Category Archives: Pastor Duane Hix

“How to Read the Bible”

October 26, 2014 Psalm 33:1-11; II Timothy 3:14-17
W.M.P.C. Willow Spring Dr. Duane Hix

In the living room of the home where I grew up, my mother had a small round corner table most people would use for a potted plant or a lamp. But on the top shelf of this particular table was a fancy crocheted doily given to her by her own mother, and on top of that doily lay the family Bible. It wasn’t huge, like a pulpit Bible, but it was imposing enough for a child to admire and wonder about. Most of the time it was opened to one of the Psalms, not because that was a favorite book, but probably because that way roughly half the book’s pages fell on either side of the opening. (My mother was often a stickler for details.) I didn’t actually see my parents read from the book often, but its open presence in the busiest room of the house was a regular reminder that in my folks’ opinion, no good home would be without God’s Word as an influence and guide.

Something must have rubbed off from that steady presence onto me, because here I am five decades later still studying scripture every week for a sermon and including it in my devotional time nearly every morning. Yet the journey to understand and appreciate the Bible has been long and at times frustrating. If that is so for me, with excellent seminary and university training and years of practice, I can only imagine how hard it is for you all to understand this book that has carried the Christian church on its back for about 1700 years. That is one reason, therefore, that I am preaching a sermon today called “How to Read the Bible.” I want to give you one more set of guidelines about this important topic before I leave you.

The other reason for this topic is to introduce you to an opportunity for personal study of scripture in the coming months. In response to your stated desire for a variety of ways and times and places to learn about our faith, the Christian Ed committee and I have found this little book called The Year of the Bible. It will enable you – whenever and wherever you want – to read all the key passages of scripture in one year if you dedicate yourself to 15 or 20 minutes a day. 365 days are divided into months, with some Old Testament and some New Testament passages each day. Preceding each month’s schedule is a 3 page summary of the themes you will encounter in the passages ahead. It begins January 1, so the committee and I originally decided I would preach this particular sermon the first Sunday in January. However, obviously plans have changed, but so you will be interested and aided in the reading project, I still want to preach that message. Many of you have commented that you have tried in the past to read all through the Bible and failed. Well, here’s another chance, and here is my chance to get you excited about it! As you can tell by the title in the bulletin, I’m going to explain three ways to read the Bible, and three key questions to ask about its meaning.
Most of you are already familiar with reading the Bible devotionally. We supply copies of The Upper Room magazine to assist you in a daily time of prayer and reflection. Every denomination and practically every TV evangelism ministry has its own little magazine like this. Each day of the month is covered with a Bible passage, a short story illustrating the passage, and a brief prayer. You can finish the page in five minutes, tops, and carry with you a reminder of God’s word and how it changed someone’s life. If you are going to read the Bible devotionally, I recommend you go to the same quiet place each day, settle in for a few minutes, and let the devotional message wash over you. You can choose first thing in the morning, last thing before you go to bed at night, while you are eating lunch at work, or even while stuck in the afternoon traffic (a little riskier, of course, but not impossible). Do this regularly and try not to rush through it. The key here is to open up your heart and mind to what we might call an “alien message”, a little moment of revelation from outside your normal routine, a breaking through of God’s voice on a written page. After you read what is on the page, close your eyes for just a moment and add a prayer of your own, including what you may be rejoicing in or worried about that day. So that is devotional reading.

It is a good place to start. I hope everyone in the church does at least this much. It keeps you in touch with God and reminds you to listen for the divine voice daily. But devotional reading of scripture, especially if it is confined to the 5-10 minute ritual encouraged by the magazines, doesn’t penetrate very deeply into your soul, doesn’t allow the full power of the scripture passage to work on you for very long or very effectively, so I hope there will be other times when you move on to a more in-depth acquaintance with the Bible, to where you read it not just devotionally but also Reflectively. Reflective reading of scripture may happen only one day a week, or maybe even less. Go off by yourself to a corner of your garden or turn off all the phones and close the door to your bedroom and light a candle to set the mood. You will need a half-hour for this at least, probably more.

