Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"A Jubilee of Justice"

Message preached September 18, 1993
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Matthew 20:1-16 (and Leviticus 25)


            Those words, and others like them, are pretty common around our house - as they are in most homes with children. Kids have a healthy concern for justice. So do adults. When Tyler was two, I wrote a song for him. After all, I had written one for Caitlin, and whatís fair is fair, right? In that song I put into words my changing understanding of love - how I no longer saw it as a pie which can be cut in only so many ways. The more pieces there are, the smaller each portion. My new awareness, as a father of two, was that the same God who multiplied the loaves & fishes, is able to enlarge the pie....

            Well, now I am a father of three. My youngest is almost three years old, and I have yet to be inspired to write a song for him. Whatís fair is fair, right? Somehow, the loaves and fishes donít seem to fit the times. My pie is enlarged, alright (pat belly), but it seems as if there is only so much of me to go around. Worse yet, this "going around" has to be absolutely fair, or else a minor riot ensues. And, as everybody has a slightly different sense of justice, family life becomes like a courtroom where pandemonium reigns. All-too-easily I jump into the role of judge, and hand down the law as I deem fit. A parentís prerogative ... perhaps. I donít think I succeed very often at doing justice in my own home.

* * * * * * * *

            Leviticus, chapter 25, presents a vision for doing justice in the "home" of Israel. Every 50 years, Godís children were called to do right by one another; not that they were allowed to lie and cheat the rest of the time. But, every 50 years, they were literally to make amends for the injustices of the other 49. The dream was that everyone should have a piece of the pie, that every family should have enough land for a vine and fig tree on which to live in peace and unafraid. When, for whatever reason, folks had to sell their piece of the pie, a provision was made for them to get it back in the year of Jubilee.

            It was sort of a radical idea, making sure that land didnít keep accumulating in fewer and fewer hands, that people would always have a place to call home, provided they waited long enough. It was a great vision, part of the law of Moses. Unfortunately, as far as we know, it was never lived out. There never was practiced an actual "year of Jubilee" as prescribed in Leviticus 25. Logistically, one can understand why. How would you have liked to be the one in charge of administering this year? Besides, itís easy to find loopholes in any law. Not only that, but beneath it all was the assumption that if you go back far enough, everybody has a place, a family homestead, to which to return. Question is, how far back do you go?

            Thatís been the issue between Palestinians and Israelites in our century. Who was there first? To whom, then, does the land belong? How far back do you go? At some point, all peoples, including that wandering band that Moses led, were migrants. Justice can be such an elusive thing, canít it? You think youíve got a handle on it, and then it seems to slip through your fingers. Maybe thatís why Leviticus 25 was never really put into practice. There were too many unanswered questions. Even so, it is vitally important that we do the right thing, that justice be done. After all, fair is fair, right? Godís children have a healthy concern for justice. Even when we donít fully understand it.

* * * * * * * * * *

            Enter those twelve disciples Jesus led who, in order to follow him, set aside their livelihoods, their land, their families. One could say that they risked their future. For the sake of Christ, they put in jeopardy the dream. You know, a plot of land on which to plant "a vine and fig tree," (as the song goes) and there "to live in peace and unafraid," and at the end of life dying, not on some battlefield, but in your own bed, with your shoes off and your grand-kids all around you. Is that dream of peace and justice all that different from our own? The details may be altered, but the hope is the same, isnít it?

            The disciples risked that dream when they laid down their tools and followed this man from Galilee. For God was weaving a greater dream, a dream of peace and justice, through his son. To follow Jesus involves a cost. The original disciples laid aside their future as they had known it up to that point. The same is true for us today, no matter how much sugar we put on it. Though the gifts of the kingdom are far greater than our imagination, Discipleship is measured not by getting, but by giving. The twelve who set forth with Jesus knew that. Hopefully so do we. Didnít Jesus say something to the effect that "the last shall be first, and the first shall be last"?

