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
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
What does it mean to be saved? In the Gospel reading for this week we have the account of Jesus walking on the water. To his credit, Peter has enough faith to believe that he can do this too. Then, however, he became terrified at the high waves and began to sink. Peter shouted our “Save me Lord”. Certainly, this literal meaning of the word was part of the Jewish understanding of salvation. God would save Israel from its enemies and for Himself. In the reading from the book of Genesis, God used Joseph to save his father Jacob’s family from famine in Canaan. God worked out his plan early on by allowing Joseph to be sold into slavery in Egypt. Then, God used Moses and the ten plagues to save his people from their Egyptian oppressors. In the book of psalms, the psalmist records how God warned kings on Israel’s behalf: “Do not touch these people I have chosen and do not hurt my prophets.” Israel was a small group of people in a volatile part of the world surrounded by powerful nations – Egypt, Babylon, Assyria and ultimately Rome. God protected his people from being wiped out. He was in a literal sense their saviour.
But is there more to the meaning of the word saviour? In the New Testament, the word salvation took on a new theological significance. In the book of Romans, the Apostle Paul writes, “For anyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Paul grasped that God’s plan started in Genesis (before Joseph) was completely fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus would save us not only from drowning (in the case of Peter walking on the water) but would save all humanity from their sins. All the animal sacrifices which atoned for the people’s sins as recorded in the Pentateuch (first 5 books of the Bible) were no longer relevant. In order to be saved from ourselves, in order to be saved from our past, in order to be saved from our feelings of guilt and inadequacy, in order to be saved from our sins, we need to call on the name of Jesus. Jesus provides total salvation. Not just from political enemies and dangerous circumstances but salvation from every physical and spiritual experience in our past and into eternity. What do we need to do? Let us leave the last words to the passage from Romans: “For if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, YOU WILL BE SAVED.”
Old Testament reading for this week: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 14:22-33
Epistle reading for this week: Romans 10:5-15
Psalm for this week: Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b
Can something big happen as a result of a small group of Christians like us? The Gospel reading appointed for this week is Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed. Technically, this was not the smallest of all seeds since, for example, the seed of a cypress tree was still smaller, but here Jesus is using a well-known phrase in Jewish culture at the time to highlight the smallness of something. Jesus then goes on to explain how big the final plant grows. It was well known that mustard plants can grow as high as twelve feet and become like a small tree. It was also true that birds liked mustard plants because they liked eating the little black seeds produced. Moreover, in the Old Testament, one of the commonest pictures of an empire was that of a tree where birds (subject nations) find shelter. Jesus’ meaning is crystal clear – the Kingdom of God starts from the smallest of beginnings, but in the end many nations will be gathered in. A Christian hermit was called to go to Rome to oppose the gladiatorial games where people were dying. Telechamus made his way into the arena to stand between the gladiators, the crowd tried to stone him, and the Prefect ordered his death, the flash of a sword in the sunlight and Telechamus was dead. Silence then descended across the arena. The crowd realised they had killed a holy man. Something profound happened in Rome following that event, because there were never any more gladiatorial games from that point on. One man had changed the views at the centre of an empire.
In the Old Testament God used small beginnings to create a ‘chosen’ people. It was Jacob’s marriage to Rachel from which God would establish his covenant relationship with the nation of Israel. In Psalm 105, this is reiterated by the psalmist who points out: “O descendants of Jacob, God’s chosen one”. God’s ultimate plan for redemption of the whole of humanity started with one family. The point of Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed is that his 12 disciples and his followers today should not be discouraged. Each one of us starts from a small beginning from which the Kingdom of God can grow. It will then grow and grow until the kingdoms of the earth find their home in it. The reason for our strength is God. It is God, through His Holy Spirit who makes the impossible, possible. And, in the words of the Apostle Paul: “If God is for us, who can ever be against us?”
Old Testament reading for this week: Genesis 29:15-28
Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Epistle reading for this week: Romans 8:26-39
Psalm for this week: Psalm 105:1-11, 45b
Can we ever escape from God? In the Psalm appointed for this week, the psalmist is adamant that we can never escape from God’s Spirit. Whether we plumb to the deepest ocean or scale the highest mountain, God’s presence is there with us. In August 2000 the Russian submarine Kursk was stranded at the bottom of the sea cut off from the rest of the world and yet God was there with the 23 crew as they waited in vain to be rescued. The same can be said for the Chilean miners temporarily trapped underground in August 2010 and countless others who find themselves in the remotest parts of the earth seemingly separated from everyone and everything – everyone except God! In 1953 when Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay were the first to reach the summit of Everest, God was there with them. The psalmist is adamant that God is everywhere we go so that we can never escape from His Spirit.
In our Old Testament reading for this week we read the story of Jacob isolated and alone near Luz as he leaves his home in Beersheba. In his apparent inaccessibility, God appears to Jacob and says, “I will be with you wherever you go.” The Gospel account for this week is the parable of the wheat and the weeds. Jesus is clear that all who belong to him will be rescued from whatever place they find themselves in. In the Epistle reading for this week, the Apostle writes, “All creation anticipates the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay.” There is nothing and nowhere within God’s created universe from which God cannot rescue us. As the author and owner of creation, there is nowhere we can go where God has not been before and where He currently reigns. As such, we can never escape from God’s Spirit; what a glorious thought and a great encouragement when we find ourselves in difficult places and difficult times.
Old Testament reading for this week: Genesis 28:10-19
Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Epistle reading for this week: Romans 8:12-25
Psalm for this week: Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24