Take your Bible and find a key passage that seems to fit together as one extended thought or one story. Your Bible probably has broken up the pages with little headlines for individual sections (you can call them pericopes if you want to sound smart). Then follow a method for reflection that has been around for centuries, called lectio divina, or divine reading. There are four stages.
1. Read the passage slowly and gently, each sentence slightly separated from the next by a brief pause. At the end, wait for God quietly in prayer. Just sit there for a minute and think about the passage as if you have read it for the first time. Don’t try yet to make sense of it all.
2. Read it again without the pauses, and then meditate on the passage by asking what the verses say to your current situation in life. See if two or three words or compact ideas pop into your mind, stand out from the rest of the text. Repeat those few words; live with them a few moments. Repeat them again.
3. Next, respond to those words and ideas that popped out at you. Say something to God, either aloud or in your mind, about how those words have touched you, what they might be saying to you about a particular issue you’re dealing with. Are they a challenge, a comfort, a reason for praise? Say that to God.
4. Continue by contemplating what you have heard and learned. Just sit with the passage, maybe reading it again, maybe repeating a key phrase or verse again and again. Stay in this relaxed attitude for another 5-10 minutes if you can.
The purpose of reflective reading is to let the scripture enter your soul, let God take time with you through words in the Bible, and to help you articulate what the Bible is telling you through a specific passage. Try this method weekly for a few months and see if it grows on you and you become more attentive to a different dimension of the Bible.

There is also an intellectual or historical approach to reading the Bible. Here is where we remember that the Bible is indeed the eternal word of God but that it also was written by human beings in specific historical circumstances, and those specific contexts influence a text’s interpretation. If you are going to tackle reading the Bible this way, you will want a desk or a table instead of an easy chair. You will want a place to spread out books or consult the internet. Here the source of the knowledge you gain may not be God directly in prayer but indirectly through the scholarship of researchers. You need commentaries, other translations, maps, Bible dictionaries.

What are you looking for here? You are looking for how the passage is affected by its literary form, for one. If it is poetry you obviously aren’t going to read it with the same eye as if it is history or a set of laws. If the passage tells a story, you may cut it some slack about exact facts, because stories are less interested in facts than in morals and emotional impact. So first read the passage. Then read it again in a different translation to see how key words might have multiple meanings. Then check for its literary style and keep that in mind as you get a general sense of what it means.

Now consult commentaries to see what scholars say about when and where a story was written. For instance, the book of Daniel tells stories about Hebrews in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. But it wasn’t actually written until 4 centuries later when the Jews were suffering persecution under a different enemy, and that influences how we understand Daniel’s visions. Do a word-study of a key idea like “exile” or “temple” to better comprehend what it meant to the people of the Old Testament. Look at an archaeological reconstruction of a typical house in Nazareth when Jesus was there and imagine his daily life. Such historical and literary study adds a whole new layer of understanding to the Bible. It can be upsetting to think of scripture as a human document as well as a divine inspiration, but the Word of God arose in the midst of humanity, and we are better off finding out what it meant to the people of that time before we try to say what it means to us today.
So those are three ways to read the Bible – devotionally, reflectively, and historically or intellectually. Each is legitimate; each adds a layer of meaning onto the others. Now briefly, I want to give you three questions to ask of any passage you may have a hard time understanding. After all, there are difficult sayings in scripture, verses where God orders the mass slaughter of whole tribes, or where Jesus curses a fig tree because it didn’t bear fruit, even though it was not in fruit-bearing season. Those are just a couple of the dozens of passages that can trip us up and make us wonder how God could be communicating with us through the Bible. When you come across these problematic passages, ask three questions before you just accept them at face value.

First, is this literal or symbolic? So much of scriptural language is symbolic. We saw that in our study of the Book of Revelation earlier this year: the number seven, the colors of the precious jewels. Those are just two examples. There are plenty more spread through the stories of scripture. What does water symbolize, or desert, or walls? Is it always the literal meaning of those objects in a passage? Could there be a symbolic meaning that transcends the literal?

Secondly, is a verse specific to one particular historical situation, or it is a universal command? For instance, just because Abraham takes his son Isaac up the mountain to sacrifice him in obedience, is God asking that same test of faith of everyone? Was there a specific historical reason for that kind of test at that time? When Paul is bitten by a viper but doesn’t die, does that mean God is asking us all to become snake handlers to prove our apostleship? Hardly! Don’t turn specific instances into universal principles.

Third, when you read a troublesome incident, ask: is this descriptive or prescriptive? Is the Bible just describing something that happened, or prescribing it as something people should do? David commits adultery with Bathsheba; that gets a full, lurid description, but it is hardly what God wants from his kings or from any of us. Many things are described in the Bible that aren’t prescribed as acceptable behavior.

