Late to the Vineyard

Is your eye bad because I am good?

That’s a very literal translation of the second half of Matthew 20:15, which is often translated or are you envious because I am generous? (e.g. NIV, NRSV).

I’m thinking about this story, which Jesus tells in Matthew 20:1-16, about several different sets of workers who end up working in the vineyard of a particular landowner.

The landowner goes out early in the morning to hire people and agrees to pay them one denarius at the end of the day. Then the landowner goes out again several more times throughout the day and hires several more groups of people, who end up starting work at different times, some as late as 5 pm.

In the evening the landowner gathers everyone together to give them their wages, starting with the people who were last to begin work, and giving them, surprisingly, an entire denarius, even though they only did a couple hours of work. The people who worked all day then expect that they will receive more than the agreed-upon denarius; but when it comes their turn to get their paycheck, the landowner gives them just one denarius―the same as the people who didn’t work nearly as long.

The ones who started work early in the morning complain that it’s not fair, after they bore the burden of the day and the burning heat (literal translation from v. 12), but the landowner replies, friend, I do not do you wrong; did you not agree with me on a denarius? (literal translation from v. 13). The landowner says, I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish among what is mine? Or is your eye bad because I am good? (literal translation from v. 14-15).

I think about this parable, and I think about the remarkable moment we’re living in, as the Black Lives Matter movement has gained enormous waves of new momentum―particularly among white (and in some cases other non-Black) people who are finally waking up to the reality that all is not well in US race relations, finally gaining the will to try to do something about it.

The negative side of all this is that some people and organizations make statements, post on social media, attend protests, etc. for the main purpose of not appearing racist, of not seeming to be on the wrong side of history. They voice their support for BLM because it’s the popular thing to do in this moment but do not actually intend to change anything about their lives or their organizations to make them truly anti-racist, to make them truly just.

But on the positive side, I think―or at least I really want to think―that there really are new workers in the vineyard. In this moment there really are―on a vast, societal level―hordes and hordes of people who are finally letting their eyes be opened to the truths our Black siblings have been living and speaking about for a long, long time. There really are hordes and hordes of potential new partners in the struggle for a different kind of world, a world of equality and embrace rather than prejudice and exclusion, a world of true justice and true peace. 

People who are new to the vineyard are often not yet very good at their work. They make rookie mistakes. They have a lot to learn. Sometimes they do more harm than good.

I wish it were not this way―and yet such is the process of learning how to do a new kind of work, of learning how to work in different ways, of unlearning so many assumptions and ways of being. Such is the reality of arriving to the vineyard―beginning to engage in the work of justice and anti-racism―late in the day.

Speaking on behalf of the only people I can speak for, white people, part of engaging in the work of the vineyard is to be open to being corrected; to look for ways to figure out what we don’t know; to look for opportunities to learn, and to engage in those opportunities with open-mindedness and without defensiveness; to look for ways to follow the lead of people of color who have been doing this work for a long time―who have, truly, in their own lives and for too many generations of their ancestors’ lives, borne the burden of the day and the burning heat. It’s to honor this work that has already been happening for a long time and to find ways to join in, without needing to try to take the lead or needing to pretend that our own work is somehow equal to it.

It’s to look for resources that offer ways of listening and learning that don’t further burden our friends of color by expecting them to teach us. It’s to look for fellow white people who have been working in the vineyard longer than we have, to ask them the questions we worry are hurtful or ignorant or offensive, to work together to unlearn the racism that lives within us.

It’s to do the kinds of internal work René Velarde names so candidly and thoughtfully in his recent blog post, To my White brothers and sisters. We must ask ourselves, as René writes, what did it take for us to wake up to racial injustice and our own white privilege and begin to speak? What has kept us from speaking up and engaging before? If we dig into these things now, René says, we will be better equipped to stay engaged in the struggle for justice in the future. 