            Thatís a hard one to understand. On the surface we can nod and say "Amen". We can read into it the costliness of our calling, what we may have set aside to follow Jesus, the attitude of the servant of Christ who places him or herself at the end of the line that others might go first. In this saying of Jesus we then hear the Justice of God. The last shall be first. We will receive our just rewards. Thatís a promise. But itís not quite that simple, is it?

            I donít mean to shock you, but this morningís parable should disturb us. It gives a different twist to what Jesus meant by "the first shall be last, and the last first." It opens a window in our understanding of Godís justice. And, to be honest, weíre not sure if what blows in is a breath of fresh air, or a hurricane force wind. Listen again to this picture of the kingdom of heaven.

            "Early one morning a landowner went out to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine oíclock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ĎYou also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.í So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three oíclock, he did the same. And about five oíclock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ĎWhy are you standing here idle all day?í They said to him, ĎBecause no one has hired us.í He said to them, ĎYou also go into the vineyard.í When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ĎCall the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last & then going to the first.í When those hired about five oíclock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ĎThese last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day & the scorching heat.í But he replied to one of them, ĎFriend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?í"

* * * * * * *

            Iím not sure if I like that story, how about you? I guarantee that if you act that one out in the marketplace, your employees will be on strike before the week is out. And I can tell you exactly what my kids would say if I tried to bring it home:

            "Thatís not fair!" I hear it all the time.

            "Daddy, I ate everything on my plate. How come Mitchell doesnít have to? How come he still gets desert?"

            "Well, because heís 2 and youíre 8."

            "Thatís not fair!" Itís not, is it?

            Now, how about if we apply this story to our walk with Jesus. Is it fair that we, who have chosen the route of service to Christ, should receive the same reward as someone who lived a hell-bound life, up until the last moment, and then put in an hour in Godís vineyard? Whatís the reward, then, for being a disciple? Whereís the incentive? Why go to all the trouble, when a last minute conversion gets the same result? Whereís the justice? This parable should disturb us!

            Of course, when we look at it this way, it means that we see ourselves as those who spent all day at work. Did it ever occur to us that we might rather be like those who started only an hour before quitting time? That would make for an altogether different way of responding, wouldnít it? Jesus told parables that itch us, so that when we scratch, a bit of Godís kingdom might get under our skin. Thatís the way with this story. It itches us. It doesnít seem fair, even though a fair wage is given equally to all. In the end, everyone gets an equal piece of the pie. But like wool, this story itches. Are you scratching?

* * * * *

            Last week I invited us to consider the possibility of entering into a year of Jubilee as a congregation. Not in the legalistic sense, mind you. But taking to heart what the Jubilee is all about. Forgiveness was our first focus, how it means addressing and then releasing the past, that with open hands a shout of joy to God might erupt. Todayís Jubilee theme scratches the same itch, for justice is related to forgiveness, isnít it? Itís usually an injustice done us that we struggle to forgive, right? Sometimes itís a matter of one kid getting more than we did, or getting the same as we did, especially when we believe we deserved more. Children have a healthy concern for justice, you know. And deep down, weíre all still children.

            To proclaim a Jubilee means to become more open to a greater dream, a larger justice; something worth the risk of becoming a disciple, knowing that for it many have risked more than we have, and many less. Sometimes our concern for whatís fair can get in the way of whatís right. After all, Godís vineyard is mighty big. Bigger than we are, thatís for sure. Proclaiming a Jubilee year means focusing on doing whatís right, even when it may not seem whatís most fair - for the sake of something greater than us....

            Do we really understand Godís justice? No. Canít say that I really do. For all our calculations about how things ought to be ordered in this world, there is always a larger picture. As God said through the prophet Isaiah,

            "Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:6-9).

* * * * * * * * *

            Well, children of this God, are you ready for a year of Jubilee?   

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see Matthew.

(para traducir a espaŮol, presione la bandera de EspaŮa)


©1993 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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