So these are the questions to ask: literal or symbolic; particular or universal; descriptive or prescriptive?

I hope my account of these three ways of reading scripture and three questions to ask of it help you experience the full richness of this book that has sustained the Christian faith for centuries. I also hope they help you embrace this reading project that will start in January, as you enter into The Year of the Bible.


“Final Instructions”

October 19, 2014 (Homecoming) I Thessalonians 5:12-24
W.M.P.C. Willow Spring Dr. Duane Hix

Many Christians think St. Paul was a hard-nosed, driven man, lashing out at critics, pushing himself relentlessly over thousands of miles. He would enter a town, stir up a controversy over Jesus, make a few enemies, and then head on down the road. We don’t like his harsh comments about women, his strict moral code, and his occasional insistence that Christians should separate themselves from offenders. But that is an unfair caricature at best. If we read a letter like I Thessalonians, we see mixed into the hard statements a softer side to Paul. These last verses from that letter which I read today do offer clear advice and warnings, but they also reveal his deep love of the people he called to the church.

Paul had founded that congregation in this large Macedonian city on his second missionary journey. He only got to stay there about three weeks before he was threatened by the Jewish authorities and had to run for his life, but in that short period he had developed a fondness for the 30 to 40 people there that had formed a small house church. He worried about them so much over the next months that he sent his young colleague Timothy back to Thessalonica to see how the church was faring. Timothy had brought back to Paul good news, that the church was withstanding local persecution and was growing, though there were still some inadequacies in their faith. So Paul writes them this letter, expressing his fondness, encouraging them, and giving them, in the verses we read, a set of what we might call “final instructions” on how to keep the church strong and faithful.

I expect most of you know by now that I am leaving White Memorial in less than a month to minister elsewhere, so I am hoping you will allow me to follow Paul’s example and offer my own “final instructions” to you on this Homecoming Sunday. It is an unusual Homecoming sermon, I grant you that. I am not going to glorify our heritage or tell humorous stories. But I want to do what Paul did: express my fondness for you, give thanks for your talents, and offer guidelines that will strengthen the church for the years ahead.

Where to begin? I’ll start where Paul starts in today’s verses. He encourages the church to respect its leaders. Sometimes when a congregation is between pastors a leadership vacuum develops. People who abhor a vacuum rush in to take charge; they try to reinstitute programs that had been dropped or push through an idea that had been neglected. I hope in my absence you will respect and trust the elders on session to continue leading the church. It is an important time to remember that the session is the primary decision-making body of the church, whether a pastor is in place or not. Trust them and trust the system. If you have an idea, convey it to the proper elder and ask the session to consider it. Accept that in the months ahead things may move slowly, both within the church itself and in the presbytery, which will send advisors from the Committee on Ministry to help you. Paul says to the Thessalonians: “Be patient with everyone.” I echo his advice. Things may not function smoothly for a while, but do not rush the process. Trust your leaders and be patient with the Presbyterian way.

There is a flip side to what I have said, and Paul appears to recognize it when he says that the church should warn the idle, encourage the timid, and help the weak. He means that people may be lazily squandering their talents or afraid to step forward to help. This is a time when everyone’s help is needed. If some of you here today have not been regular in attendance or have not supported the church financially, please know that this is a good time to step forward. The congregation needs you, in attendance, in participation, and in finances. The choir will need singers for the Christmas cantata. The mission team will need workers for the Stagecoach Manor dinner and senior luncheon. The Christian Ed committee will need a teacher for a youth class and helpers for the Joy Gift program. And if you think that you all can relax and drop the level of financial giving since there is no pastor to pay for a while, don’t believe it. We have new furnaces to replace before the winter, a savings account to replenish, and better mission giving, since we have dropped way below our once-declared goal of giving 10% of the church’s income to missions. Every one of us has been equipped by God with talents, gifts that can build up the church. If we exercise those talents, offer our gifts to God, the church will hold steady through the turbulence and new leaders may emerge for the future.

