Finding your calling

I’ve always been a little uneasy with the connection of calling or career to personal meaning and significance in life.   

Is it possible to over emphasize personal fulfillment and significance in our callings and careers? How much of our struggle with these matters is related to the freedom and opportunity we enjoy?

How would we talk and write about this subject if we lived in places or periods of history with far less freedom and prosperity? 

Does our emphasis on identity, meaning and significance in calling and career make it unrealistic for most people in the world? And is it also possible that making too close a connection between calling and significance contributes to the pervasive problem with discontentment in Western cultures? 

Deeper concerns

These are important questions, but my concerns go far deeper. The way that many emphasize meaning and significance might actually conflict with kingdom values.

I realize that we must bring truth to our particular contexts and that it won’t look the same in every situation. But I am grateful that there are truths that transcend context.

On this subject, for example, we know that it’s God’s will for us to work and provide for our families (II Thessalonians 3:10; I Timothy 5:8). This is clearly God’s calling. Yet it’s stated in more general terms and doesn’t address matters of giftedness or feelings of fulfillment and significance in relation to our work. 

In places ( and there are many) where there are only a few options for fulfilling this requirement, the role of significance and meaning in one’s job is found in obedience to God’s will — not in feelings of fulfillment. But shouldn’t this be our focus no matter where we work? Perhaps we need a transformation of values in ways that base feelings of fulfillment and significance on obedience to what we KNOW about God’s will.

Of course, if we live in places where opportunity affords us to connect gifts, passions and labor, as good stewards, we should look for ways to merge and maximize them. But, at the end of our brief journey on earth, hearing “Well done, good and faithful servant” will be based on a pursuit of obedience to the clearly revealed will of God.

We must allow kingdom thinking to produce kingdom values and kingdom emotions. So “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (Colossians 3:23, NIV, emphasis mine).

No matter where you are in this life or what you do, I pray that your sense of calling will celebrate “the strange glory of ordinary things.” “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (I Corinthians 10:31, NLT, emphasis mine). (see: The Glory of Ordinary Lives).

And let’s remind ourselves often that God’s will is far more concerned with who we are than where we serve or what we do in terms of career (see: How can I walk in God’s will? – 12 Essentials).

Steve Cornell

The parable of the wheat and tares

The parable of the wheat and the weeds is one of the more difficult to interpret and one of the most misinterpreted parables. The primary misinterpretation is to make it about the Church (an error quite common among Church fathers). Take some time and patiently consider these profound words from our Savior. (Audio message here)


Matthew 13:24-30

Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared“The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

The Parable Explained (Matthew 13:36-43)

Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.” He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels“As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.

The story unfolds…..

  • The owner plants good seed (wheat)
  • The enemy plants bad seed (weeds)
  • The weeds become evident
  • The servants want to pull the weeds
  • The owner says let both grow together until the harvest
  • Then there will be a separation and destruction of the weeds

Parable explained……

  • The owner is the Son of Man
  • The field is the world
  • The good seed is people of the kingdom
  • The weeds are people of the evil one 
  • The enemy is the Devil
  • The harvest is the end of the age
  • The harvesters are angels
  • The weeds will be cast into furnace
  • The righteous will shine forth in the Kingdom

Note: The “tares” or “weeds” probably refers to darnel, a weed organically related to wheat and difficult to distinguish in early stages of growth. After the darnel and wheat are grown, they’re more easily distinguishable and harvesters can separate them.

Question answered…..

  • Can the work of Jesus and his followers really be the kingdom when there is still so much evil in the world?

The background for this question is the way first century Jews viewed the Kingdom in national-political terms. There expectations of a Messiah were shaped around hope for deliverance from earthly oppression and the establishment of a Kingdom for God’s people that would overthrow all earthly kingdoms. While there is plenty of prophecy regarding this expectation, Scripture also pointed to a suffering Messiah who would be “despised and rejected by mankind,
 a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isaiah 53:3).

John the Baptist had difficulty with this aspect of Jesus’ ministry – see: Matthew 3:10-13; 11:3

We might ask how Jesus words, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18) could possibly be true when it appears that evil is more in control.

Two Primary points…..

