Monday, July 30, 2012

The Teachings of Jesus (VI), Week 31: Jesus' authority challenged - Jesus on eternal reward (Matt 19:27-20:16)

If you are paying close attention, you will notice that my post title does not match the Scripture reference of my graphic. As I have mentioned, I too am learning much through this series--and last week I learned that this passage thematically should be broken down slightly differently than I did in my outline, so I have changed this section to start back at verse 19:27, rather than 20:1, as originally stated. This makes a more coherent presentation of the section, in my opinion.

Recall that last week we saw a rich young man who was seeking eternal life in heaven. Jesus essentially presented the Gospel to him, proving that he could not do enough to reach heaven. Onlookers were dismayed, knowing that they too fell short of Jesus' eternal standard. Jesus responded that for man it was impossible, but for God all things were possible.

And there (v.26) is where I should have ended the last post. Becuase reading it now, I see that Peter's follow-up question fits perfectly with the parable of the laborers in the following chapter. So I have changed the Scripture reference here and we will go back to verse 27 to start.

Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?”

Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first. For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 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.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.”
--Mt 19:27-20:16, ESV

Here, Jesus tells us much of what life will be like in New Jerusalem, when the heavens and earth are remade. The Bible is clear that we will in some way live and have jobs and responsibilities for eternity, though we do not know exactly what this looks like. Here we get a hint of it.

First, the twelve apostles are said to be able to sit on thrones as the judges of the twelve tribes of Israel, serving as magistrates in the new kingdom. Next we find that those who have had to suffer sacrifices for Jesus' sake will be rewarded a hundredfold for their suffering.

In C.S. Lewis' short story A Great Divorce, the protagonist is in heaven and sees a parade go by to give honor to a beautiful saint. He asks who she was, assuming that she would be someone of historical note. However, it turns out that she was a nobody: someone who lived a poor but generous life in a slum, often overlooked. But because she gave of herself to everyone on Earth, now in heaven she is given to by everyone else and honored for her life of humble servanthood.

This is the end-game of a life of pain and suffering on Earth: reward. I think of a sweet old lady who is a friend of my grandmother's, a woman named Lou. Lou is a devoted Catholic, believes in and loves Jesus with all her heart, and has lived a life of generosity. She and her husband were blessed to be rather wealthy in life, though they always remained down-to-earth and kind-hearted. But they would have traded all their wealth for the one thing that they were unable to have: a child. Now, in her seventies, Lou lives alone: her husband has passed away and she has no children left to her. But you know what? I have confidence in Jesus' promise here: so I know that one day in New Jerusalem, huddled around her feet, will be orphan children whom sweet Lou can mother and love on. She lost children but remained committed to Jesus; she will receive a hundredfold from what she has lost.

Remember that we were just told the story of a rich and pious man who could not, despite his best efforts, earn his way to heaven. Jesus says that only God could do that. And Jesus then reassures His followers that though they have given up much to follow Him, they will receive much more than they lost in heaven.

Jesus then shares a story about day-laborers. A master hires laborers at 6 am, noon, 3 pm, and just before sunset ("the eleventh hour"). In the end, all are paid the same--and in fact, those who did the least visible work were rewarded first, as though they were honored servants. Those who had worked all day understandably were frustrated, but the master reminds them that they had no right to expect anything (he could have left them standing on the street corner), and that he upheld his end of the agreement. So they are wrong to grumble about how he chose to share his riches with others.

There are two things I want to discuss about this parable: the specific point and then a general princple.

The specific point in this passage is that when we get to heaven, many will find that those in positions of honor will not be those whom we might suspect. I can imagine many a pastor of a thriving flock being surprised when he gets to heaven, only to find that the prostitute he turned away is in a position of higher honor than himself. This might seem unfair, but Jesus' none-too-gentle response is that none of us were perfect, and none of us deserved heaven. He gave us eternal life in return for our faith and loyalty, so He has upheld His end of the covenant. We thus have no right to be upset if He chooses to reward some more than us--even if we were the ones serving in Sunday school and the other was someone who couldn't manage to get to church at all on Sunday.