The months ahead will be a good time for everyone to cultivate lasting attitudes of faithfulness. In verses 16-18 Paul suggests three such attitudes in rapid-fire fashion: “Be joyful always. Pray continually. Give thanks in all circumstances.” One of the lessons that I have learned over nearly 35 years of ministry (and it has taken me every bit of that time) is that faithful churches are more about attitude than activities, more about the quality of relationships than the number of programs. Maybe I should have been less worried here about trying to keep our committees meeting regularly and coming up with lots of new ideas, and more ready to go to your homes and talk seriously about your faith, about the family problems you face and the presence of God in your lives. Maybe I should have confronted people personally about how they have time in their busy schedules for weekend trips and football tailgating and golf but not enough for regular worship. If I had concentrated more on changing attitudes instead of adding programs, we might not have had our attendance dwindle as it has in the last couple of years. I don’t know whether it would have made any difference, but I do know that if we all concentrate on adopting these three faithful attitudes Paul suggests, it will make us not only better individual Christians but also a stronger church. Be joyful. Pray continually. Give thanks. Do that in the months ahead. See what difference it makes in your lives and in the church. Cultivate attitudes of faithfulness.
Paul seems to be concerned in verses 19 and 20 that the people’s enthusiasm will die down and they will fall into listless routines: “Don’t put out the Spirit’s fire” is how he says it. When people feel unsure, uncertain of their footing, they have a tendency to simply rest in what is comfortable and normal, turn back to old traditions. Some of that is natural; it isn’t all bad, but I hope that doesn’t happen here, because it usually ends up with people feeling that change is the enemy; they stop listening to the Spirit of God who may be nudging them toward a new direction.

The session and I have been discussing this in recent meetings. We have been trying to discern what God wants for our church in the future, whether the American culture is so different than it was 30 years ago that no church can continue to operate the way it used to and be effective. We started considering a strategy of going to where people are rather than expecting them to come to us. Maybe the best evangelism and outreach strategy will be to start a Bible study in a bar or restaurant rather than publicizing programs here at the church. I’m afraid that little white country churches just don’t connect with many young adults today, so maybe we need to equip our members to do their ministry away from church rather than in this building. Can we “reverse the arrow” as it were, and point the church’s ministry outside these walls rather than trying to point other people into our front doors? If that is where the Spirit of God is leading, don’t let go of that vision just because the pastor is leaving. That vision is bigger than one person. If this kind of change is from God, don’t put out the Spirit’s fire.

Paul closes his final instructions with a kind of prayer for the people of the Thessalonian church. He asks God to sanctify them, in other words, to continue leading them toward holiness and keeping them free from sin. I want you to know that I will continue to pray for you, that just because I am leaving in a couple of weeks I will not just drop you from my heart. Now, I may not read all your Facebook posts with the pictures of cats and recipes for coconut cake. But I will thank God for what you have given me while in ministry here and I will be interested in your future, both as individuals and as a congregation. I will pray for God to raise up a good pastor for you, and some help in the interim period. There are many young, enthusiastic, well-trained clergy in the area who can help you articulate a new vision and implement it. But more to the point, many of you right here in this service have the faith and the skills to keep the church faithful and relevant. I will pray for you to offer those skills to God. And don’t forget that the church does not ultimately depend on what we do, but on what God does for us. Paul emphasizes that in verse 24 when he says: “The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.” In other words, it is not just our own faith that counts. It is much more the faithfulness of God on which the church depends.

If I had been truly wise and well prepared, I would have continued today’s scripture passage through verse 25, because there Paul asks for prayers for himself. Just as I will pray for you, may I ask you also to pray for me? My ministry will continue for at least a few more years in a parish somewhere, and I will not surrender my calling even when I formally retire. I want to have time to write and continue to serve God in whatever way the Spirit calls me. For this I will need your prayers. Please keep me close to your heart. Your support has been important during my years as your pastor. It will be important also during my years when I am simply your friend.

“Therefore, Keep Watch”

October 12, 2014 Matthew 25: 1-13
W.M.P.C. Willow Spring Dr. Duane Hix

If you were able to travel to a Palestinian village today – not one caught up in the violent Middle East conflict, but maybe an isolated village up in the West Bank, an area that time has largely forgotten (and there are such places, even today), you might just catch a glimpse of a wedding ceremony like that described by Jesus in Matthew 25.