  1. The kingdom of God has come with Jesus’ ministry, but final judgment awaits the appointed time for the harvest when God will separate the evil from the righteous
  2. The kingdom is present but in an unexpected way because of the delay of judgment and the continued presence of evil

“If the parable is about the presence of the kingdom in the midst of an evil world, the kingdom of the Son of Man is the kingdom that the Son of Man has brought as an incomplete kingdom, a proleptic kingdom which does not yet obliterate evil. This kingdom remains incomplete until the consummation when evil will be removed. Note that both “all offenses” (neuter) and “all those doing lawlessness” (masculine/generic) are removed. The completed kingdom devoid of evil is the kingdom of the Father. This understanding of the kingdom of the Father as the consummation of all things is paralleled in Matt. 26:29.”

“…its primary teaching is that the kingdom is present despite the presence of evil and that evil will be dealt with at the judgment. The focus is the nature of the kingdom, and implications for human conduct are secondary. The use of the aorist passive “The kingdom has become like…” is no accident. The kingdom has arrived and is like a field with both wheat and weeds which will one day be separated. The kingdom is like the whole process described in the parable from sowing to separation. The parable is not a complete picture of the kingdom; no parable is. But it does emphasize the presence of the kingdom and the future judgment” (Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent).

Lessons from the parable

1. The kingdom is present and judgment will come

“The present church needs to make the same two points the parable teaches. First, the kingdom is present, even though judgment is not taking place, because of the ministry of Jesus and the work of the Spirit. The presence of evil is no evidence that the kingdom is not at work. Second, while this is not the time for judgment, judgment will certainly come” (Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent).

2. The parable does not endorse passivity toward evil and non-retaliation

“It answers the question “How can this be the kingdom if evil is present? not “What shall we do about evil?” …It also provides a worldview that accounts for and is not surprised at the presence of evil.” … “In light of the teaching of Jesus any thought of passivity toward evil or assertion that the church does not need to be a pure community is bizarre.”

“Questions about how we should respond to evil are spawned by the parable, but not addressed. Other texts must be brought in for that discussion, but clearly any idea of doing God’s work of judging or any thought that we will obliterate evil are set aside by the parable. The biblical message always leaves us dealing with tension. We cannot be tolerant of evil, but the destruction of all evil is not our task. We must stop being evil, and we must stop evil from destroying, but how can we stop evil without becoming evil in the process? That may well be the human question. (Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent).

3. The parable helps us understand the presence of evil in the world

“The parable contributes to discussions of theodicy and helps address our consternation that evil still is at work, that life is not fair, even though Christ and his kingdom have come. God is not the only one at work, and not all actions in this world can be attributed to God. God often gets blamed for every event that occurs, but he is not the cause of every event. Evil happens that can only be identified as the work of an enemy. Accordingly, this parable should slow down an overemphasis on the sovereignty of God or a naïveté that attributes every event to God’s manipulation. …. The parable is also a reminder that Christians should be neither surprised at nor unaware of the fact that evil is active at the same time that God’s reign is. ” (Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent).

4. Reflect on these truths when you desire judgment to fall on the wicked

“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9).

So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:3-4).

Steve Cornell

Grace and Responsibility

Does grace lead to responsibility?

When people genuinely experience God’s grace should it make a difference in their lives? Is grace transforming? 

Jesus told a story that made a profound and urgent connection of grace with responsibility. It’s a familiar story, perhaps too familiar. It’s the parable of the unmerciful servant. One New Testament scholar suggested that this story “is possibly the most forceful expression of how Christians should live” (Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent).

The parable of the unmerciful servant only appears in the gospel of Matthew and follows a question the apostle Peter asked about how many times he should forgive a person who sins against him (Matthew 18:21-22).

Before Peter asked this question, Jesus taught his followers to confront a brother or sister who sins against them. “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you” (Matthew 18:15). The goal of this confrontation is to address the offense that divides them with hope of restoring a broken relationship. 

If private confrontation is rejected, Jesus taught that it should involve others and could possibly, if repeatedly rejected, lead to a change in the relationship. “If they still refuse to listen,” Jesus said, “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” (Matthew 18:17).

After this instruction, Jesus taught about the far reaching extent of forgiveness. Peter asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times (Matthew 18:21-22).

Jesus’ parable contrasted an unimaginable act of forgiveness by a merciful King who released his servant from a massive debt (Matthew 18:23-27) with an unmerciful act of the servant who had just been forgiven (Matthew 18:28-30).

