Sunday, September 18, 2011


Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek for the same reason Rod Serling created the Twilight Zone: to comment on contemporary issues using allegory in order to avoid censorship. For that reason, I find Deep Space 9 to be the most mature of the Star Trek spinoffs, despite the fact that Roddenberry, being dead, had nothing to do with it. Neither is it my personal favorite of the various Trek series but its exploration of issues like war, terrorism, religion, biological warfare and morality was a lot more nuanced that the others. While the original series tackled racism and the cold war, it was obvious which side was right and which was wrong. But by putting the very ethical Federation in charge of a outpost in a disputed section of space that they must hold and throwing some very hard choices at the crew, Deep Space 9 delved into how intertwined good intentions and questionable tactics sometimes are.

That said, one of the best DS9 episodes did picture a situation that was all wrong. In the episode, Miles O' Brien, the head of engineering, is arrested by the tyrannical Cardassians. In a Cardassian court, as the accused, you are assumed to be guilty, not innocent; you have no right to be silent or not to testify and incriminate yourself and your lawyer's job is not to defend you but to talk you into confessing. By depicting a legal system that was the exact opposite of our own, it made the viewer see why we have the rights we do. It made its point by turning reality on its head.

Jesus often illustrated the Kingdom of God by finding earthly parallels but sometimes he turned reality on its head to show how God's way of doing things is radically different from worldly ways. I think he was doing that in the parable of the Dishonest Steward, which makes more sense if Jesus is speaking with tongue in cheek in order to satirize how the Pharisees operate. In Matthew 20:1-16 the actions of the landlord go against good business practice to show God's grace.

The first part of the parable contains no surprises. When grapes were ripe, there could be no delay in picking them. Vineyard owners frequently hired extra workers to get the harvest in on time. The place to find such workers was the market, which acted as a labor exchange. Workers brought their tools and waited to be hired. And in Jesus' day what the vineyard owner in the parable offers to pay, a denarius, is the going rate for a day's work. The owner goes to the marketplace every 3 hours or so and hires more workers so the harvest can be finished in one day. Again that's not surprising.

Finally at 5 pm, with just an hour left in which to work, the owner makes one last sweep of the market. He finds a few workers who haven't been hired yet. It looks like nobody else wants them. But this vineyard owner does.

When the time comes to pay the workers, the owner begins by paying the last ones he hired first. And he pays them a denarius, as if they'd worked the whole day. The folks who did in fact work all day get their hopes up. They figure they should get a lot more. But, no, the owner pays them what was agreed, the normal wages for a day. So they grumble, as would any of us if we saw someone who only worked an hour get the same pay as we did for doing a whole shift. When the vineyard owner hears this, he confronts the complainers. He points out that he is not cheating anyone. Not only did he pay them the going rate, they agreed to it ahead of time. Their real problem wasn't with what he paid them but his generosity to those who worked less.

So what is Jesus trying to say here? On the one hand, the landlord could just be an example of a good employer. Day laborers were then, as now, on the bottom rung of the employment ladder. And while a denarius was the usual daily wage, it was just enough to get by. Less than that was not a living wage. So if the vineyard owner paid those who worked less than a day less than a denarius, the men would not have enough to take care of his family. By paying the men who were unfortunate enough to still be unemployed at 5 pm a whole day's wages, he was ensuring that they, their wives and children would eat that day.

Jewish law protected workers. In Deuteronomy, employers are required to pay their workers at the end of each day; they aren't allowed to withhold their wages. But there was no requirement to pay them more than they earned. By going beyond justice, the vineyard owner showed himself to be a truly good man.

But since Jesus starts by saying this is what the Kingdom of God is like, he is making a bigger point. In his parables, landlords, owners and kings often represent God. Slaves, workers and subjects usually stand in for God's people. And it's intriguing that there is a rabbinical story that is similar to this one. The moral, though, is quite different. In that version, the people who worked longer are the Jews and they are paid more than those who didn't work as hard, which were the Gentiles. That version underscored the strict justice of God. Jesus' version emphasizes God's grace. And it is a rebuke to those who begrudge others their experience of God's goodness.

Do we do that? What makes you happier--the fact that while in prison serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer accepted Christ as his Savior or that he received rough justice by being killed by another prisoner? Or maybe both: "Yay, he got saved and, yay, we don't have to deal with him." Be honest. Or how do you feel about the fact that David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam killer, also claims to be a Christian? He will not seek parole because, in his words, "He has given me a whole new life, which I do not deserve. And while society will never forgive me, God has. I am forever grateful for such forgiveness, too." Does it bother you to hear those words from him?