When a young couple married in ancient Palestine, they didn’t go away for a long honeymoon. They stayed home, and welcomed guests to a banquet that could last on and off for days. Before that banquet, however, indeed before the marriage ceremony itself, there was another wedding custom. A group of young women (we might call them bridesmaids) would dress in festive garments and dance through the streets to the bride’s house so they could wait with the bride until her groom came to take her to his own home and the ceremony. Those young friends of the bride might stay at her home for hours, even for days, because no one knew exactly when the groom would come. It was even a playful custom of grooms to come at a time when they might catch the bridal party napping or in disarray, as in fact happened in Jesus’ story. The bridesmaids had fallen asleep, though they were supposed to keep awake and alert, prepared to accompany the bride on another journey through the village streets where the couple received the best wishes of the townspeople. Because that procession often happened after dark, the bridesmaids needed lamps. Now those lamps were only this big (show size, 3” diameter), so they didn’t hold much oil, and you needed an extra supply. All the bridesmaids should have known this, but only half, in Jesus’ story, were wise and well-prepared. The others, who did not bring enough oil, had to leave the procession to buy more. But they returned too late. Before they got back, the doors were closed and the ceremony and banquet had started. All that waiting, all that anticipation, was in vain. They returned to their own homes in deep disappointment.

Jesus obviously did not tell this story just so that we could have a record of ancient wedding customs. He begins the parable, and many others, by saying: “the kingdom of heaven is like….” That phrase means “this is how God acts”; “this is how God treats us. When we are in the kingdom of God, in the presence of God, these are hints about what will happen.” So Jesus is describing God’s nature, and also warning us what will happen when we act in certain ways. In this parable, God is the groom, and we, of course, are the bridesmaids, both wise and foolish.

Like those bridesmaids, we spend a lot of time waiting. Yes, we certainly have microwave meals and instant messaging and easy apps for our phones. Some things have leaped to lightning speed. But we still do wait for other things, the most important things. We wait for years, decades, for our children to mature into responsible adults, groaning inwardly at each setback, sighing with relief at each of their successes. We wait for our job to ease up a bit, or at least become less chaotic because the boss hires more co-workers or you gain more expertise. Most of all, of course, I hope we are waiting for God, waiting for God to come into our lives, not just in some grand end-of-time apocalypse, but in the everyday events and yearnings that could, if we were alert and prepared, strengthen our faith and allow us to experience the joy of his presence.

What is it like when we wait for God? What exactly are we looking for? Over the years I think I have recognized what church members are looking for from God, especially as they come to church buildings for worship or to attend studies and meetings. People come here wanting a smile of genuine friendship, which reassures you that not everyone in the world is self-absorbed or trying to outflank you on a business deal. That simple, genuine smile from a church co-worker can be uplifting, strengthening, encouraging. Or maybe people come here to worship week after week waiting for the occasional moment when something the preacher says in a sermon really clicks in their heart and mind, and they have to catch themselves from bursting out loud: “I knew the Christian gospel made sense! That idea puts things in perspective so well!” Maybe people come to church looking for some small indication, some fledgling sign, that international enemies will one day put down their weapons and be reconciled. Or on a more personal level maybe they come looking for a reason why the suffering their mother is going through as she dies is not without some meaning.

This is what we are waiting for, isn’t it, these signs of friendship and insight and reconciliation and meaning. We wait on God, patiently seeking hints and revelations that there is an eternal basis for our honesty and our commitments and our hopes. And even if it takes months or years before those signs and insights come, we are willing to wait, and watch, and stay alert, to pay your dues of time and effort, and make your annual pledge and show up regularly to worship. We do that because we believe those reassurances are out there, that God is out there, and those eventual breakthroughs of love and truth and beauty can indeed happen to us, if we just wait and watch.

But then we also know what can happen while we wait. You can drift off into daydreaming or full sleep. You can get completely distracted and not notice the opportunity when it does come. Or maybe you are just not prepared to take advantage of that treasured goal when it stares you in the face. It happened to the bridesmaids; it can happen to us. What keeps us from being ready when the bridegroom God makes an appearance and summons us to a banquet in his presence?

Maybe, like the bridesmaids, we just grow tired, too tired of waiting to stay awake and alert. I certainly know that as I grow older I grow tired faster. No more midnight dancing and carousing! No more 12 hour work days for three or four days straight! I simply am not physically awake and mentally alert if those hard days without adequate rest continue. Don’t all of us know someone who comes home from a hard day’s work so tired that they eat their dinner, plop down in an easy chair and not get up again until bedtime? They are worn out by their routine existence and physical weariness.

Well, perhaps our spiritual strength is like that. Have we waited too long for God with few results, stuck in old ideas and practices that don’t energize us or refresh our minds? Do we just sort of plop down in our soul’s Lazy-Boy and doze our way through an evening when we could have been reading a biography that inspires us or debating an issue at a local town council, exercising and training our mind and heart just as physically weary people should be exercising their bodies to grow stronger and hardier? Have we grown tired over years of working in a church that never tries anything new, that resists the Spirit’s call to discover new dimensions of God’s truth? We can miss the coming of the bridegroom God if we are simply too weary, too uninspired to be awake when he comes. The bridesmaids fell asleep.

