My father, Hollis, instilled in me the value of duty and responsibilty. He came by this honestly. His father, Henry, instilled that into him. Add to that a 27 year career as an officer in the Marine Corps and you’ll easily make the connection. If the truth be told, I honor that part in him and also in myself where I find it. So much so that my wife and I had planned to name our next child, Henry Hollis Dunn, to honor them both. We ended up with three more children, all girls. I love my father and grandfather, but not that much!
My guess is that most of us living in North America don’t need a father or a grandfather like mine to have had instilled in them a sense of duty and responsibility, a work ethic that places value on hard work and showing up on time. We get enough of it simply by living in America. If the truth be told again, we honor this about ourselves as a people. In some important sense it is what makes our country great. There’s nothing wrong with that. The problem is it makes it awfully difficult to hear the teachings of Jesus without getting really confused or extremely agitated (read, really hacked off!).
For instance, Jesus tells a parable at the beginning of which he says, “This is what the kingdom of heaven is like.” Here’s how it goes:
Early in the morning a landowner (who seems to represent God in this parable) hires people to work in his vineyard for the standard daily wage. He hires additional people at 9AM, noon, 3PM, and again at 5PM, telling each of these groups that he will give them “whatever is right.” Whatever is just. (See how Jesus is setting us up?). When the workday ends, he first pays the folks who labored only a single hour the standard daily wage, the same amount he pledged to those who worked sunup to sundown. When the members of that full-day crew get to the front of the line, they receive the same amount, exactly what they were promised. “This is what the kingdom of heaven is like,” says Jesus.
As you can imagine the full day workers are understandably resentful. We hardworking Americans, who’ve been responsible and duty-bound, who’ve kept our noses clean, understand why they’d be more than a little hacked, don’t we?
The actions off the landowner are absurd. They make no sense to us. This is no way to run a business. ___________ has noted that Jesus’ parables often include absurd behavior. In Jesus’ parables very often the absurd behavior actually delivers the message. In this case it characterizes what God considers righteous or just. Fortunately we can all rest in a measure of peace knowing that God’s justice isn’t about getting what we deserve.
God’s propensity to care and give violate our instincts about fairness. This kind of justice looks rash and irresponsible. What about the people who work hard and keep their noses clean, people who exceed the expectations?
This parable is like another of Jesus’ parables: The parable of the prodigal son. A son squanders his inheritance and comes crawling back after reaching to bottom of the barrel of life. When he does, the father doesn’t say, “”Well, let’s take this slow. Let’s keep an eye on you for a year and see how you do.” No. The father runs meet him while he is far off, gives him a royal robe, places a ring on his finger and throws a extravagant party. Lurking in the shadowy background is the older brother, resentful and agitated (read, really hacked off).
The kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, is like a landowner, who is extravagant in his gracious love. Who cares less about the rules that allow certain people in while keeping others out. Who cares less about moral perfection than he does about swamping us with generosity, grace and love, than he does about paying us what is just.
It strikes me that we Americans love grace and mercy. We love grace and mercy as long as it is directed to the right people and not the wrong people. We love grace and mercy as long as it’s not so lavish as to be embarrasing or involve us in too much risk or demand anything of us in order to love our neighbor.
A few weekends ago, some members of our church were protesting the efforts of another church that was starting a new program of reparative therapy for people who are gay and lesbian. They gathered in a line across the street to stand with gay and lesbian Christians who believe that reparative therapies of this kind are a form of spiritual violence. They were holding signs that read, “God = Love” and “Love Your Neighbor”. A car drove by and saw the signs, honked, cheered and gave a thumbs up, smiling and waving approval. Not three seconds later came the driver’s realization that my friends were standing with other gay and lesbian Christians. The thumbs up immediate became a middle finger.
We Americans love God’s grace and love as long as it is showered on the right people–not the wrong people.