2 Corinthians 8:1-15
The following sermon was preached by Pastor Andrew at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church as part of the Falls City Area Ministerial Association’s “Sermons a la Carte” Lenten series. No audio is available, but the prepared text is below.
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21, NRSV)
This Lent, our Sermons a la Carte series will explore Jesus’ sermon on Isaiah 61 preached at the beginning of his ministry in the synagogue at Nazareth, a text that reveals Jesus’ mission as God’s anointed and gives us pause as we consider our identity as those who bear the name of Christ and who seek to be his body in the world.
Today, we begin with the first item on God’s agenda: bringing good news to the poor. To understand what Jesus means when he talks about bringing good news to the poor, we need to know both who the poor are and what good news looks like for those who are poor. First things first: Who are the poor? In Luke’s gospel, defining the poor requires us to walk a narrow road. On one side of that road is the ditch of excessive spiritualizing, the idea that Jesus is referring simply to those who are poor in some symbolic way. (Think, for example, of Matthew’s “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”) On the other side of that road is the ditch of excessive literalism, the idea that Jesus is referring only to those who are poor economically. The truth, as is usually the case in Scripture, is somewhere in the middle. Jesus undoubtedly has concern for those who are destitute in material terms – in this, he is firmly in the tradition of the prophets, who railed against the excesses of the ruling class and the disregard among the elite in society for those who are in need of sustenance. Similarly, he warns those who exhibit poverty of spirit, and who fail to understand that the core of the Biblical narrative is the responsibility to promote justice, righteousness, and peace among God’s people. In Luke’s gospel, then, the poor are those who do not enjoy full standing within the community of faith, those who – for whatever reason – find themselves on the outside looking in.
With that in mind, the good news that Jesus comes to bring is this: that his ministry makes a way for all to be welcomed into community. Whether their “poverty” stems from some spiritual or religious concern or from their inability to make a living, Jesus’ presence and proclamation promise that those who are numbered among the poor will have a share in the goodness and mercy of God. Perhaps no story illustrates this more viscerally than the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, which is both a comforting and a terrifying passage of Scripture.
A lot of interpreters seek to soften this parable, to undergo all kinds of mental gymnastics to avoid what it says on its face, which is that the rich man is condemned because he fails to care for the poor man who sets outside his gate for… well, God only knows, but long enough for the rich man to know him by name. He is unmoved by the law and prophets, which speak repeatedly of the duty to uphold the poor and vulnerable, especially the orphan, the widow, and the sojourner. He does not recognize that he is enjoined to care for the neighbor, to ensure that no one is left outside or without the basic necessities of life, and Jesus’ parable makes clear that there are real consequences for him – and, by extension, for those who fail to uphold this mandate.
So where is the good news? It’s in the parable’s promise that the poor will, indeed, receive good things. God’s will, of course, is that they receive them in this life – that those with means will give out of their abundance so that others can be fed, and that those who enjoy the blessing of community will extend welcome and hospitality to those who sit outside the gates. Even if that doesn’t happen, though, the poor are assured that they will enjoy blessing, a place of intimacy with God born out of God’s special concern for them.
As with much of Scripture, this passage represents both a challenge and word of comfort. It is a challenge, of course, because it presents us with a vision of accountability for how we care for those who are poor in any way. Comfort can be found in remembering Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, which declares that those who seek to be faithful to the Son of Man and his mission, though they may be reviled or ridiculed by the world (and though they may sometimes fall short) will receive a reward. (Luke 6:22-23, NRSV) In Christ, God’s grace and mercy come to us and enable us to bear the good news of God’s abundant blessing to the poor, strengthening us to face whatever might come our way as a result of our obedience to the challenge laid before us.
Brothers and sisters, in his life and ministry Jesus proclaimed welcome and abundant grace to all who, like Lazarus, were neglected or left behind. As we journey through this Lenten season, may we seek to be Christ for others, and, by our acts of prayer and kindness and generosity, extend welcome and grace to those in need in our community, so that Jesus’ sermon might once again be fulfilled in our hearing. Join us next week as we consider how Jesus’ life and ministry were brought to bear on the brokenhearted. Until then, may we be blessed with God’s grace and strength as we continue our journey through Lent. Amen.