Some of the bridesmaids were prepared for the journey when they woke up and heard the bridegroom’s call. Others were not. Some knew that the wait for God and the journey to the banquet would be lengthy. Some thought they could get through the night with just the gas in their tank, as it were. They didn’t take extra precaution. And we can make the same mistake. After all, recognizing the presence of God in a world with multiple distractions and very little cultural support is not easy. It takes preparation. To discern the will of God we need to know the Bible and its accounts of how God dealt with people in similar situations. But if we spend five times as many hours taking our children or grandchildren to soccer and baseball games as we do talking to them about God or picking them up for Sunday school, then we are sending them into the world ill-equipped to wait and hope and search for the presence of God. And if we ourselves still, after all these years of church, can’t tell Jeremiah from Jonah or Luke from Lazarus, then we have shortened the wick and spilled the oil from the lamp of the Bible, which could have guided us through the full night and into the presence of the bridegroom God. Our greatest preparation for recognizing the presence and will of God is to consider the scriptures and relate them to our daily lives. That way we will be ready to walk into the night with him, prepared and hopeful.

The story of the bridesmaids reveals one more reason we may not find the reassuring presence of God. Notice that when the foolish maidens finally returned after going off to buy more oil, the door to the banquet room was already closed, and the host, the groom himself, sent them away, saying “I do not know you.” It seems that they had simply taken the occasion too lightly. If they had run out of oil, they presumed they could borrow some from the others. If they had come late to the wedding, they presumed they would still be let in to the feast. But neither happened, and that gives us pause to consider. After all, wouldn’t it have been kind and charitable of the other bridesmaids to lend some oil? And wouldn’t it have been compassionate of the groom to let them in even if they were late? Aren’t these refusals unchristian, ungracious, un-Christ-like? That was one of the questions asked at our Wednesday study and dinner, and it is a good question. Wouldn’t a gracious and forgiving God have been kinder?

But this passage is one of Jesus’ warnings that we should not take too lightly or too casually the invitation to come into God’s presence. Some theologians have cautioned that our constant insistence in Protestant Christianity on salvation by grace alone has led modern Christians to think of grace as cheap, as inevitable, as easy to come by. This parable’s ending, where the foolish bridesmaids are denied entrance to the banquet, is a warning against this tendency. Let us be continually reminded that grace is free but it isn’t cheap. It was bought at a high price. We should not take it so much for granted that it becomes an excuse for sloppy ethical behavior or sporadic activity in our spiritual disciplines. The wise bridesmaids weren’t being unkind. They knew that friends who truly loved the bride and honored the groom would have been better prepared, would have cared more to be real helpers. The God of Jesus Christ will indeed save all, open the door, to all who ask, but only if their actions do not betray their words. Some people miss the presence of God and the joy of his banquet because they did not care enough to be fully ready when it came.

We who are Christian believers are engaged in the most important waiting game on earth. Not only do we wait for the eventual second coming of our Lord at some distant time. We also wait for the many revelations of that Lord all around us now, in the faces of people we know and the actions of strangers across the world, in the insights provided by study of scripture, in the worship that grants glimpses into a divine realm. Let us not grow weary and sleep through the signs; let us not come unprepared and be unable to follow the Lord’s procession; let us not presume upon God’s grace so much that we neglect in our deeds to pay God the honor he is due. We keep watch; we stay awake; we come prepared. And when we do this, we are certain to hear the bridegroom’s call and feast in the banquet of the Lord’s joyous presence.


“Envy, Generosity, and Fairness”

September 21, 2014 Matthew 20:1-16
W.M.P.C. Willow Spring Dr. Duane Hix

Jesus had a way of getting under people’s skin. I don’t mean he intentionally insulted them. It’s just that the lessons he taught and the stories he told made people prick up their ears to listen. Then frequently they’d either stare wide-eyed in wonder or jut out their jaw in defiant rejection of his words. That is the case in the parable of the hired laborers. It stops us in our tracks and makes us say: “Hey, wait a minute!”

