God, Work Ethic, and the Children of God

We believe in what we can earn, and the justice we demand is commensurate with our ability to gain what we deserve. Not so with God. Or so it seems….

The parable of the workers in the field exposes an attitude and way of thinking that gets in our way of knowing and understanding God and our relationship to Him. This parable is confusing and nonsensical to our naturally prideful and selfish inclinations.

The parable of the workers in the field begins with some people at the break of day who agree with the owner of a field to work for one denarius (a day’s wage). Throughout the day, the owner went out and solicited more workers to work in his field.

Workers began at different times during the day. Some workers didn’t even begin to work until late-afternoon. When the day was over, the owner of the field paid everyone the same wage (one denarius), regardless of when they started.

The workers who labored all day were upset. They challenged the owner, saying “Why are we being paid only one denarius when the workers who didn’t work the full day are being paid the same?” Some of them didn’t work more than a couple hours!

The owner’s answer to their question is something that typical Americans have a hard time understanding and accepting: he said, “I paid you what you agreed to work for. If I want to be generous to everyone else, what is that to you?” (See Matt. 20:1-16)

But, it isn’t fair! Right? Isn’t that the natural response we have? Nothing gets the blood rushing to the head like someone getting more than what I got! Especially, if they didn’t earn it like I did!!

As a person who grew up Catholic, these things did not make sense to me either. People should get what they deserve, right? Naturally, people should earn their own way. I would not ask for more than what I deserve, but I have a hard time with people getting the same as I do when they work less than me.

We think this way generally as Americans with our rugged individualism, labor unions, and the American Dream (which may have more to do with hard work than dreaming to hear someone tell of it).

The message that comes through this parable load and clear is that God doesn’t think like we do. God does what He wants, or (at least) He seems to have a different measure of fairness than we do.

Romans in the day of Jesus weren’t completely different than modern Americans, though they valued power and might, perhaps, more than we do. They despised the poor and vulnerable. The people who were able to exert their power and influence over other people were valued (and envied) most. This parable wouldn’t have made sense to romans either.

The Jews in Jesus’s day were proud of their heritage. They earned their status with millennia of adherence to the Mosaic Law. They bristled at the idea that upstart Gentiles might come along and gain some interest in God’s kingdom.

This parable made little sense to First Century Hebrews also. Maybe we all have our cultural barriers to this kind of message.

I image Jesus was a favorite son. He was the good young man, mostly polite, and obedient He was keenly interested in Scripture and all things pertaining to religious life that was the heartbeat of any Jewish community.

He was also not quite like the other young men, a bit odd, maybe a bit too into his heritage, if that is possible. They were all good Hebrews, but he seemed to take it a bit far, even for them.

Maybe they couldn’t put their finger on it, but people seemed to agree that he made them feel as if he thought he had an inside track. He sometimes made them feel like outsiders.

Jesus traveled one day to Nazareth where he grew up. He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath. (Luke 4:16) He stood up in front of his lifelong friends and neighbors, asked for the Isaiah scroll, and read from it:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Luke 4:18-19

When Jesus finished reading from the Isaiah scroll, he rolled it up, handed it back and sat down without immediate comment. All eyes were on Jesus during that pregnant pause. Then Jesus concluded:

“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Mic drop moment. Followed by a moment of stunned silence. We might say they were flabbergasted. At least at first.

Jesus had a remarkable way about him that made people wonder about him, even if they were not completely comfortable with him. He had always seemed older than his age, but he spoke with insight and certainty like an elder of great age, experience, and learning.

They knew Jesus, though. They knew where he worked. He did not have the credentials fit for his seeming attitude. Nazareth was a forgotten, insignificant place in the Hebrew community, though it wasn’t far from more beaten paths. Jesus was always the enigma.

They knew Joseph was a quiet and simple man. He never called attention to himself. Mary always glowed with the pride of a mother who sees more in her children than anyone else on earth, especially in Jesus. No one could blame her.

As often was the case with Jesus, they didn’t know quite how to take him. “Good news to the poor”, “freedom for prisoners”, “sight for the blind”, and “the year of the Lord’s favor”: this was a good word. All good Hebrews have a hopeful expectancy for these things, even as they always seem just out of reach.

Still, they always hope. That’s what they do. They cling to God’s promise

That Joseph was always so quiet highlighted to them all the more how remarkable Jesus was that he seemed to have such a grand, if not slightly delusional, perspective. They were polite and appropriately appreciative, but they didn’t even have time to wonder what the elders had planned for Sabbath that day, when Jesus interrupted their thoughts. This time he dropped a grenade:

“Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’” (Luke 4:23)

What… is… he… saying? “Is he talking about himself? … Really?!

