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Happy Labor Day — Vineyard Workers!

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Parable of the Vineyard Workers, Rembrandt

Since Americans are celebrating “Labor Day” the first Monday of September– a federal holiday established in 1894 to highlight the economic achievements of American workers– it’s a perfect time to look at Jesus’ parable about the Laborers in the Vineyard.  It’s told in both Matt. 20:1-16 and Mark 10:17-31.

This is a head-scratcher if approached in a typical way of what’s a fair wage, given that several groups of workers are hired at different times on the same day.  But at the end of the day, the parable explains they’re paid the same wage, including those who arrived quite late and did only a small amount of work compared to those hired first.

I can only imagine what the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ Union would have to say about this!

How easily we identify with those first workers who weren’t paid ‘equitably’.  “What’s up with that”, we ask?  Perhaps the parable confronts the whole notion of ‘earning’ God’s love vs. simply receiving it.  Like the sun that pours its light without bias on every mountain, flower and garden, so the Gospel’s message of God’s enduring, inclusive and ever-present love pours out for everyone — newcomer and latecomer combined.

Perhaps the parable is a lesson about resentment and how to eradicate it from our thought about others. Matt. 20.vs. 9-12 speaks to this.   Those early workers didn’t initially begrudge the wages later workers received.  They just thought they’d receive more.

When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ (NRSV)

It’s not like the first group of workers were cheated.  They were paid according to their negotiated contract.  Isn’t that ‘just’?

But the late workers were paid by grace – by the lovely, unexpected showering of God’s generous love (seen through the actions of the landowner).

The early church of Matthew might have thought of the parable in light of Jews and Gentiles, the former being those who arrived ‘early’ and the latter, those who came to the Good News later.

Today the parable might make us ask:  “Am I truly happy for those who seem to have quick responses to prayer over their problems when I’ve been praying for resolution to mine for a very long time?  Or am I grateful for those who seem to make speedy spiritual progress when I’m in more of a plodding mode, even though I’ve been working at this a lot longer then they have!   What’s ‘fair’ about that?”

At the end, the landowner is now called “Lord” (20:8) in the KJV translation, and he pays those hired last, first.

So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the laborers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first.

Is it Jesus’ way of teaching us that there is no bargaining with the ‘Lord’, God?  That the ‘rules’ God plays by are love and grace for everyone, regardless.  That this Kingdom of heaven at hand has different protocols than human fairness, and that we need to start thinking out from those divine statues.

Once again Jesus teaches that following mere cultural values and practices aren’t enough when it comes to being Christ-like, following Christ Jesus’ example.

Happy Labor Day, all you vineyard workers!

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Biblical Leadership Hints for US Presidential Election

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David and Goliath, by Caravaggio

Is it possible that the Biblical story of Israel’s evolution– from nomads to slaves to free people who chose their own government—can shed needed light on today’s Presidential election?

All the way back to Abraham, God told this earliest of patriarchs that kings would be included in Abraham and Sarah’s descendants. “I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you” (Gen. 17:6, NRSV).

The centripetal forces or ‘glue’ that held the twelve tribes together, weren’t just political or military leaders, such as Saul and later David–both anointed as kings. Rather it was the Ten Commandments, the Mosaic Law given in their wilderness crossing and turned to again and again for direction and guidance as they forged a nation out of tribes.

One can only wonder today how much ‘glue’, in the pluralistic societies that constitute historically Judeo-Christian countries like the United States, still exists of a shared moral law with the power to bind people to both it and each other.

Like today, ancient Israel also experienced centrifugal forces pulling them apart. There was the physical challenge of the land’s geography, not conducive to a strong political unit as ridges and gorges made it difficult for separated tribes to come together.

More dangerous were the reasserting forces of Baal and polytheism that presented a constant competition between the powers of Yahweh and Baal. Recall Elijah’s battle with Jezebel’s Baal prophets as he defended Yahweh (see I Kings 18). (Just use the surrogates of today’s many ‘idols’ – whether the pursuit of a perfect body image, wealth or non-stop entertainment — as a substitute for Baal and we see how apropos Israel’s challenges are to our own.)

Yet there was a countering centripetal force that held the tribes together: the invading Philistines. Enter the young shepherd, David, into Israel’s history.   The impact he would make for generations, defeating the enemy starting with Goliath, would be unmatched until Jesus of Nazareth’s arrival a millennium later.