Here’s this landowner who needs some work done in his vineyard. And just like today in union halls where plumbers or electricians come early and wait for calls to work, or like the immigrants who hang out near a WalMart or Home Depot willing to do any kind of manual labor, it was also the practice in ancient Israel for day laborers to gather near the marketplace and wait to be hired. So at 6 a.m., the first hour of a working day back then, the landowner comes and hires a bunch of workers. They agree on a wage for the day and set off to work. Well, apparently there weren’t enough workers then, so the landowner went back at 9 a.m., the third hour, and hired some more; then again at noon, he did the same thing. Apparently that still wasn’t enough so at 3 o’clock he hired some more, and at 5 o’clock, just an hour before quitting time, he hired yet a few more. Dusk falls, the work is done, and it’s time to line up to be paid. But the workers are startled, and some of them downright angry, when those who worked only an hour get paid the same amount as those who toiled all day long in the hot sun. “Hey, wait a minute . . . that’s not fair! We worked twelve times as long as they did, yet you pay them the same!” That doesn’t cut any ice, though, with this strangely confident landowner. “Why are you concerned? I gave you exactly what you agreed to at the beginning of the day. Do not be envious that I am generous to others with what is rightfully mine.” I guarantee you, though; people went away after hearing that parable shaking their heads and wondering what kind of message Jesus was trying to teach them, because it sure didn’t square with common experience. “What can he mean?” they asked one another.

Well, what does Jesus mean? There are, I believe, three different levels on which we can understand this parable, an historical level, a theological level, and a political level. I’m going to start with the historical meaning, because it is always important when interpreting scripture to not rush into saying what a passage means to us until it is clear what that passage meant to the people who first heard it. We are frequently too quick to seek the relevance of a verse for our time without grounding that modern message in what Jesus was trying to say to the people of his time. People who do this frequently misrepresent what the passage was trying to convey both then and now.

Historically, Jesus told this parable to highlight the relationship between his original followers and later disciples as his ministry began attracting different kinds of people. The gospel writer Matthew then takes Jesus’ words and retells the parable in a still later context when the early church was growing and both Jews and Gentiles were joining it.

The lesson meant for those original listeners 2000 years ago was that God was free to welcome as full partners in the Kingdom unlikely people, including some from Gentile lands. Most assuredly the Jews had been the people of God for centuries. They were the descendants of Abraham, heirs of those who sojourned across the wilderness with Moses, who battled the Canaanites with Joshua and the Philistines with David. Ancestors of these Jews had suffered exile in Babylon and returned to rebuild Jerusalem. They had withstood the onslaught of Persian and Greek and Roman dominance. So the Jews were the ones who symbolically in the parable had labored twelve hours in the hot sun, and the Gentile converts, who had for centuries followed false gods, and only now, when Jesus appeared, had seen the light, were the ones who worked only a few hours yet still were accepted into the chosen people of God.

Is it right, then, that they should receive full equality of treatment, full inclusion in the church, with the same status as those who had proven their endurance for centuries? By what standards is that fair? Yet to complaints such as this, Jesus declares through this parable “No, you do wrong to complain, my friend. You have received the reward agreed upon at the beginning. I thank you for your hard labor, but those who come later to my kingdom will receive the same salvation you receive. Do not envy them their good fortune; do not begrudge me my right to be generous with my welcome. Those who have labored long and those who have labored short receive the same return. Go on your way with what belongs to you. Whether you’re a Jew whose family has been faithful for centuries or a Gentile who only last week accepted me as Messiah, you will ultimately receive the same reward.

Well, they may have gone on their way, but I bet they were grumbling as they went, for such a revolutionary sense of God’s welcoming gift still seemed to violate their entrenched view that they had earned more than they got. And that pushes us toward the second level of interpretation of this passage. It has to do with God’s grace.

I know we hear the word ‘grace’ in church a lot. Maybe you are tired of hearing it, although I bet the word isn’t used outside of church much, is it? Not many other situations lend themselves to talking about grace, because those other situations are more about earning our way instead of receiving a gift. But this parable is a good one for teaching about grace, because it cuts right across our familiar language of work, and rights, and entitlement and earning a living, and it says that God doesn’t always behave along those lines. So even if you have heard this message about grace many times before, let me say it again, so that you and I both can remember how astounding and powerful it is.
From our common perspective, each one of those workers, whether they came at 6 in the morning, or 9 or noon or 3, was entitled to more compensation than the laborers who started at five. They sweated longer, they got more done, they produced more return for their employer. By all human standards, if the late workers got one denarius, the Roman coin for a day’s wage, then the early workers should have gotten 3 or 6 or 12 denarii. You try to run a business or a factory with the kind of compensation policy Jesus suggests here, and just see how quickly you are tossed out of management.