At this point the story takes a dramatic turn. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18:31-35).

Jesus used an extreme amount of debt to make the point that we will never be able to earn or deserve forgiveness and that we are hopeless doomed apart from the mercy and forgiveness of God.

Two truths 

  1. We will never forgive others any where close to the extent that we have been forgiven by God.
  2.  Forgiven people who withhold mercy and forgiveness from others are not going to do well with God (v. 35).

A disturbing question – The parable raises a question about the role of works and obedience in relation to God. 

Q. Are God’s mercy and forgiveness conditioned on or withdrawn from us based on our mercy and forgiveness toward others?

  • Matthew 5:7 – “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”
  • Matthew 6:14-15 – “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
  • Mark 11:25 – “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

Three essential facts

  1. We cannot earn or deserve God’s forgiveness by forgiving others.
  2. God’s forgiveness of our sins is the basis for our forgiveness of others.
  3. God expects forgiven people to forgive and they will (Eph. 4:31-32; Colo. 3:13).

Ethical motivation

The ethical motivation for Christian forgiveness and for treatment of others is responsive and reflective.

1. Responsive to God’s prior action toward us in mercy, forgiveness and love

I John 4:16-19 – “And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment …. We love because he first loved us.”

2. Reflective of God’s prior action toward us in mercy, forgiveness and love

  • Luke 6:35-36 – “But love your enemies, do good to them, …Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
  • Ephesians 4:32 – “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
  • Colossians 3:13 – “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
  • Ephesians 5:1-2 – “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

Summary thoughts (from “Stories With Intent” by Klyne Snodgrass, pp. 74-76)

“The community cannot tolerate sin without confrontation and reproof, but must always love and forgive without limits… Sin has disastrous and eternal consequences, confrontation and discipline are necessary, and excommunication from the community is a real possibility. At the same time, God searches out those who stray and wills that none be lost, and the community can lay no bounds to its forgiveness or forget that its forgiveness is modeled on God’s forgiveness of its members’ own much larger debt.

We … feel the tension we feel between reproof and love…  Matthew has insisted that the community address seriously issues of obedience and sin, if possible in discrete ways, even if that leads to starting all over with those it rebukes, treating them as outsiders.  At the same time…insisted that humility and forgiveness dominate the efforts.”

“The parable prevents any presuming on grace. The church has often presented a grace that did not have to be taken seriously, but biblical grace is transforming grace. When you get the gift, you get the Giver, who will not let you go your way.”

“All the focus on obedience, however, is based in God’s prior action. The indicative of God’s forgiveness precedes the imperative of our response. …the ethic is a responsive ethic, a response to God’s grace and calling.”

“The fear of works righteousness is far too exaggerated. Would that there were an equal fear of being found inactive. Works righteousness is not the problem of most modern Christians. We would do better to realize that if we do not work, we are not righteous.”

“In the end we should recognize that God is the only one who ultimately can hold humanity accountable.  The concern of the parable is God’s forgiveness and the seriousness of failing to mirror God’s mercy, not an atonement theology or a general discussion of judgment.”

“God’s mercy must not be treated cavalierly. Mercy is not effectively received unless it is shown, for God’s mercy transforms. If God’s mercy does not take root in the heart, it is not experienced. Forgiveness not shown is forgiveness not known.”

“…grace always brings with it responsibility. The forgiveness of God must be replicated in the lives of the forgiven, and the warning is clear. Where forgiveness is not extended, people will be held accountable.”

[If only the church] “spoke truth taking care to guard the privacy of the offender as much as possible without ignoring the sin, set no limits for forgiveness, and emphasized the necessity of a forgiveness modeled on God’s own forgiveness, knowing that judgment is severe for those who do not forgive?”

“The message of this parable is badly needed by churches and individuals who live in a society where people insist on standing on their rights and division marks our churches, families, and societies. The teaching of the parable is counterintuitive, but it is possibly the most forceful expression of how Christians should live. Christian living—rather than insisting on rights—should be a continual dispensing of mercy and forgiveness, mirroring God’s own character and treatment of his people.”

“Society also cheapens forgiveness so that sin is treated lightly, but the focus on judgment in Jesus’ parables warns that forgiveness brings with it a call for reform. If forgiveness does not effect change, it is not experienced.”

