What does grace look like? The Gospel passage assigned for this day is Jesus’ parable of the labourers (or workers) in the vineyard: “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.” The extraordinary thing about this parable is that the landowner paid everyone the same wage whether they had worked all day or just worked the last hour. What does this tell us about God’s grace?
Like much of Jesus’ teaching, this parable may be viewed as having many layers of meaning. Perhaps two, obvious, meanings would have met those who first heard it. The parable may have served as a warning to the disciples. Just because they have known Jesus for longer does not mean that they should look down on those who came to faith later. The kingdom of God exists in equal measure for all people irrespective of how soon they come to faith. Secondly, this parable may be viewed as a warning for the Jews and particularly the Jewish leaders. Even though the Jews were God’s chosen people, they should not despise the Gentiles for ‘coming to the party late’. However, this parable also speaks of the infinite compassion of God. A denarius was the minimum needed for subsistence living. These workers who were not hired at the start of the day, through no fault of their own, would nonetheless receive the minimum wage. It was pure grace and it meant that the worker and his family could survive for another day. Finally, it may be possible to uncover a layer of God’s preference for service without counting the cost. The first workers who were hired negotiated a contract. They worked for money only, and this was evident by the argument about pay differentials at the end of the day. The workers hired at the end of the day asked for nothing, they were just grateful for a job. Again, is this an insight into the kingdom of God. We do not deserve God’s reward; we simply receive it as a gift of divine grace.
Old Testament reading for this week: Exodus 16:2-15
Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 20:1-16
Epistle reading for this week: Philippians 1:21-30
Psalm for this week: Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45
The Gospel passage for this week is the account of the unmerciful servant where we have the following words of Peter to Jesus: 21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. 23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
As a background to this passage, we know that It was common in Jewish custom to forgive someone three times. Here Peter, having grasped something of Jesus’ teaching, suggests showing much more forgiveness than this. Peter suggests forgiving someone seven times – a significant increase on 3. However, Jesus’ reply would have shocked everyone. In forgiving seventy times seven Jesus is telling people that forgiveness is at the heart of what being a disciple is all about. See for example Matthew 5:7, 6:14,15 and James 2:13. Jesus then goes on to tell a story which highlights our need to forgive because we have been forgiven. One of the key points about this passage is the contrast between the two debts. In the NIV version (above) the servant (us) owes the Master (God) ten thousand bags of gold, whereas the fellow servant owed the servant only a hundred silver coins. The AKJV of the Bible has the difference between 10,000 talents and a hundred pence. Some translators reckon the difference to be between £2.4 million and £5. It is suggested that the debt we owe to God vastly exceeds any debt that someone owes us. If God has forgiven us our massive debt to Him, we must forgive our neighbours debt to us – which will be tiny by comparison. Our sin brought about the death of God’s own Son. Yet God has forgiven us. In the light of this, how can we not forgive others?
Old Testament reading for this week: Exodus 14:19-31
Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 18:21-35
Epistle reading for this week: Romans 14:1-12
Psalm for this week: Psalm 114
How do we exercise discipline in the church? In the first three verses of the Gospel reading this week, we have the following words from Jesus: 15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
What does this mean for us? This is one of the more difficult passages in Matthew’s Gospel. Many scholars agree that verses 15 to 17 sound more like a report from an ecclesial committee than something that Jesus would say. There are three reasons for this: 1.It is very legalistic; 2.Jesus is unlikely to tell his disciples to take things to the ‘church’ because the ‘church’ did not exist at this stage; 3.It suggests that pagans and tax collectors are ‘outsiders’ and presumably, beyond redemption. None of this sounds like Jesus, so how do we reconcile this apparent conundrum?
There are at least four things that we can draw from these three verses. Firstly, if someone upsets you don’t let it drive you to despair but rather deal with it – incessant brooding in silence is no good for anyone. Secondly, go and see the person who has wronged you. A face to face meeting is preferable to anything else. Writing an email or sending a text is no substitute for a meeting – the written word is always open to misinterpretation and can make the situation worse. Thirdly, if this still doesn’t work involve a wise friend who you trust. He or she may be able to shed light onto the situation. It may be that you are being unreasonable, and they delicately and sensitively bring you to realise your own unreasonableness. Fourthly, if this still does not work involve the Christian fellowship. The implication seems to be to avoid involving legalistic outside agencies (like Surrey police). Commenting on this passage, William Barclay remarks: “Legalism settles nothing; it merely produces further trouble. It is in an atmosphere of Christian prayer, Christian love and Christian fellowship that personal relationships might be righted.” This is how discipline should be exercised in the church.
Old Testament reading for this week: Exodus 12:1-14
Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 18:15-20
Epistle reading for this week: Romans 13:8-14
Psalm for this week: Psalm 149
What is true discipleship? In our society today we crave happiness, comfort, and security. The mark of whether someone has really ‘made it’ in life is measured by how many assets they have and how much health insurance. This emphasis on happiness and security spills over into church life as we choose churches that are happy and promise security. To be fair, it was no different in Jesus’ day. When Jesus talks of suffering, Peter corrects him and says, “Heaven forbid, Lord, this will never happen to you.” These remarks elicit one of the most stinging rebukes from Jesus in the whole of the New Testament. Jesus replies, “Get behind me Satan.” You see true discipleship is not about happiness, comfort, and security. What then is it about? Jesus spells it out in our Gospel reading for this week: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, and pick up his cross and follow me.” For Jesus, following God meant giving up his life on a cross. In a word, true discipleship is costly. In our Old Testament reading, it cost Moses his security and peaceful life in Midian. God called Moses back to Egypt to confront Pharaoh and the Israelite people before leading them all into the wilderness. This was the cross that Moses had to bear. This was the cost of following God.
What about us? Few of us are called to surrender our physical lives or take on dangerous jobs, so what should we do? In the Epistle reading for this week, the Apostle Paul gives us many clues. For example, “When God’s children are in need, be the one to help them out.” Do not ignore the problem but pick up your cross. What about enemies? The Apostle writes, “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone.” It is not about pride but rather about denying self. Finally, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.” All this is what is meant by following Jesus and being a disciple: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, and pick up his cross and follow me.”
Old Testament reading for this week: Exodus 3:1-15
Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 16:21-28
Epistle reading for this week: Romans 12:9-21
Psalm for this week: Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45b
How do we proclaim Jesus? In the Gospel reading this week there is the account of Peter’s declaration at Caesarea Philippi: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Caesarea Philippi was in Gentile territory and the place where Peter made this declaration was a place filled with Syrian temples to the false god of Baal, the god of Pan and the Roman emperor Caesar. Sometimes we are called to proclaim who Jesus is, in front of others and in hostile territory. However, it is not always about words. The pilgrims to Jerusalem used to sing songs about God’s greatness. In Psalm 124 we have these lyrics: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” In the Old Testament reading for this week, the Hebrew midwives showed tremendous bravery in going against the orders of the king of Egypt to protect Hebrew baby boys. They proclaimed their faith in God not by words or songs, but by doing the right thing.
Of course, there are many ways of proclaiming our faith. In the Epistle reading, the Apostle Paul notes that proclaiming Jesus should follow the gifts we have received: “We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.” These are some of the other ways of proclaiming Jesus not only in Caesarea Philippi (modern day Golan Heights) in the first century but also in our own country today.
Old Testament reading for this week: Exodus 1:8-2:10
Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 16:13-20
Epistle reading for this week: Romans 12:1-8
Psalm for this week: Psalm 124