Designed to Offend
Deisgned to Offend
Our passages today focus on reconciliation, the hard work of forgiveness. It might not look that way at first glance, as the passages have more finger pointing in them than words of forgiveness. However, if you dig deeper you will find that the theme of forgiveness and the restoration of relationships is at the heart of the passage.
The Tragically Hip in their song Poets sing the following, “Don’t tell me how the universe is altered, when you find out how he gets paid, alright.” (Poets – Tragically Hip).
In his commentary on the passage from Matthew Scott Hoezee writes, “This story is calculated to offend” (Scott Hoezee) and it does. This passage from Matthew upsets us, there is a sense of unfairness about the passage. Our Protestant Work Ethic tells us that we should work hard and will be rewarded. We view our own self-image, our own holiness in the work that we do for the church. We believe we should be rewarded and are disappointed when we are not or when we see others, who we don’t think have worked as hard, being rewarded.
The story is simple, Jesus is telling a parable about what the kingdom of heaven is like. A land owner is seeking workers and throughout the day hires individuals to work the his field. The assumption we make with this story is that those who are hired last must have been lazy or perhaps they slept in. We are incensed when the landowner pays them first and when everyone, regardless of when they started working, receives the same pay. That’s not fair we say, we identify with the workers who were hired first. We are offended, which is exactly what Jesus is going for.
This story shouldn’t come as a surprise. Jesus has already taught the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5). We already know that the last shall be first and that those who are persecuted will receive the kingdom of heaven, so why does this story surprise us? Have we forgotten what Jesus taught earlier or did we think he didn’t really mean it?
Prof. Stanley Saunders wonders “why have so many readers in the history of the church wanted to make this landowner into a God-figure?” (Stanley Saunders). While Saunders is pleased that all the workers receive equal pay, he wonders about their dignity. Of those hired first and those hired last. He makes the connection to wealthy business owners today and the multitudes who work for minimum wages and no benefits today who line their pockets. He continues, “Regardless of what they were paid, all the workers went home seeing more clearly the vast gulf that exists between the landowner and themselves. They have gotten paid, but the landowner has now taken their dignity and whatever vestiges of power they might once have possessed. They will be back in marketplace again tomorrow. Nothing has changed but the self-respect they have had wrenched away.”
Saunders concern with the parable is that the version of justice that this parable illustrates creates a sense of jealousy in us. It creates division as we separate ourselves between those who worked eight hours and those who only worked two hours of the day. We are unable to see the larger gulf that exists between us and the landowner.
Now I’ll be honest, though Saunders raises some interesting questions about the relationship between employers and employees that are worth discussing today, I find his interpretation on this passage to be missing an important central theme within our walk of faith and that is grace. How do we account for the grace of God within this passage if we believe it sets a false sense of justice? How can God be graceful if we are set against one another and we grumble against the landowner?
Sometimes it is difficult to see God’s grace in action. We have blinders up; these blinders keep us focused on our own lives and our own problems. Often our gaze is so narrow that we can’t see the plight that our neighbours are in or we believe our own problems are so great that we can’t help others. The reality is that we see the world the lenses of this world. We understand everything in terms of productivity, the balance of our bank account and how each of us functions within society. When someone doesn’t meet the expectations that society or that we have set, then we look down upon them. We wonder what’s wrong with them.
Prof. Rolf Jacobson takes a look at this with an analogy about math. The old math and the new math. He writes, “The old math of the kingdom of this world is a math of causes and effects, of keeping score, and making someone pay. According to the old math, you only have to forgive your neighbor a couple of times—like maybe seven times. After that, hold a grudge and don’t get fooled again. According to the old math—the math that works—those who are righteous will be blessed and those who are sinners will be cursed. According to the old math, your own sins can only be forgiven if they are minor—not if they are major. According to the old math, selling everything to follow a crucified Lord doesn’t make any sense—especially when that crucified Lord says that the reward for costly following will just be more suffering. According to the old math, it makes no sense to leave 99 sheep in the wilderness to go after one lost sheep—better to write the one sheep off on your taxes and take the 99 to market, you’ll still make a profit.
“The old math is all about the law. It is about how this world works.” (Rolf Jacobson).
And we get stuck with the old math and we forget that Jesus came to preach a gospel, not based on the law, but based on grace. The gospel of the resurrection which is all about second chances and renewed life. In his letter to the church in Philippi Paul writes, “Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ…” (Philippians 1: 27). The gospel of Christ is not about living out the letter of the law, the gospels are full of accounts where Jesus refutes the law. If Christ came to fulfill the law, then we see that the law fulfilled is about grace, second chances, mercy, equality, dignity and resurrection.
We have a passage that is designed to offend, but if we get stuck on our grievance and reasons for offense then we haven’t learned what Jesus is trying to teach. If the unfairness of the daily wage rankles you, it’s because you are too concerned about your own wallet and aren’t focused enough on the work that God is calling us to do. God dispenses grace, because it pleases God to dispense grace, to offer forgiveness. The thief on the cross with Jesus received grace at the end (Luke 23:43), should we be offended that Jesus offered him that grace right at the end? I think no.
The passage is calculated to offend and if we can move past our offense and discomfort we can see that it is asking much larger questions about the world we live in and the one we profess to be in. The offense is constructed around differences of class and economic status. As followers of Christ, we need to ask why we stumble here? This is a parable that should force us to confront uncomfortable truths about our own assumptions about people and their value. It should have us strive to live in the manner that Paul instructed the church in Philippi, “Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Amen.
St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.
St. Andrew’s supports the gathering of community agencies, providing space for the Affordable Housing Committee. Rev. Ellis’ voice is key in advocating for improvements in awareness, empathy and action on key determinants such as housing, income and food security.
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