Unfortunately, King Saul’s jealousy would rob the monarch of the gratitude he should have had for David, who would go on to unite the twelve tribes, bring needed peace to the new nation, and write some of the world’s most powerful songs or Psalms. Saul’s jealousy prompted the pursuit of David some sixteen times to kill him, as two vivid examples relate in I Sam 24 and 26 (the former when David doesn’t kill Saul in a cave and the latter sparing of Saul’s life at an encampment near Ziph.)

In addition to the magnanimity David shows someone trying to destroy him, today’s political candidates can discover specific leadership lessons from Deut. 17:14-20. These convey God’s intended qualifications for a future leader. For the purpose of space, I’ll site two and invite you to discover the others. See if you think many, or all, of the characteristics still apply.

  • “Be sure to select as king the man the Lord your God chooses” (Deut. 17: 15). Embedded in this aspect is a democratic election process by the people, i.e. ‘select’, and the ability to discern an individual who is selected for the office and times by God.
  • “When he sits on the throne as king, he must copy for himself this body of instruction on a scroll…(and) always keep that copy with him and read it daily as long as he lives. That way he will learn to fear the Lord his God by obeying all the terms of these instructions and decrees” (Deut. 17:18-19).

Can someone please hand our candidates a pen so they can get writing?!

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How Artistic Genius Captures History’s Greatest Betrayal

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Rembrandt’s “Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver”, currently on exhibit at The J.P. Morgan Library & Museum.

If you admire others’ ability to draw, sketch, paint or sculpt, yet don’t seem to share those talents, welcome to my world of art appreciation instead.   After all, artistic brilliance needs those who can treasure and reflect on their masterpieces.

The Bible has long been the subject of some of the most monumental art through the centuries, affording art lovers plenty of opportunity for spiritual and aesthetic contemplation. Summer is a perfect time to focus on one tour de force just coming to light.

The J.P. Morgan Library in New York City has a current exhibit centered on a privately held Rembrandt often referred to as his first masterpiece, painted when just 23. Called Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver, it is breathtaking how precisely the Dutch master captures the dismissive priest following Judas’ betrayal of Christ Jesus.

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders.  He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.”  Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself (Matt. 27:3-5, NRSV).

In a single spurning gesture of the Priest’s left hand, Rembrandt captures the emotional drama felt by a man who realizes he has made the most damning misjudgment of his life: betrayal of the Messiah he loved.

A traveling diplomat, Constantijn Huygens, experienced the painting in 1629 of the young artist soon to become a master, and penned: “The gesture of that one despairing Judas…screaming, begging for forgiveness, but devoid of all hope. His gaze wild, his hair torn out by the roots, his garments rent, his arms contorted, his hands clenched until they bleed. A blind impulse has brought him to his knees, his whole body writhing in pitiful hideousness. All this I compare with all the beauty that has been produced throughout the ages. All honor to thee, Rembrandt!” (Letter by Huygens, excerpted in Morgan catalogue on exhibit.)

Students of Matthew’s Gospel, the only one in which Judas’ payment is mentioned, have long been familiar with the thirty pieces of silver the priests paid for being led to Jesus’ location during his prayerful preparation at Gethsemane. What may not be familiar is an Ex. 21:2 law describing property payment rights, the first time the ‘thirty shekels of silver’ is mentioned in the Bible.

32 If the ox gores a male or female slave, the owner shall pay to the slave owner thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.

The only other mention of ‘thirty shekels of silver’ (prior to Judas) is in the book of Zechariah. The prophet is told by God to act as the shepherd for the sheep portrayed as the recalcitrant people of Israel. But those ‘sheep’ don’t want to repent and therefore the shepherd (Zechariah) tells the people he quits, and asks for whatever wage they feel is appropriate.

12 I then said to them, “If it seems right to you, give me my wages; but if not, keep them.” So they weighed out as my wages thirty shekels of silver (Zech. 11:12).

The fact that Zechariah is given only ‘thirty shekels of silver’ is an insult, conjuring up the meager price of a male slave, described above in Exodus.

How does all this relate to Judas and the priests? Note that it was the Temple priests who negotiated the original payment:

Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver (Matt 26:14,15).

Expert in Jewish law, the Temple priests well knew of this reimbursement price of a slave from Exodus. In arrogant dismissal, they priced Jesus’ life at the same paltry rate. That Zechariah was God-directed to act as shepherd to the lost sheep of Israel, and paid the same remuneration, evokes the shepherding mantle Jesus bore as well.