It is natural that such people make us cautious. Even though they are no threat to society in prison, making jailhouse conversions to get privileges or parole are not unheard of. What is confounding is Berkowitz not trying for parole. Is he just putting a good spin on the fact that he is unlikely to ever be given parole? But if so, what does he gain? Or is it possible that he really has become a Christian?

That makes us uncomfortable. Because while as Christians, we accept that we are all sinners, most of us have never committed murder, grand theft, rape, arson or any of the sins so thoroughly condemned by society that they are also illegal. Yet we believe that God forgives all sinners who repent and turn to him. And that all who follow Jesus as Lord and Savior are our brothers and sisters in Christ. But faced with embracing those who done some really terrible or scary things, do we hesitate? Do we secretly feel that there are sins and then there are SINS? Do we sometimes believe we are a better class of sinner because we saw the light before doing anything really bad? Deep down, do we feel that jailhouse and last minute converts should count for less in God's Kingdom? That, as one wag put it, Dahmer may be in the ranks of the heavenly choir but maybe he's up in the nosebleed seats?

Jesus is saying here that God is a lot more gracious than we are. He gives people what they need regardless of when they started working for him or what they did before that. He takes on people that nobody else wants. If they want to do his work, that's good enough for him, no matter how late they get into the game. The important thing is getting in the harvest.

The harvest is another recurrent image in Jesus' parables. Harvests are important in an agrarian culture. The 3 major Jewish feasts took place at harvest times: Passover at the barley harvest, Pentecost at the wheat harvest and the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles at the fruit harvest. The harvest was the time when you found out how the seeds you planted did. It was when you found out if you were going to survive or starve. So, as the 3 feasts showed, it was hoped it would be a time of joy and celebration. They prayed for God's blessing, as it says in Psalm 144:13, "May our barns be filled with produce of every kind."

The harvest is used metaphorically in the Bible as the time when a person reaps what he sowed. It is used of the end times when God gathers what is his and the angels separate the good from the bad. We might find the image ominous but the emphasis is usually on gathering together the good. Nor is it confined to the end times. When Jesus saw people flocking to him he asked the disciples to pray that God sends more workers for the harvest. He was talking of people as the fruit, the result of the seeds of the Gospel that he was scattering throughout the land. He saw it was already beginning to bear fruit.

But the focus here is not on what is being harvested but how God treats those who serve him. And he treats us all equally, the last as well as the first. And that's something to remember. In many churches, the people who have been around longer sometimes think they are special. They understand the way things work. They have invested a lot in the parish. And sometimes newcomers feel unwelcome. Their contributions may not be appreciated or even wanted. They hear over and over what have been called the Last 7 Words of the Church: "But that's not how we do it." Maybe one of the reasons that new churches grow is that you don't have that. There are no keepers of the history, as Tom Ehrich puts it. Everybody starts at about the same time and has input and an opportunity to shape things. The church's mission, not any parishioner's position, is what drives things.

The church is aging, everywhere. Younger generations are largely unchurched. Polls show they are hungry for God, but not for the church as it exists and functions today. They are not into Sunday mornings or the old hymns or the old arguments. Since they don't want to conform to the church as it has been organized by those who've been working here a long time, a lot of them don't feel that the Body of Christ wants them. Yet the world, roiling with inequalities in income, in healthcare, in the way we treat people who are different, is ripe for the good news that God loves everyone the same. And we need more people to spread the word. We don't have the luxury of saying, "Our way or the highway!"

Nor do we have the luxury of waiting for folks to walk through our doors when the people we need are out there, in the marketplace. Jesus' ministry was a mobile one. He went looking for disciples where they lived and worked and suffered: along the seaside, in towns, at synagogues, on hillsides, on the side of roads, at dinner parties and up in trees. The disciples went throughout the known world. They met people on riverbanks, and in houses, and in jails, and in streets, in palaces and on ships. Not one of them ever saw the inside of a church building. Now we sit in places like this, waiting for people to come to us. And while some do, I'm afraid the time for that to be the main way we attract people and minister to people has passed.

So your assignment this week--and I'm not kidding--is to brainstorm, do Google searches, ask friends or even strangers what we can do to get out there and show people what God is like. That's basically what Jesus did. The Jews thought God was all about a million rules and Jesus says, no, just the important ones: loving God and loving each other. Everything else was just a specific expression or application of that love. And you never let following the other rules get in the way of healing someone or filling their basic needs or inviting them into the people of God. How can we do that? How can we show what God is really like? I don't care if your answer sounds silly or weird or impossible. Drop it in the box by the church door next week. Or email me. Or post it on our Facebook page. Or leave a comment on my blog. I will read every one. We will consider them. And we will see how we can put at least some of them into practice. Because God knows the harvest is ripe. And God knows we need the people. And God knows the people need to know that, even if nobody else wants them, he does.

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