Steve Cornell

Transforming our marriages, families and Churches

Here’s an urgently needed word from Jesus Christ for our marriages, families and Churches:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

What does this love look like in our relationships?  

Love…

      • is patient
      • is kind
      • does not envy
      • does not boast
      • is not proud
      • is not rude
      • is not self seeking (demanding its own way)
      • is not easily angered (irritable) 
      • it keeps no record of wrongs
      • is never glad about evil
      • rejoices in truth
      • always protects
      • always trusts
      • always hopes
      • always perseveres (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a)

“Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance” (NLT). “There is nothing love cannot face” (NEB).

  • Love is tenacious and faithful.
  • Love is brave and noble.
  • The greatest is love.

Love in action

“Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other.” (Romans 12:10, NLT) 

  • “take delight” (προηγούμενοι) could be rendered “going before” or “giving preference.” The word conveys eagerness to honor others. It’s a call to initiate or even to surpass one another in showing honor.
  • “Out do one another in showing honor” (ESV).
  • I like the rendering “Take delight.” It should not be a burden but joy to show honor to others. Honoring involves recognizing the value of another. 

Renewed practice of Romans 12:10 could transform our marriages, families and Churches. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).

Love is what the world needs to see in us and what each person can experience through God’s love in Christ (see: Rom. 5:8; 8:38-39; Titus 3:3-6).

“God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other” (I John 4:9-11)

Steve Cornell

How do people regard me?

Audio version here

The most common argument among the early disciples of Jesus focused on their desire to be considered the greatest.

We might find it unusual and disturbing that they openly pursued self-promotion, but the core issues underlying their preoccupation with status are far more common than many would admit. Perhaps we don’t flagrantly advertised interest in greatness, but that doesn’t mean we are free from concerns about how others regard us.

Who is considered greatest?

During the final days of Jesus’ mission on earth, He ate with his disciples and during the meal drew attention to the bread as symbolic of the giving of his body for them and the cup as symbolic of “the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:19-20).

Then (as Luke’s gospel records), the subject turned to the one who would betray Jesus. “the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table. The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed. But woe to that man who betrays him!” (Luke 22:21-22).

At this, the disciples began to “question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this” (Luke 22:23). It’s stunning to move to the next verse and see how the conversation of the disciples shifted to a “dispute among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest” (Luke 22:24). 

How cold to engage in this kind of dispute after hearing of the Lord’s sacrificial death and of one who would betray him! But Jesus seized the moment as a teaching opportunity about true greatness in his kingdom. 

“Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves’” (Luke 22:25-27).

Jesus does not oppose authority but requires a transformation of it. The normal practice of kings exercising authority will not do for the Lord’s kingdom. Benefactors were wealthy people whose giving secured status and leadership for them in their cities. This approach to giving as a means of self-advancement and self-promotion contradicted the Lord’s kingdom. Serving others to secure status for oneself is a betrayal of servant-love.

Preoccupied with perception

“which of them was considered to be greatest” (24; also, Luke 9:46-48). Look closely at the word “considered” because it reveals a common human concern for how others “regarded” them or how others “thought of” them. Let’s be honest about how easily we can become preoccupied with how we are regarded or considered by others. It’s tempting to build self-perception on how others perceive us. This is the underlying concern relating to preoccupation with status or greatness. 

The dispute among the disciples is motivated by desires for self-promotion. It seems to reveal a deeper insecurity and a need for recognition and affirmation from others. It’s not too far from the warning Jesus gave when he said, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).

The cultural environment of religious and political leadership during this time was focused on the pursuit of power, control and personal exaltation. Of course, this focus is always a danger for leaders. In a piece I wrote about the danger of insecure leaders, I stated that,

“Leaders are easily misunderstood and often wrongly judged as self-seeking and self-promoting.  Sometimes they are guilty as charged. A leader unwilling to admit that he occasionally battles temptation toward self-promotion is probably one you shouldn’t follow. Yet people often wrongly project evil motives on leaders because they either feel threatened by them or jealous of them. Like most leaders, I’ve experienced the full spectrum. I’ve been guilty as charged and wrongly accused. I believe leaders are more vulnerable to selfish motives when they’re younger and more likely to be falsely accused when they’re older and more established in their leadership.”

