TO LISTEN ONLINE:
A sermon on:
Matthew 20: 1-16
Last week when driving I saw an interesting bumper sticker: “subvert the dominant paradigm.” Now, for some reason this bumper sticker actually stuck. You see we all view life through a particular lens, and we all view God through a particular lens, and if that lens isn’t right, then our lives will necessarily be wrong. And what Christian formation is about, more than anything, is acquiring the right lens so that we see things as they really are. And so here’s the question I’d like to pose this morning. What’s the paradigm, or the lens, through which we’re viewing our relationship with God?
Because there is a dominant religious paradigm, which has its own assumptions about God, about ourselves, and about what it means to follow Jesus. And that dominant paradigm goes something like this. “We get what we deserve. If we’re good, God will reward us. Faithfulness might not be fun, but our God is fair, and he’s going to reward us for our service.” And so whenever we say things like, “I’ve already done my good deed for the day,” or “Why would God let this happen, I haven’t done anything wrong,” that’s the dominant religious paradigm slipping out where God’s seen as the boss, we’re the workers, and payment is rewarded on the basis of merit.
Now believe it or not, this has actually been the dominant religious paradigm since the time of Jesus, and Jesus’ intention in telling today’s parable was to subvert that paradigm. And in particular, the people Jesus had the most beef with were the Pharisees, because instead helping people see God and themselves as they really were, the Pharisees made people feel bad for not being “religious enough.” You see the Pharisees followed the law to a T, but did so in a way that left them joyless and judgmental. And Jesus’ message to the Pharisees, more than anything, was that they didn’t see things as they really were – that the dominant paradigm they upheld reflected the kingdom of the world, not the kingdom of heaven.
And so that’s why Jesus told this parable about the landowner and vineyard workers – to subvert the dominant paradigm and show us what God’s Kingdom’s really like. It’s not a lesson in economics, nor is it an allegory that asks us to examine who we are in this parable. No, it’s a call to examine our assumptions about God, about ourselves, and about what it means to follow Jesus. And so here’s the question we need to consider – where is Jesus asking us to think differently about God?
Well first, Jesus wants us to understand that working in God’s vineyard isn’t a chore – it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. The call of God, it moves us away from a life of idleness and toward a life of purpose and meaning. A life spent working in God’s vineyard is its own reward. In other words, what gives life purpose, what gives life meaning, is our decision to partner with God to advance His Kingdom wherever we happen to be – at work, at home, at a bar, on vacation – it doesn’t matter because the vineyard of God is everywhere. And working in that vineyard – that, Jesus says, is what gives life purpose and meaning. As Kathryn Blanchard puts it, “The workers must recognize the opportunity to work in the vineyard as a gift in itself. There is no room for human pride, since one’s only choice is to answer the call … or to stand idle and waste one’s life.” In other words, the call to work in God’s vineyard isn’t a chore. It’s the reason God created us in the first place.
Second, Jesus wants us to understand that God isn’t a distant and cold hearted book-keeper – that God isn’t sitting back and keeping score. On the contrary, like a shepherd looking for lost sheep, God’s refuses to rest until he’s found every last potential worker that’s still standing idle. Because notice, the landowner in the parable is always searching – 6 o’clock, 9 o’clock, noon, three o’clock, 5 PM – the second he gets one group of workers settled, he leaves again to start looking for more. And this, Jesus says, is exactly what God’s like. God takes the initiative to find us. He’s always looking to draw people in. It breaks His heart to see people standing idle.
What’s the paradigm through which we’re viewing our relationship with God? You see, today we have a baptism. We’re going to baptize Reid into the Christian life, and each one of us will make a vow to do all we can help Reid grow up into a mature Christian – to teach Reid the truth of who God really us, and to teach him the joy of working in God’s vineyard with us. But at the same time, we’ll also renew our own baptismal covenant; we’ll remind ourselves of what that right lens is, of what it means to see things as they really are. And according to Jesus’ parable, there are really only two lenses. Either we know that life and salvation are a gift and that God’s blessed us well beyond what we deserve, or we compare ourselves to everyone else and measure our lives against theirs. We’re either grateful or we’re envious. We’re either God’s sons or we’re his servants. God’s either our Father or he’s our foreman. Paul’s either right, and all things belong to us because we belong to Christ– “co-heirs” as he puts it – or we’re contract workers slaving away in a vineyard to eke out a daily wage. And so what’s our paradigm?
CS Lewis was once asked by a group of his colleagues at Oxford about the uniqueness of Christianity. “All religions present ethical challenges. Other religions have stories of virgin births and miracles and gods walking the earth. And so what,” they sneered, “makes Christianity any different?” “What makes Christianity different?” Lewis asked rhetorically before answering their question. “Grace.”
The dominant religious paradigm is about merit. God’s the boss, we’re the workers, and payment is rewarded on the basis of merit. But Christianity, Christianity is about grace – about how each and every one of us is made in the image of God, about how God’s generosity is beyond anything we could ever imagine, and about how there’s nothing we could ever do to deserve God’s generosity but that it comes to us anyway as a gift. Christianity is about grace. How different would our lives be – how different would our world be – if we only lived from that paradigm?
At so here’s what I’d like to say in closing. At the end of today’s parable, the landowner asks an interesting question – he says, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” Well, in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, this question’s actually meant to point to another parable Jesus tells about a vineyard. And in that parable, which occurs only one chapter later, the landowner sends his son into the vineyard and when the workers see the landowner’s son they seize him, throw him out of the vineyard and kill him. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” That’s the landowner’s question. And at the heart of our faith is the belief that God does not stand removed, but that He chose to enter the vineyard himself in the person of Jesus Christ, that it cost him his life, and that, on the cross, he became the last so that we could become the first.
May that be the paradigm – the lens – through which we view our relationship with God. Because to the extent that it is, we’re going to get really serious about bringing more people into the vineyard with us, rejoicing that in the shadow of the cross, we all stand together as equals – sons and daughters of God, and co-heirs with Christ. Is Jesus’ work in the vineyard with us and for us the primary lens through which we’re viewing our relationship with God? Because if not, it’s time to subvert the paradigm.