Monday, April 13, 2015

You First! No, YOU First! No: GOD FIRST (Part I)

     Jesus' encounter with people was one of contrasts.  In Matthew 19, we see little ones being brought before Him.  You can just imagine the scene:  mothers, hovering around on the fringes of the crowd, trying to keep their children from being too loud or too wiggly.  Jesus has just finished a discourse on divorce with the Pharisees.  His view is that divorce is only allowed because of men's hardened hearts.  That must have been refreshing to the ears of His women listeners, who more often than not felt responsible for their husband's displeasure, and deeply feared that ugly word if they failed one too many times.  Did Jesus words encourage them to move from the outside of the crowd to the inside? 
     As the mothers brought forth their little ones, the disciples "rebuked those who brought them."  (Matt. 19:13)  How come?  Was it unseemly for a man of Jesus' importance to interact with children?  Did the disciples see the Master's time as too valuable to be wasted on children?   After all, He just squared off against the religious leaders--now that's really important!
     Jesus always had time for the "least of these."  He says, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matt. 19:14)
    I bet the disciples, in their desire to honor Jesus, felt rather abashed by what He said.  In their effort to protect His status in the community's estimation, they lost sight of His message.  The Kingdom of God is not about putting arrogant authorities in their place; it is about swinging the gates wide open for those who are eager to be with God.
    Next, we see a man inquiring of Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life.  After his admission that he keeps the commandments, Jesus asks him to sell what he has, thereby gaining "treasure in heaven." (19:21).  Jesus then invites the young man to follow him.  But the young man declines, "because he had great wealth." (19:22)  So, Jesus comments to the disciples how wealth is a hindrance for entering in the Kingdom.  
     Why?  Wealth makes us feel self-sufficient.  We don't pray for our daily bread because, hey, we own the bakery.  We don't thank Him for the morning, because, hey, it's another day to make a profit.  We don't thank our Father for His bounty and blessings, because, hey, I earned that by the sweat of my brow.  
     The disciples are disturbed and Jesus then reminds them that “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (19:26)  Exactly.  Our self-importance must be set aside.  We must humbly enter the narrow gate of the Kingdom with the Holy Spirit working in our spirit, bringing us to that place of child-like wonder and trust.
     Peter then pipes up with an observation that the disciples have left everything to follow Him..."What then will there be for us?"  (19:27)
     Peter always says what the others are thinking.  I love that quality about him.  He doesn't silently muse on Jesus' teachings; he goes for broke and blurts out his thoughts.
     Jesus then reminds them that whatever they have left behind on this Earth to follow Him will more than be made up for when He returns.  But, a hallmark of the Kingdom is humility:  "But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first." (19:30)
     Be like those children earlier, Peter, who came to Me without seeking anything other than My love.  No strings, no compensations for perceived loss, just a sincere desire to bask in the sunshine of My love. 
     Then, on the tail-end of all this, He speaks this parable:   
     “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.  About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.  He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
     ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
     He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
     “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’  The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.
     ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
     But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?   Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you.  Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
   So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matt. 20:1-6)
   Wow.  Those who have labored long and hard are equal to those who come to the vineyard late.  Why?  Because in the Kingdom of God, no one gets a preference.  All come and sit at the banquet table as equals: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Gal. 3:28)
     Put this teaching back into what Jesus recently encountered:  The Pharisees wanting to "test" Him, probably in order to discredit Him before the crowds; Jesus blessing the little children; Jesus asking the rich young man to love God more than his wealth and encouraging the disciples that in the Kingdom economy, a loss is a gain.
     Authority, wealth, knowledge, rules, regulations, knowing one's our world, these things mattered then and they matter now.  In the Kingdom of God?  No.  None of it.
     Only the children are commended by Jesus as already being in His Kingdom.  Why?  They waited until all of the adults were done discussing and debating the Law with Jesus.  They were "brought" to Jesus with no demands nor questions.  They simply gazed into His eyes and saw His love radiating back to them.  They were the "last," the "least" in the society of the day, and yet, they were first in His Father's Kingdom.   
     The parable comes in like a flood, to wash away any doubt about how to enter the Kingdom of God.
     Humility is the price of admission.  Everyone who accepts the ticket from Jesus' hand comes in.


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