us to say:

“Father, into Your hands, I entrust my spirit.”

I have found this to be a good prayer, especially when I am worried or confused. I have discovered I can repeat it, slowly, in time with my breathing (sort of), in the middle of the night. It helps me to “let go” of things. I’m thinking it might also make a good prayer when one is being wheeled into surgery.

God is in charge. God has plans that are far better than what I can imagine. Jesus “lets go” of his spirit, his control, and God brings about something better than anyone could have imagined (as we will celebrate on Easter).

“Father, into Your hands, I entrust my spirit.”

Until next time, Amen!

Things Jesus Said . . . and meant (6)

“It is finished.”

In John’s gospel, Jesus is not only referring to the end of his life, but also the end of his mission on earth.

43 Lent--Holy Week--Words of Jesus--It is finished

The very incarnation of Christ as Jesus, son of Mary and foster-son of Joseph, was a sending into the world for a mission. Christ was “called” to come forth into the human dwelling place of flesh-and-blood on earth.  He was also sent by the Father to minister by healing, preaching the good news, teaching us a better way to live, and revealing the great love the God has for all humans.

In John’s gospel, Jesus knows ahead of time that he will suffer torture and death (“my hour”) and yet he continues the work God has given him (the very work that makes others jealous and want to put him to death). Although Jesus’ popularity with the crowds turns from the cheers of Palm Sunday to the cries of “crucify him,” Jesus remains faithful to the message of his preaching and the truth through it all.

Integrity.

Which one of us would have stayed true to the end? Wouldn’t it have been easier to run away from Jerusalem before he got there? To tell Pilate it was all a case of mistaken identity? A misunderstanding of what he meant? To reason with people about why they shouldn’t kill him?

Jesus faces death head on. Stays true to his mission, true to his Father’s will. Willingly submits to other humans who torture and kill him.

“It is finished.”

 

Until next time, Amen! 

Things Jesus Said. . . and meant (5)

The gospel of John tells us while Jesus was hanging on the cross, he suddenly cried out in a loud voice, “I thirst!”

42 Lent--Holy Week--Words of Jesus--I thirst

Pondering these words of Jesus, I think of layers of meaning. In a literal way, Jesus is losing fluids at a tremendous rate on the cross (to put it mildly). The life force is literally draining out of his human body. In this sense, it is natural that he is thirsty. So some view the bible verse this way.

I also think of the rich symbolic imagery in John’s gospel. This is the writer who tells us  the story of Jesus being tired and hungry after all his ministry work, sitting down at a well, and asking the Samaritan woman to give him a drink. In their conversation, Jesus says he could give her living water (water that is like a stream, clean and  moving, inner “water” of the Holy Spirit).

While Jesus is talking with the woman, the disciples have gone off to get food in the village–and when they return, Jesus is no longer hungry (or thirsty) and tells them that his food is to do the will of God. (John 4)

It also in John’s gospel we hear Jesus cry out to a great crowd:

Let anyone who is thirsty, come to me and drink.
Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said,
“Rivers of flowing water will flow from his heart.” *
 By this he meant the Spirit,
whom those who believed in him were later to receive.
Up to that time the Spirit had not been given,
since Jesus had not yet been glorified.  
(John 7:37-38) 

dscn6176--I thirst image from asinglgedropintheocean 3-17-2014Throughout the centuries, Christians have found the words “I thirst” to have deep meaning. Mother Teresa of Calcutta had the words written near the crucifixes in her convents. The words “I thirst” reminded her of many things: the way Jesus thirsts for others to come to him, the way Jesus thirsted in his sufferings in life and dying, the way her beloved poor people hungered and thirst, both in the literal sense and in the way people all over the world, including “the rich” thirst for love. 

Jesus thirsts to be close to us, to commune with us in the deep spiritual relationship of God’s love–even from the cross he thought of you and me. He was longing to bring about the reconciliation of heaven and earth, God and earthling.

And that is food and drink for further thought as we continue our journey through Holy Week.

Until next time, Amen! 

 

*  For example, see Isaiah 12:3.
** Read more about Mother Teresa’s “I Thirst” image, with thanks to “A Drop In the Ocean” website: http://asingledropintheocean.com/2014/03/17/my-week-serving-the-poor-of-st-louis-with-the-missionaries-of-charity-mother-teresa/

Things Jesus Said . . . and meant (4)

During Holy Week, I’m continuing to ponder the seven last words of Jesus. These seven words spoken on the cross are gathered from the four gospels. Today’s words are found in both the gospels of Matthew and Mark:  “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

41 Lent--Holy Week--Words of Jesus--Why abandonment (click on image to enlarge)

As others have pointed out, this one sentence is the only thing Matthew and Mark write about concerning what Jesus said while dying on the cross. I think this is significant in that these gospel writers viewed Jesus as being utterly forsaken by all while being crucified. Even God, Jesus’ Father, seems to have let him down.

Biblical scholars say that Jesus may have been attempting to pray Psalm 22, which begins like this:

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
    Why so far from my call for help,
    from my cries of anguish?
My God, I call by day, but you do not answer;
    by night, but I have no relief. 

In Matthew and Mark, all those passing by the cross on their way are mocking Jesus, including the chief priests, the scribes, and elders. “He saved others, yet he is powerless to save himself!” “He said he was God’s Son–let’s see him prove it! Come down off that cross, Jesus, if you are really the Son of God!” The criminals being crucified taunt Jesus. (No “good thief” here!)  Even Jesus’ followers–mostly women followers, it seems–are standing in the distance, unwilling or unable to come close to Jesus as he is suffering.

Although the rest of Psalm 22 does not appear in Matthew and Mark, I think it likely that the earliest readers would have recalled the rest of the psalm, including these words:

In you our fathers trusted;
    they trusted and you rescued them.
 To you they cried out and they escaped;
    in you they trusted and were not disappointed.
 But I am a worm, not a man,
    scorned by men, despised by the people.
 All who see me mock me;
    they curl their lips and jeer;
    they shake their heads at me:
 “He relied on the Lord—let him deliver him;
    if he loves him, let him rescue him.” 

Cross in dry desert --Julie McCartyI cannot help but be amazed at how Psalm 22–written so very long before the life of Christ–describes the experience Jesus finds himself in while dying on the cross.

Jesus does not recite the entire psalm–he is too filled with pain, and besides, crucifixion steals the breath away by slowly suffocating people.

But Matthew and Mark clearly want us to see Jesus as the fulfillment of Psalm 22. Jesus feels totally forsaken, totally abandoned by all as he is dying.

And yet… there is more.

Even though Jesus felt abandoned by God, it is God who will ultimately save him. Later in the text, Psalm 22 turns from the message of abandonment and alienation to one of hope in God:

You who fear the Lord, give praise!
    All descendants of Jacob, give honor;
    show reverence, all descendants of Israel!
For he has not spurned or disdained
    the misery of this poor wretch,
Did not turn away from me,
    but heard me when I cried out.
 I will offer praise in the great assembly;
    my vows I will fulfill before those who fear him.
 The poor will eat their fill;
    those who seek the Lord will offer praise.
   ” May your hearts enjoy life forever!” 

“May your hearts enjoy life forever!”  Although Jesus cannot feel this during his death and descent into Sheol, the ultimate long-term gift of God will be life forever. 

The next time you or I feel hurt, forsaken, or abandoned by someone, we can be assured that Jesus knows the feeling–from his own experience.

Until next time, Amen! 

[P.S. Read all of Psalm 22 on Bible Gateway, along with footnotes: click here. Thanks to Bible Gateway for quotes in this text.]