Sunday, January 15, 2012

Mercy--well, it depends

Jan. 15, 2012

Dear friends,

James Sanders was a distinguished Biblical scholar and a brilliant teacher. He once suggested to a class of us that if while reading one of Jesus’ stories we found ourselves identifying with the “good guys” that we promptly start over and read the story again. He thought that, as a general rule, when we assumed “good guy” status we had likely failed to understand the point Jesus was making.

The story that Jesus told about the landowner and his workers (Matt. 20) is a good example. Initially at least, it is dangerously easy to identify with the “good guys,” those people who went to the field early (six o’clock am!), worked a twelve hour day, and were coming now (six o’clock pm)to receive their wages.

I can imagine that for the most part they came physically weary but pleased with themselves and the day. As “good guys” they had worked hard for the landowner, and anticipated that the landowner, known to be fair and just, would now pay them the denarius for which they had contracted that morning before they went to the fields. The denarius would certainly not make them rich, but it was a just—perhaps even somewhat generous—compensation for their work.

But just as they started to line up at the paymaster’s table, things began to go south, as the popular phrase has it. The first sign of trouble was the landowner’s odd choice to pay first the workers hired last. But the problem was more than the order in which those worker’s hired last (at 5:00 o’clock pm) were paid.

The fierce argument that erupted was not about WHEN the five-o’clock workers were paid, but rather about WHAT they were paid. The landowner, in plain view of the six am workers paid the five pm workers each a full denarius—the same amount to each of those who came last and worked one hour as he paid those who came first and who had worked a full twelve-hour day.

The good guys (the six o’clockers) were not pleased. They were angry, and said so. Notice, however, that in the story that the “good guys” weren’t angry about the landowner being given short-measure. They were NOT complaining, “Hey, dude, you’re not getting your money’s worth—these guys only worked an hour.” It was not the landowner’s welfare that mattered to them. The outrage of the six o’clockers pivoted around their sense of entitlement: their good work—and it was good work, no question there—their good work entitled them, they said, to MORE than those who were not as good as they. They were angry not because they had been cheated—the landowner paid them fully the amount to which they had agreed. They were angry not but because the landowner cheated them; they were angry because the landowner did not pay them in a way that clearly demonstrated their superiority over the people who had come to work at five o’clock.

What do you think Jesus point was here?

I have not forgotten that the bottom line toward which we are moving is my response to the way in which my friend “gave” what I considered an unmerited dinner to her young friends. (See last week’s blog.)

Thinking with you how difficult it is to be obedient to God’s command that we both DO justice and LOVE mercy.

DO justice?--well, maybe if I can figure it out and afford it.

But LOVE mercy? Not so much--unless I'm the one that came at five o'clock.

See you next week.


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