They were well aware of the zealots who riled people up in their area in recent years. Those trouble makers caused serious problems for good Hebrews just minding their own business and trying to get by.

Their minds played over the words Jesus just read: “The spirt of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me.” …. “Don’t tell me he believes he is God’s anointed!” This guy has a messiah complex!

As if that were not provocation enough, Jesus really pushed them over the edge with what he said next:

“Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.” (Luke 4:24-27)

Not only did Jesus appear to be claiming he was God’s anointed one; he seemed to be claiming that God cared more about the Gentiles than his own people! What else could be the point of referring to the Elijah visiting the foreign widow and Elisha healing the foreign general?

They were the suffering servants who were exiled. They were the people who rebuilt the Temple and made their homes again in the land God promised to them after it was totally destroyed by the Assyrians, and then the Babylonians.

The promises Jesus read are for God’s people! Not for those dogs, the Gentiles! Their indignation burned hotly within them!

God called them out of Egypt; He brought them back from exile in Babylon; He gave the Law to them!

They were the one who suffered under Roman rule in their own land! The land God promised to them! God would never give to the Gentiles what they did not have! They were God’s people!

Like the laborers who agreed to work for one denarius, one day’s wage, the Hebrews were God’s people from the beginning, from the days of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Their father, Abraham was given the promise of God, to make of him a great nation.

These things are all true, but God also promised to Abraham that God would bless all the nations of the earth through Abraham and his descendants. (Gen. 12:3 and 22:18) God decreed from the beginning that His blessing to Abraham was not just to Abraham and his descendants.

They seemed to have forgotten that.

Our human tendency is to focus on what is fair for us. Whether we are American, Roman, Hebrew, Greek or Hindu, we all have our human sense of justice and fairness, and that sense of justice is based on what we think we have earned.

Sure, God promised it to them, but they suffered through centuries of devotion to this promise. They paid a heavy price as God’s chosen people. They were still paying the price!

Americans earn what they have through hard word and determination. Romans earned what they had through valor and might. Hebrews earned what they had by holding on to the promise and adherence to God’s Law. Greeks earned what they had through careful study, logical discourse, and intellectual acumen.

Hindus earn what they have through karma and being born into a higher caste as reward for living a good life. Human beings have earned what we have through our efforts in climbing out of the primordial ooze and surviving and conquering all competitors in the evolutionary struggle of the fittest for life.

Humans everywhere believe in what they can earn, and the justice we demand is commensurate with our ability to gain what we have earned. Not so with God. Or so it seems….

What we fail to understand and appreciate in our limited perspective is that we can never earn God’s favor. We are wholly inadequate for the task. We have all “sinned and fallen short”, as the saying goes.

More poignantly, God does not ultimately desire (or need) our service. We have nothing we can give Him that He doesn’t already have. God can provide for Himself anything He might need (if He needs anything).

He doesn’t need us to work in His “field”, but He wants us. He wants us to enter into relationship with Him as children relate to a father.

Servants get paid wages for their service; they get paid what they earn. Children, however, have access to what their father has and inherit from their father by virtue only of their relationship to him.

No child would insist on keeping only what she has earned when all that her father has is hers!

A God who is the creator of everything can expand His family as He desires, and He has more than enough for everyone, no matter how many!

On the other hand, the wages of sin is death. If we have all sinned, and if the wages of sin are death, then none of us have earned more than death. Death is all that we deserve!

We have no right to demand anything more than what we have earned – unless we are children of God.

If we are children of God, however, all that He has is ours!

The truly good news (“good news to the poor“) is that everyone who “receives” Jesus, everyone who believes in his name, has the right given by God to become His children! (John 1:12-13)

Jesus is the “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) He is “God’s Chosen One!” (John 1:34) For the whole world!

When we have the right perspective, we understand that our relationship with God is not about what we can earn. It isn’t about what we deserve. It is about what God desires to give us and whether we are willing to receive it.

A servant spends his day working, earns his wages, and goes home. A child lives under his father’s roof, under his father’s protection, and under his father’s authority.

A servant is not beholden to her boss, other than for the work he requires. Once the work is done, the servant is free to go. The servant will not be paid any more nor any less than what she has earned, unless the boss wants to be generous to her.

A child is not his own. A child belongs to his father and lives in relation to his father and the rest of the family. A child is not required to work; rather the child pitches in as part of the family, but everything the father has is available to him.

Which would you rather be? A child in your Father’s kingdom? Or a wage earner who will get only what you deserve?

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