Complementary Text – Psalm 16:5-8
Preaching Text – Matthew 20:1-16
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
Last week we observed the first Sunday in Lent by examining one of the parables of Jesus and pondering how our lives are shaped by the values of the Kingdom of Heaven. In reading that parable from Matthew 18, we learned that the Kingdom of Heaven is built on God’s radical forgiveness, and that as disciples of Jesus we are called to acknowledge the depth of forgiveness that God offers to us and to extend that same forgiveness to others. As our Lenten series continues today, we look at the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. Before we find out what this parable has to teach us about Heaven’s Reign, we need to talk a little bit about first-century economics.
The scenario laid out at the start of this parable would not have been unusual in Jesus’ day. Day laborers would gather before dawn in the local marketplace in the hopes of being hired to work in the surrounding fields. For their part, most wealthy landowners preferred the flexibility (and relatively low cost) of temporary labor, and so they were eager to snatch up those workers early in the morning and get their money’s worth. It’s a little strange for the landowner himself to go out and hire the workers personally, but other than that this story would have been all-too familiar to the people who heard first heard Jesus tell it. Then, things start getting weird; the landowner, presumably having hired everyone he needed at dawn, goes back to the marketplace four more times – around 9:00am, 12:00 noon, 3:00pm, and 5:00pm – each time hiring another contingent of workers for his vineyard. Around 6:00pm, the landowner tells his manager to call the workers together and give them their wages. The first set of workers had agreed to work for the day for one denarius, by no means an extravagant sum; in fact, the denarius was just enough to ensure that a worker and his family could get by. You can imagine the outrage, then, when the landowner starts handing out the same wages to the laborers hired at 5:00 in the afternoon as he gave to the ones hired at 6:00 in the morning! Who wouldn’t be frustrated at the thought of working all day long in the sun and heat and then getting the same amount as someone who showed up an hour before closing time? What’s going on here?
What’s going on is that Jesus is describing God’s economy and not the world’s. As human beings, we have this intrinsic sense that people should be rewarded in accordance with what they’ve done. Logic dictates that people who work harder should be paid more, and this logic of fairness largely governs the way that we look at the world, to the point that we read it into this parable. Why were those workers standing around at five o’clock, anyway? Was it because they were lazy or because they showed up late, as is often assumed? The parable reveals the answer: they hadn’t been hired. It’s likely, in fact, that they’d been passed over by the landowner in our story all those times for some reason or another. No matter the reason, though, it’s not fair to pay all these guys the same amount, is it? Well, no. But that was never the agreement. The first workers agreed that they’d work for that denarius. Then the workers hired at nine went into the vineyard when the landowner offered to pay them what is “just” or “right”. Though it’s not explicitly stated, it’s not difficult to imagine that the invitation was the same to the workers hired at noon, three, and five. What was just in this scenario, then? In the eyes of this landowner, justice was not paying these workers in proportion to the amount that they worked, but paying them enough to make it through the day!
In responding to the outrage of the first workers, the landowner expresses the difference between our understanding of fairness and the goodness of the kingdom of heaven: ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. (Matthew 20:13-14, NRSV) For Jesus, to give the same amount to the last workers as to the first is to do what is just and good, and to reflect the values of God’s righteous reign.
Last week we learned that a community of the forgiven must be a forgiving community.* This week, Jesus’ parable teaches us that God’s generosity goes beyond business as usual, and God’s generosity is our business.. How might this work itself out in practice during this Lenten season? Perhaps you find yourself struggling with uncharitable thoughts toward others; you might consider taking time this week to cultivate generosity of spirit by intentionally thinking and speaking well of people you dismiss or demean for one reason or another. Maybe you have a tendency to regard some group of people as undeserving of generosity; you might consider how this parable invites you to empathize with those in need and, maybe, to extend generosity where you might not have otherwise. Maybe your circumstances have left you feeling that you are undeserving of generosity yourself; you might consider reflecting on the boundary-breaking love of God and allowing yourself to receive the generous mercy and grace that God offers to you in Christ Jesus.
Brothers and sisters, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, and with it God’s forgiveness and generosity have come. As we enter the second week of Lent, let us pray that God would grant us the strength to leave behind the ways of this world and to embody that forgiveness and generosity, both as individuals and as a community formed by the values of the Kingdom. Thanks be to God. Amen.
*R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament, Wm. B. Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, MI: 2007), 702.