I realize that the parable of the vineyard is by no means a perfect analogy to the present moment, particularly in regard to the image of people standing around doing nothing before the landowner invites them into the work. For white people in the US, I’m not sure there is any way of standing around and doing nothing. If we haven’t been actively working against racism, we have been perpetuating it. It’s the current that we swim in and the air we breathe, and we either fight it or are swept along with it―to the detriment of people of color and to our own humanity as well. There isn’t a lot of neutral ground.

But parables aren’t meant to be allegories, where everything lines up perfectly and represents something else. They’re meant to evoke something. To provoke thought. To challenge us and help us see differently, see more clearly. And in this case I think the story of the vineyard evokes some important reflection on what it might mean for long-standing justice movements to suddenly encounter so many new people who want to jump in.

My hope is that―as lots of us begin the work of racial justice for the first time and desire to work alongside those who have been engaging in the struggle for a long time―there is room for all of us, in the different places we are in in our journeys. 

I don’t think there is room in the vineyard for people who are pretending to work, who want to hang out there because it’s the cool thing to do or because it’s a way to avoid being criticized for standing around doing nothing. I don’t think there is room for people who are in the vineyard because they want to take selfies there and post them on Facebook. 

But I want to believe that there is room for all those willing to work, those willing to learn, to try, to be humbled, to make mistakes and grow and keep engaging. Even if, from the perspective of those who have been working since the early morning, they are woefully, horribly late to the party. 

For those who believe in the God Jesus speaks of―the initiator, inspirer, and rewarder of all works of justice―this God is the vineyard owner: offensively full of grace, unimaginably patient, extravagantly welcoming. May those of us who have been working in the vineyard longer than the last couple of hours have eyes that are discerning to see the people who really do genuinely want to join the work, and hearts that are open to welcome them in. 

This vineyard needs all the workers it can get.

John the Baptist’s Legacy

I don’t think I realized until last summer―when I was preparing a sermon on John the Baptist for a preaching class―how many things Jesus says that are actually direct quotes from John the Baptist, at least as recorded by the gospel writer Matthew.

First I noticed that right as Jesus begins his public ministry, in the chapter directly following the one about John the Baptist, Jesus says, “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). This is exactly what John was saying in Matthew 3:2. (See this earlier post for some thoughts on repentance/confession.)

I got kind of interested in this, and so it caught my eye when a commentary I was reading mentioned the parallel; the commentary then noted that this isn’t the only parallel between John’s words and Jesus’ words in the book of Matthew.

It turns out that Jesus calls the religious leaders a “brood of vipers,” twice (Matthew 12:34 and 23:33). Those are John’s exact words from Matthew 3:7. (See these two earlier posts for some thoughts on this viperly brood.)

Jesus also says, “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 7:19). This is repeated verbatim from John’s words in Matthew 3:10. (See this earlier post for some thoughts on good fruit.)

Given all this, it’s no wonder that some people (including Herod) thought that maybe Jesus was John the Baptist back from the dead!

What’s going on here? On one end of a gradient of Scripture interpretation (from more emphasis on God’s inspiration to more emphasis on the human writers), is Matthew just being lazy, or mixed up about who said what? Or, on the other end of that gradient, did God’s Spirit independently move both Jesus and John to say the exact same things?

It seems most likely to me that Jesus heard what John had been preaching―maybe when Jesus went to be baptized by John, or maybe otherwise―and he intentionally picked up and kept on propagating John’s words after John’s death.

This is certainly what it sounds like in Matthew 4:12-17: “now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee…from that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”

John’s public ministry was over, and it was time for Jesus’ to begin. And Jesus began by quoting John―and he kept on quoting John, at different points throughout his three-year itinerant teaching career. Jesus took up John’s legacy and extended it.

I think it was like Jesus was saying, this John the Baptist guy―I’m not him, but I am with him. I’m behind everything he was saying. I’m here with the same kind of message, sent by the same God. The kingdom of heaven is near. Repent, believe, bear good fruit. Fear God, confess sins, receive forgiveness. Challenge the poisonous structures and systems and ideologies around you; don’t scheme and strategize as if God couldn’t raise up children from stones; don’t be a brood of vipers.