For reflection and discussion

“Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important (or, accepted). They don’t mean to do harm, but the harm does not interest them … or they do not see it, or they justify it … because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves” (or, to have others think well of them) (T. S. Eliot).

I added the words in brackets to cover the full range of issues involved in this concern.  

Radical Kingdom re-orientation 

Jesus rejected the patterns of greatness in society when he said, “But you are not to be like that.” He then set a new model before them in his own example, “But I am among you as one who serves.” This is the way Jesus summed up his entire mission, “The Son of Man didn’t come to be served, but to serve and give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).

Truth for confronting preoccupation with self-perception

  •  “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” (Romans 12:3, NIV)
  • “For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” (Galatians 6:3, ESV)
  • “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God,  did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:3-8).
  • “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty’” (Luke 17:10).
  • “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).
  • “Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other” (Romans 12:10, NLT) 

Steve Cornell

 

Therapeutic vs. True Gospel

 

The word gospel refers to good news about what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. But when the gospel is shaped by a therapeutic emphasis, it turns out to be so much less than the true gospel. The therapeutic gospel emphasizes a Jesus who meets my felt needs in a way that keeps me at the center of life? It’s a kind of Jesus who is there to serve you. I wrote about this in my previous post.

 

The true gospel will not reach us until we see the “me at the center” life as our effort to take the place that belongs to God. I must acknowledge how I want the glory that belongs to God when I focus on myself — on my feelings and desires as the most important issues of life. 

Jesus Christ died for my sin and the most vivid expression of my sin is my willful preoccupation with myself. A gospel message that invites me to stay at the center is not the true gospel.

Listen closely to the emphasis when you hear someone invite people to follow Jesus. If the emphasis is on a Jesus who gives you peace and meaning; who gives you better relationships and takes away your feelings of guilt, you’re hearing a distortion of the gospel. Worse yet, you’re hearing a sales pitch rather than the true gospel.

But doesn’t Jesus give peace, meaning and forgiveness? Doesn’t Scripture emphasize God’s love for us? “Yes” to both questions. These however are the benefits of the gospel not the gospel. God’s love is so amazing because it’s demonstrated toward sinners. “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). He died for undeserving, self-centered people like you and me.

“The emphasis of scripture is on the godless self-centeredness of sin. Every sin is a breach of what Jesus called ‘the first and great commandment,’ not just by failing to love God with all our being, but by actively refusing to acknowledge and obey him as our Creator and Lord. We have rejected the position of dependence which our createdness inevitably involves, and made a bid for independence. Worse still, we have dared to proclaim our self-dependence, or autonomy, which is to claim the position occupied by God alone. Sin is not a regrettable lapse from conventional standards; its essence is hostility to God (Rom. 8:7), issuing in active rebellion against him” (John R.W. Stott, The Cross of Christ, p. 90).

If I don’t accept the verdict of Scripture about my sin and the judgment it deserves, I cannot hope to experience benefits of the gospel such as peace, meaning and forgiveness. 

If the bad news is muted or left out, the good news of the gospel is also removed. For the gospel to be good news, I must fully acknowledge the following verdicts:

  1. I stand condemned before God – guilty of sin and deserving God’s judgment (Romans 3:10,23:6:23a; James 2:10)
  2. I cannot by any effort of my own improve my standing before God (Romans 4:5; 5:6;Galatians 2:16, 21; Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5).
  3. Apart from the mercy and grace of God, I remain forever under God’s just condemnation (Titus 3:5-7).
  4. What I cannot do, God did for me when Jesus Christ bore the judgment my sin deserved (Galatians 3:13;Romans 5:8; 8:3-4;II Corinthians 5:17,18,21).
  5. There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1, 32-39;John 1:12;3:16-18,36; 10:27-28).

The only grounds for acceptance with God is faith in Christ alone.

Centuries ago, Thomas Aquinas exposed the error behind the therapeutic gospel. 

“We confuse two similar yet different human actions. We see people searching desperately for peace of mind, relief from guilt, meaning, and purpose to their lives, and loving acceptance. We know that ultimately these things can only be found in God. Therefore, we conclude that since people are seeking these things they must be seeking after God. People do not seek God. They seek after the benefits that only God can give them. The sin of fallen man is this: Man seeks the benefits of God while at the same time fleeing from God himself. We are, by nature, fugitives.”