The bottom line? Neither priest nor traitor could begin to grasp the Savior’s mission to redeem humanity from every ill that would beset it. That payment? Priceless.

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Three NEW Video Lectures

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We are happy to announce three new 75+ minute Bible talks tied to nature themes in the Scriptures.

They are intended for group or individual Bible study.  For groups, these video talks are especially helpful for those seeking a short study unit, since each one can be handled in one or two sessions.  Each comes with its own pdf study guide of questions that is immediately downloadable upon purchase.  Participants will want to watch the videos before attending a group session since the accompanying questions are directly tied to the streaming video.  In a world where much discussion is of our environment and nature, these three talks lend spiritual insight into this important topic.  Enjoy!

Click the links below to purchase:

Bundle of all three lectures (Save %20)
Biblical Uses of Fire: From Sacrifice to Purification
Let there be Light: Tracing its Healing Appearance throughout the Scriptures
Nature Metaphors in Jesus’ Parables

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The Two-headed Coin of Biblical Fire

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Attributed to Dierick Bouts the Elder, Nethderlands, 1447 – Moses and the Burning Bush, with Moses Removing His Shoes

It’s summertime! * And with it come visions of barbecues, long summer days, walks in the woods and glorious starry nights.

All these powerful aspects of nature have been a focus the past few months while preparing three talks for a Bible conference on Scriptural Metaphors in Nature. What a powerful topic and the two brief pieces for the June newsletter are glimpses into lessons learned. If you too love the Psalmist’s cry:   “Heaven is declaring God’s glory; the sky is proclaiming his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1, Common English Bible), sit back and read on. 

When you think of ‘fire’ in the Bible, you might go to its utility as a means of cooking, creating tools or heating homes. Such uses are reasonable and common. But it is the Bible’s metaphorical use of fire that reveals a two-part pattern of affliction and purification, devastation and deliverance.

Such meanings grow out of the literal nature of fire as a changing form of matter whose chemical reactions make it self-perpetuating. In other words, fire keeps burning as long as it has fuel and oxygen to feed it.

Wow. Those ancient Biblical writers zeroed in with laser insight on fire’s ‘self-perpetuating’ characteristic and saw its too frequent counterpart in human nature’s worst characteristics running unchecked. Isa. 9:18 describes how ‘wickedness burned like a fire.’ Since “wicked” isn’t a word often used today, substitute its 21st century similarities– anything criminal, barbarous, illegal, despicable, odious and outrageous. Doesn’t such behavior, usually designed to produce ‘shock and awe,’ show itself daily in the worst kind of self-indulgence?

Yet this is precisely what the prophet understood when he declares in the next verse (Isa. 9:19) that ‘the people became like fuel for the fire; no one spared another.’ Besides originating the English expression, ‘adding fuel to the fire,’ Isaiah captures how the darkest aspects of human nature feed division, immorality, discontent.

The Bible never leaves us at this description of the problem but lifts to the answer. Its many references to fire often include the concept of sacrifice. What must be relinquished in order to have the fire of inspiration burn instead?

In Abraham’s case, it seemed to be doubt that needed sacrificing. In its place, Abraham was learning to trust in the very God that had provided his son Isaac; that somehow this God wouldn’t be like the quixotic tribal gods surrounding his people, governing by whim and vendetta. Rather Abraham was finding God could be counted on to consistently bless not punish His offspring. A ram was supplied instead of a son as an appropriate sacrifice on this open fire of spiritual lesson-learning.

Most frequently, the Scriptures indicate that fire represented the presence of God, often through theophany’s (or ‘God-appearing’s’). Two vivid examples involving fire were the burning bush appearing to Moses, and the pillar of fire that led the children of Israel through the wilderness.

A revealing exercise is to look for the Biblical uses of fire and see what it represents: sacrifice, God’s presence, purification or something else. As we discover such specific examples throughout the Old Testament, the New Testament’s Pentecostal moment of ‘tongues of fire’ (Acts 2:3) takes on fresh meaning. And as you explore, we’d love to hear what you’re discovering so please share with Bible Roads’ readers.

Watch for the release on streaming video of the complete three talks on the Bible and nature, coming July 1st under the title: “Spiritual Sustainability: A Biblical Perspective”. And now for that walk in the woods…

  • At least in North America, so my apologies to our friends in Australia and New Zealand.
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