As we think about who Jesus is, and as we try (this Christmas and beyond) to wrap our minds around the crazy idea that the God who created the universe came to us as a vulnerable baby and lived among us as a human, may we remember that John the Baptist who came before him was not just some random weirdo out in the desert; rather, John was the person whose legacy Jesus took up and ran with.

When we seek to worship, serve, love, and honor Jesus, and to live by Jesus’ teachings, we are honoring the Jesus who honored John; we are following the teachings of the one who repeated John’s teachings. We are serving the one whose sandals John recognized himself as being unworthy to untie; we are worshipping the Messiah toward whom John lived to point us.

So, this Christmas day, happy birthday to Jesus: the relative of John the Baptist, who was baptized by John and listened to John. Happy birthday to Jesus, for whom John made paths straight. Happy birthday to Jesus, who, when he invites us to take up our crosses and follow him, invites us to follow John’s example and be faithful to God rather than human authorities right up until death―just as John was when he died at Herod’s hands.

Happy birthday to Jesus, and Merry Christmas!

Ps. Thanks for reading! It’s been very encouraging to see page view numbers greater than zero :D. Whether you’ve stuck with it all twenty-five days, or have checked in here and there, or are just checking it out for the first time today, thank you―your eyeballs on this page (just kidding, but really, your time and brain and heart processing these posts) really mean a lot to me. I hope something here has been interesting, thought-provoking, or otherwise helpful.

John and the Bethel Worship Leader’s Daughter

Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Matthew 11:1-6)

Today I read this passage about John the Baptist and Jesus while thinking about Bethel worship leader Kalley Heiligenthal and her two year old daughter Olive who passed away last Saturday. Kalley, as well as Bethel Music, Jesus Culture, and other popular Christian musicians with charismatic leanings such as Kari Jobe and Brooke (Fraser) Ligertwood, have been praying and asking Christians around the world to pray―and are still praying and asking people to pray, almost a week later―for Olive’s resuscitation.

Kalley posted on social media, “We are asking for bold, unified prayers from the global church to stand with us in belief that He will raise this little girl back to life. Her time here is not done, and it is our time to believe boldly, and with confidence wield what King Jesus paid for. It’s time for her to come to life.”

The passing of a young child is tragic. I can’t imagine the family’s grief, and I mourn for them.

At the same time, the response of people who believe a certain set of things about physical healing, including revival from the dead, is disconcerting.

Christians believe in a Messiah whom, as Jesus told John the Baptist in Matthew 11:1-6, gives sight to the blind, cleanses lepers, restores hearing for the deaf, brings good news to the poor…and raises the dead. And this Messiah says, blessed are those who take no offense at me.

Am I being offended at Jesus when I read about influential Christian leaders expecting (and influencing others to expect) a two year old to be raised from the dead, even after almost a week in the morgue, and I think not so much “what faith!” as “what lunacy”?

Or perhaps, “what denial”―and if denial is part of the grieving process for the family, I think I understand. But I feel angry that so much of the charismatic Christian community around this family is pushing them to stay in that denial rather than making space for them to acknowledge and grieve their loss.

What do we do with all this in conjunction with what Jesus said about the dead being raised?

One thing to note, which I think is really important, is that Jesus’ words are in direct response to John’s question about whether or not Jesus is the Messiah.

Jesus is not answering the question, “how should Christians respond to death?”―in which case, “the dead are raised” might imply that we should keep praying for resuscitation as long as it takes. He is not answering the question, “what should a normal Christian life look like, in the US, two thousand years in the future?”―in which case, “the dead are raised” might set up an appropriate expectation that untimely losses like Olive’s would be reversed on a regular basis.

Rather, Jesus is answering the question, “are you the one who is to come?” And he says, in effect: yes, I am that one. I am that Messiah, even if it doesn’t look like what everyone expected. I am the one who brings healing, and power, and life, and good news for the poor. I raise the dead as a sign that points to these things.