The general principle that Jesus is sharing is this: God knows a whole lot more than we do. We do not know the hearts of those around us; we do not know what they have gone through. I have made no major sacrifices for my faith. I was raised by a Deist evolutionist and a liberal Catholic, and it is true that my spiritual conversion and passion has caused some friction at times--but I still have overall very positive relationships with my parents. My brother and I have a distant but cordial relationship--but not due to differences in beliefs, but in geography (he lives several hours away, and has since college). It is true that I could live in twice as big a house or drive a nicer car if I gave less generously, but I am by no means starving myself--I lack for nothing and if anything could give even more than I do. No, when I take stock at my life I do not see huge sacrifices. And while it is true that I give of my time in service (writing and teaching about Jesus, investing in young boys through coaching, raising my children to be godly, serving at the church, etc.), I do these things from a position of comfort: I have a blessed life and a comfortable one. Now, compare me to the homeless guy on the side of the road, whom I pass on the way home from work. Almost certainly, I could generate a bigger list of "things I do" for Jesus; I could quote more Scripture; I could show how much I had given. And you know what? That is easy for me, because I came from a home where I was loved and taught and received good genes and went to a good college which let me get a good job, etc, etc. That guy may have started out life with a drugged-out mother, a non-existent father, a fourth-grade education, and a life of being ignored and starving. So you know what? And when we get to heaven, if Jesus tells me, "You both believed; you are both given eternal life; he suffered greatly for Me, and given the hand he was dealt I have chosen to reward him greater."--if that is what He says--then I hope I am mature enough not to grumble. I hope I am mature enough to remember that I deserve nothing, so whatever I am given is wonderful.

Unfortunately, this is very hard for humans. We suffer from a cognitive bias called Relative Deprivation, which means that we naturally tend to compare ourselves to others and realize that they have less of what they feel that they "deserve" than others. Karl Marx noted this tendency, saying, "A house may be large or small; as long as the neighboring houses are likewise small, it satisfies all social requirement for a residence. But let there arise next to the little house a palace, and ...the occupant of the relatively little house will always find himself more uncomfortable, more dissatisfied, more cramped within its four walls." How often have we seen this to be true? I once knew a pastor who struggled greatly with this; no matter how great things were going at his church, he always looked at what the church down the road had and was jealous. We sometimes say that "the grass is always greener on the other side"--we always assume things are better somewhere else, and that the next guy unfairly is getting all the good things we deserve. It is a sinful, prideful, me-first approach. Which is exactly why Jesus brings it up in this parable.

He says that some will suffer from relative deprivation--either on this side of heaven (as they reflect on His words), or in New Jerusalem, or both. They will feel that they deserve more than the person next to them, on account of the amount of work each did. You may not think that you are this way, but stop and think about it. I have a good friend, Josh, who is a fantastic Christian man. He is a great father and husband. He works countless hours at the church as a student pastor, where he is under-paid compared to his talents--he could be a very successful businessman or leader. He loves Jesus as much as anyone I have ever met. He and his wife are loving foster parents who are literally saving children's lives in central Arkansas. Now if you tell me that some random prostitute is going to be better rewarded in heaven than Josh...well, I might just fight you over that. I would certainly be offended. He has given so much, worked so hard, and loved so deeply for Jesus, that I feel he deserves a great reward. But you know what...he doesn't. He doesn't deserve eternal reward, any more than I do, or any more than the worst prostitute does. He is a sinner who rebels against God just like the rest of us. So Josh has to be satisfied with the facts that (a) God loves him and promises him an undeserved eternal life; (b) Jesus promises that the sacrifices he has made for Jesus will be rewarded; and (c) God is good and holy and all-knowing and will do what is Right. And if someone else is better rewarded, so be it. (Knowing Josh, he would be completely fine with this situation. If we were in line together and the master pays someone else as much as Josh, I am more likely to be offended than he is!)

But this is why Jesus' teaching is so revolutionary. This is why He says it is a hard saying. The point that He is making--both last week and here--is that none of us deserve eternal reward. None of us have earned it. None of us have the right to stand on Judgment Day and complain about God gives rewards. Jesus wants us to have a humble faith (week 24 & 29 of this study), remember? He wants us to understand that it is not our works or our piety or our riches than get us to heaven: it is to follow Him, and even then it is only possible because of God, not man.

All we Protestants say that we believe this. Sola fide--by faith alone, not works, lest any man should boast. It is not me, but God in me. That all sounds great and humble. Until we start comparing ourselves to others. That is when our true natures rear their ugly heads--that is when we start saying, I deserve more than him, surely.

The general principle in this parable: if you EVER feel that God has wronged you...then you are wronging Him. Humility, above all else, is about remembering your place and God's place: you can give Him nothing, and He has given you everything. And only when you forget this do you start talking about things that you "deserve".