But the point Jesus is making, of course, buried beneath the top layer of the parable, is that receiving salvation is not like running a business. God doesn’t look at how hard we’ve tried to be good or how much money we’ve contributed to noble causes when God chooses to save us. Now there are very fine reasons for lengthy faithful obedience, for living as God desires and sacrificing some luxuries so poorer people may have necessities, but we don’t do those things for the sake of earning salvation. No, that work has been done already, by another, by Jesus Christ. Salvation is grace at work. It is a gift. We don’t deserve it. We don’t earn it, no matter how hard we try. In the eyes of God, as far as salvation is concerned, none of those laborers, even the ones who started at dawn, is any better than those who came at 5. All are equal. All have sinned. All are in need of grace. All are entitled to the same reward because none of them are entitled to it actually. So when the workers complain that God is being unfair to them, they are wrong. Remember this: God is never less than fair, but God is often more than fair. God is gracious, and that can be just as confusing, just as confounding to people who have no other way of looking at life than claiming that they deserve what they earn. We don’t deserve salvation, but we are offered it anyway, because God is more than fair, God is gracious.

The third level of interpretation of this parable speaks to the political situation, our government and legal system. We’re heading into the last weeks of a national election cycle, so maybe this passage could even help clean up our politics. About 40 years ago a highly-respected Harvard philosopher named John Rawls wrote a book called A Theory of Justice. In that book Rawls built an elaborate argument for a very simple premise: What is justice? Justice is fairness, he answered. Justice is treating people equally, ensuring that all citizens regardless of social position, race, gender, or intellectual ability are treated the same, afforded the same rights and protections under the law. To this end the courts should be structured and police enforcement should be directed. Justice means fairness.

I have no argument with Rawls’ principle as far as it goes. Indeed, he summarizes and defends the ideas that are the driving force of our nation’s Constitution. In the eyes of the law, fairness of treatment is the proper goal of society. The trouble is that the concept of fairness is inadequate for all of life. It is good as far as it goes, in the legal system, but it doesn’t speak to the reality of all our daily lives. Consider, for instance, your family, your children. Do you always give all of your children exactly the same amount of time and effort? Suppose, as frequently happens, one of your children has a learning deficiency or a physical disability. Given the limits of human energy, it is simply inevitable that you will spend more time and effort with him or her. And frankly, the other children may resent it a bit. Or, in less dramatic fashion, if you have one child with a far stronger potential for learning, is it not right for you to send him or her to a better college, which may cost more money, or to help pay for graduate school, even if it means less to split among your other children?

Now granted, all of us try to compensate in some way for time, money or attention we may have shortchanged our other children. We feel slightly guilty about asking them to make sacrifices for their siblings, even if they are unaware they did so. But my point is: are we less just because we have been less fair? Or have we violated God’s sense of fairness just because we didn’t uphold the human meaning of fairness? If Rawls is right and justice is fairness, and fairness is equality, and if we apply that legal definition to all of life, then we are being unjust when we take extra time for a Down’s syndrome child or spend disproportionate funds on music lessons for a talented prodigy.

Something is missing in Rawls’ definition, at least in certain areas of our existence. What is missing is a sense of divine justice, God’s fairness, to supplement this otherwise fine idea of human justice. Divine justice is more than fairness. Or at least it redefines fairness from God’s point of view. To God, fairness and justice include grace and mercy. It includes the awareness that in some areas of life people aren’t able to be treated the same because their needs are greater or their potential begs for extra consideration.

Actually this sense of divine justice, which includes grace and mercy, tempers and corrects human justice from deteriorating into a legalism in which everyone is clamoring for equal rights and no one is prepared to sacrifice their own advancement so those who need more can have more. Mercy, grace, sacrificial love, keeps the idea of justice as fairness from deteriorating into a mere calculation of mutual advantages where no one is willing to give something unless they get something in exchange. And that, I fear, is the direction our political arena is headed.

Divine justice is not the opposite of grace; it is grace. God is not merely being merciful to us in salvation. God is being just. God is fair, even if God’s fairness doesn’t always look like ours. The landowner of the parable, if indeed he is a figure for God, was not merely being generous to the workers who came late. He was being just to them all. God is never less than fair. But God is sometimes more than fair. That is the difference between human justice and divine justice. I know which one I want to guide the society in which I live.