Jesus is the Messiah―God incarnate, God dwelling among us. Jesus has powers that we do not have. We can pray for miracles, and I absolutely believe that God still does miracles. But we do not have the power to control when or whether or how miracles happen. We do not have the ability to say with any authority something like, “it’s time for her to come back to life.” We are not the Messiah.

John the Baptist must have known this. After all, Jesus came (among other things) to set the prisoners free (see Luke 4:18-19)―and yet there John was, having to send his followers to Jesus with his questions because he himself was stuck in prison. Part of me wonders if John began to feel uncertain about whether Jesus was the Messiah because John expected that a Messiah could and would have gotten him out of jail.

Jesus the Messiah came to set the prisoners free―and yet John was thrown in prison and remained until the day of his death.

Jesus the Messiah came to raise the dead―and yet little Olive remains in the morgue, despite the fervent, days-long prayers of hundreds of thousands of charismatic Christians.

As much as we try and fail to comprehend death, and as much as we hurt from the pain of it, and as much as we may want desperately for our deceased loved ones to return, these things are ultimately beyond our control.

My prayer for Kalley and her family in this time, as well as for everyone else who knew and loved Olive, is for freedom to grieve. For love and support to surround them and flow freely, more than they ever could have asked for or imagined. For the loss of their daughter to be mourned in community, with lots and lots of listening ears and supportive shoulders to cry on, and no one suggesting awful falsehoods like “your daughter could have been raised if we had all just prayed longer or harder or had more faith.”

I believe that God walks closely with people who are mourning and grieving loss. God is present, somehow. Even if it doesn’t feel like it. Even when we have questions for God, even when we have things we would like to yell at God. God welcomes these things. God welcomes and holds our grieving selves, exactly as we are.

Christian hope―my hope, and the hope for Olive and her family―is for bodily resurrection into eternal life, the kind of resurrection that Jesus pioneered and now invites us into. The kind that does not come immediately, but when it does come, it lasts. The kind that looks forward to a day when Jesus wipes every tear from our eyes and dwells among us, when mourning and crying and pain will be no more (Revelation 21:3-4).

Until then, may we hope in our Messiah. May we rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15). May we make space, for ourselves and for one another, to acknowledge loss and grieve it. May we pray and hope and keep wrestling with God regardless of whether or how our prayers are answered. May we face our grief and know that somehow God is with us as we do.

Introductions

Today, the first Sunday of Advent, I embark on an adventure of writing and sharing daily reflections on the life and story of John the Baptist.

True confession: I have not written any of these reflections yet. Not even tomorrow’s! I have no grand master plan. I just think John the Baptist is an important and underrated person in the biblical story of Jesus, and I think he is worth reflecting on.

What does John the Baptist have to do with Advent? John’s life goal (#lifegoals) was to prepare the way for Jesus. And Advent, a tradition which guides Christian worship in the four(-ish) weeks leading up to Christmas, just means “coming,” or “arrival.”

In Advent, we are waiting for the coming of Christmas―waiting to celebrate Jesus’ arrival, when the God of the universe was born in human flesh, in a stinky animal feeding trough, in a run-down barn, in the middle of our very broken world. And we are waiting for Jesus to come again and make all things new, which we need very desperately.

But (at least at our best) we are not waiting passively. We seek to prepare the way for Jesus―in our lives, our communities, our churches, our cities.

John the Baptist is a bit of a man of mystery, and it would be laughable to claim that I know (or will ever know) everything there is to know about him. This blog is not an attempt at an exhaustive (or exhausting…) commentary on John. It is just a series of haphazard, (hopefully) brief, (hopefully) brutally honest reflections exploring some of the beautiful, compelling, messy, disturbing intersections among John’s life and my life and our lives and our world.

Join me as I seek to join John in preparing the way for Jesus, this Advent season.