People do not seek God unless His Spirit works in their hearts and Jesus revealed the kind of work the Spirit would accomplish. Jesus said that when the Holy Spirit came, he would convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (see: John 16:8).

All of this emphasis fits with the way Jesus repeatedly called people to deny themselves to follow him. “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me'” (Matthew 16:24).

Steve Cornell

The workers in the vineyard

My current series on the teaching of Jesus brought me to the parable on the workers and the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16).

(Audio version here)

This is considered one of the more difficult parables to interpret but it reaches deeply into the human heart at a level that connects with all people. It exposes a common tendency to resent the blessings of others whom we think don’t deserve them (certainly not as much as we do!).

As with many of Jesus parables, he starts with the familiar and turns the story in unexpected and provocative directions. We could even say that Jesus turned stories in ways that were intentionally disruptive to established cultural assumptions. He did this to expose prideful and self-righteous hearts. It reminds us that God is willing to allow disruptive events to get to the true condition of our hearts.

In this parable, Jesus is also explaining what the Kingdom of heaven is like. “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard” (Matthew 20:1).

The topic of kingdom was big for the disciples. Israel chaffed under pagan Kingdoms for centuries. They longed for a deliverer to lift the power of Rome off of them. Even after the Lord was raised from the dead and appeared to his disciples, they asked, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). I am sure Jesus stirred their curiosity when he said, “I assure you that when the world is made new and the Son of Man sits upon his glorious throne, you who have been my followers will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28).  Not long after Jesus gave this parable, two of the disciples requested prime positions in Christ’s kingdom, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory” (Mark 10:37).

Jesus’ early disciples did not have the right perspective of Kingdom. They viewed it as an opportunity for personal advancement based on rank and merit. They pursued the highest places of honor not the lowly positions of service. They had a lot to learn about the nature of the kingdom of heaven. They argued repeatedly over who should be considered greatest among them. Jesus had to repeatedly correct their misguided and self-serving way of thinking. It was in stark conflict with the entire mission of Jesus (see: Luke 22:24-30Philippians 2:3-11).

This is the background for many teachings from Jesus about what the kingdom of heaven is like. It’s like saying, “This is what God’s rule looks like this…” Or, “This is the way it works in God’s kingdom…”

Five parts to the parable of the workers in the vineyard 

  1. Kingdom introduction v.1
  2. Hiring the workers vv. 1-7
  3. Paying the workers vv. 8-10
  4. Complaint of the workers vv. 11-12
  5. Answer from the owner vv. 13-15
  6. Concluding proverb v.16 

Take a moment and read the entire parable

Kingdom introduction v.1 and the hiring the workers vv. 1-7

“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.’

Paying the workers vv. 8-10

“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.

Complaint of the workers vv. 11-12

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.’

Answer from the owner vv. 13-15

“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?’

Concluding proverb v.16

“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Context

It is helpful to read the larger context for this parable. It deals with status, wealth, greed and discipleship in a context that reverses the expected values of the world (Matthew 19:13-20:34).

Looking more closely

The story is not unfamiliar to Jesus’ listeners. One day an owner of a vineyard goes into the market to hire day laborers. The pay offered was also typical pay for such workers (a denarius for the day). It was also typical and even commanded in the OT to pay these workers at the end of the day. Some of them depended on each days wage to survive for the day.

The work day pictured was also typical (12 hours).  But the parable breaks from the expected in some provocative ways. It would have been unusual, for example, that an owner would make five trips to hire day workers (unless perhaps the vineyard was close to the market place). Such a miscalculation of needed workers, let alone hiring some to work for a mere hour, would have been exceptionally unexpected.

Why then does Jesus picture five separate hirings? Some take this to be an allegorical way of picturing the five successive stages of history:

  1. Adam to Noah
  2. Noah to Abraham
  3. Abraham to Moses
  4. Moses to Christ
  5. Christ to the Present

While this is possible, it is certainly not clear from the parable. The same is true of the efforts to spiritualize the parable in the following construction:

  • Vineyard – the Kingdom
  • Owner – God the father
  • Forman- Jesus
  • Workers – believers
  • Pay – salvation
  • Work day – the believer’s lifetime of service
  • Evening – eternity

This seems to make the parable say more than Jesus intended and upon closer examination, the imagery breaks down in significant ways. All such efforts remind us to exercise caution when interpreting parables. Although parables intentionally invoke imagination and discussion, it’s generally not wise to make them say more than would have been understood in their original context.

Basic considerations in the parable of the workers and vineyard

  • No one deserves to become a worker in the vineyard but no one receives a free gift of grace.
  • Each worker and receives a wage, some more than expected; others less than they feel they deserve based on comparison with others.
  • There is not a significant emphasis on generosity in the parable because the wage is not unusual. The goodness of the owner is contrasted with the evil eye of the first workers.
  • The first workers would not have complained without comparison with the late comers.

Who is Jesus aiming for in this parable?

  • Opponents – If Jesus had the religious leaders in mind, the parable emphasizes tax collectors, sinners and Gentiles entering the kingdom (those called last to work).
  • Disciples – If Jesus was focused on his disciples, the parable warns against envy based on perceptions of rank and comparison as well as misplaced notions of merit.

What we know with more certainty

  • By emphasizing who gets paid first (those who came last), and how those who joined in the middle of the day would receive “whatever is right or just,” Jesus exposed the condition of the hearts of the others.
  • Jesus issues a clear challenge to human standards of ranking and merit (first and last). 
  • The contrast is between the goodness of the owner and the complaint of those who felt they should have received more. 
  • The first workers would not have complained without a comparison with others.
  • God’s treatment of people and justice cannot be measured by human standards.
  • We continually compare ourselves with others and judge fairness based on our perception of what we feel is due to us. Or, we think justice means equal pay for equal work and that no one gets an advantage.

Questions worth asking

  1. Why is goodness toward others often an occasion for envy and resentment?
  2. Is it possible to allow someone else’s advantage spoil your gratitude, contentment and joy? 
  3. Does God allow things like this to happen to challenge and expose our hearts?
  4. Why do we find it difficult to rejoice over the good things that happen to others?
    • I Corinthians 12:26 -If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
    • Romans 12:10 – “take delight in honoring each other.”

5. Why do we tend to always calculate ways we feel slighted in comparison with others?

Deeper reflection on envy

“Envy is resentment of someone else’s good, plus the itch to despoil her of it. Its natural corollary is what the Germans call Schadenfreude, the enjoyment of someone else’s despoilment. The envier not only sorrows over another’s good fortune and wants it to change; he also rejoices in another’s misfortune and wants it to persist. Hence an envious conservatory student may feel privately delighted at the memory lapse of a rival during her recital performance” (Not the Way It’s Supposed to be, Cornelius Plantinga Jr.).

Envious people find sadistic pleasure in the downfall of others. Worse, they will appear publicly sympathetic while privately gloating.

“Envy (and its gloating subsidiary, Schadenfreude) shows us human antagonism in one of its basest and most unheroic forms. Wherever we find envy, we find the wreckage of human and Christian community. Envious people backbite. They deliver congratulations with a smile that, in another light, might be taken for a sneer.” (Plantinga).

“The envier gossips. He saves up bad news about others and passes it around like an appetizer at happy hour. The envier grumbles. He murmurs. He complains that all the wrong people are getting ahead. Spite, bitterness, discord which undoes all friendships, accusation, malignity—all these things flow form envy and together turn friendship and good fellowship into a rancorous shambles” (Plantinga).

Scripture warns: “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice” (Proverbs 24:17). Remember this: “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones” (Proverbs 14:30). Alternatively, love “…does not delight in evil” (I Corinthians 13:5-6).

The history of envy begins with the ambition of angels (“I will make myself like the Most High,” Isaiah 14:14) and leads to the suspicion of Eden (“You will be like God…” Genesis 3:1-6). 

Envy emerges in the first human family as an insidious motive to the first act of homicide (Genesis 4). Cain, “who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother” (I John 3:12), allowed envy to be a prelude to homicide (Genesis 4). But envy was also the motive behind the most vicious crime of history: “the leading priests had arrested Jesus out of envy” (Mark 15:10).

It’s particularly sobering to consider how envy is fueled by the all too common sins of ingratitude and discontentment. It feeds on a surveying spirit of resentment with the lethal potential of becoming hatred. Envy vandalizes joy and joyful community.

Steve Cornell