February 2014 Archive
Week of February 2nd
We’ve been hearing a lot these days about income inequality, and how the rich should be taxed more heavily so that the poor can have more. So it was with interest that I read my Scripture passage for the day, Matthew 20, the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. My intent is not to make a political statement, but only to record my observations (which obviously are colored by my political bent) from the parable.
The story goes like this: A vineyard owner went out early in the morning to hire workers, agreeing to pay them a denarius for their day’s work. A little later, he hired more workers and still later he hired yet more. Finally, an hour before quitting time he went to the square and found some men still loitering there, so he hired them as well. When the day was over, he instructed his foreman to pay each man a denarius, beginning with those who were hired last. Understandably, when those who were hired first received the same wage, they were upset at being made equal to the others.
In the past I viewed this parable as dealing only with salvation and time. The very last soul to receive Christ before the judgment will receive the same forgiveness, imputed righteousness, and place in heaven as the first. In chapter 19 we see Peter responding somewhat pridefully to Jesus’ statement that it is difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Peter says, in effect, "We gave up everything to follow You. What’s in it for us?" After assuring Peter that he will receive back much more than he gave up, Jesus presents this parable.
My first observation is that everyone who received a denarius worked. The vineyard owner did not just take his money to the square and hand it out to people who were standing around. Second, if the vineyard owner had not had unequal income, compared to the workers, he would not have had the resources to hire anyone, let alone more and more people throughout the day. And third, he paid them out of his own money, not money he’d taken from others. Some might argue that he probably overcharged for his produce, thus oppressing his customers, but no one was compelled to buy from him. It is clear that the parable portrays God as the land owner, so I would be reluctant to impute any injustice to him. And finally, in answering the grumbling workers, the vineyard owner says, "Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?" (V.15). Personally I find the principle of private property rights more convincing than the argument for income equality.
While it is true that we are commanded multiple times in Scripture to care for the poor, a friend recently pointed out that nowhere does the Scripture command us to eradicate poverty. On the contrary, Jesus said, "The poor you will always have with you and you can help them any time you want" (Mark 14:7). The call is for each of us to use our personal resources to meet the needs within our personal sphere of influence (and beyond), to the best of our ability. We are also called to "be imitators of God" (Eph. 5:1) who, as this parable demonstrates, is extravagantly generous. I hope to follow Him in this way.
© J.H.Nichols 2014
Week of February 16th
LOOKING FOR FRUIT
Last year’s garden season is a distant memory and the coming one is just a faint hope. The ground is still covered with snow and we haven’t even ordered our seeds yet. But from years of experience I can tell you that the thing that lights up a gardener’s heart is looking for fruit. From the time the seeds are planted, we are always looking, first waiting for sprouts to show up, then anticipating blossoms, and finally checking daily for produce that’s ready to pick. Everything we do in the garden – fertilizing, watering, weeding, cultivating, pruning – is aimed at filling the basket.
There are several places in the Bible where God is portrayed as a gardener. He planted the first garden ever, in Eden. Later he chose the descendants of Abraham to be His own and planted them in their own land (see Isa. 5:1-7). And in Isaiah 61:3, those who receive the good news are recognized as "the planting of the Lord, for the display of His splendor."
So I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that God is looking for fruit in us. Some might think it an exaggeration to say He eagerly keeps an eye out for any sign of growth in His children, but I think that’s exactly what He does. It’s what we do every spring when we plant our garden.
Like most gardeners, we’ve had our share of crop failures, and what a disappointment they are! The children of Israel proved to be a disappointment to God, as Isa. 5: 7 records. "The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are the garden of His delight. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress." They failed to keep His law and fell into idolatry repeatedly. Ultimately they came under His judgment and were exiled to Babylon for seventy years.
And even after the exile, while overt idolatry was no longer a problem, Jesus, looking for fruit just as His Father had, did not find it among the religious leaders of the day, but only among the outcasts and sinners. In a confrontation with the Pharisees, He told a very pointed parable about a vineyard owner who sent servants and ultimately his son to receive his share of the crop. The tenant farmers seized the servants, beating, stoning, and killing them, and at the last did the same to the son. When Jesus questioned them as to what the owner would do to the tenants when he returned, they rightly answered that he would bring them to justice and give the vineyard to other tenants who would give him his share of the crop at harvest time (Matt. 21:33-41). Jesus agreed, saying, "The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit (Matt. 21:43).
As believers, we know we are saved and kept by God’s grace. Jesus fulfilled the Law perfectly so that we do not have to. We will be judged not by our works, but by our relationship with Christ. All that being true, I believe God is still in the business of looking for fruit. He is looking for it in us.
The Apostle John records another instance of God being a gardener when he wrote these words of Jesus in his gospel, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit" (John 15:1). These are sobering words, indeed. But He continues in a more hopeful vein. "If a man remains in Me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing" (v.5). And, "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last" (v. 16).
It is never too late to bear fruit for God. Luke 13 records a parable of Jesus about a man who planted a fig tree. Not finding any fruit on it, he told his vineyard keeper to cut it down. But the man asked for one more year to cultivate and fertilize it, and then see if it bore fruit the next year, before cutting it down (Luke 13: 6-9). God is always willing to do what’s necessary to enable us to bear fruit for Him.
And no matter how large or small our fruit may be, God is pleased. In a different comparison, God the businessman gave the same reward to the servant who invested two talents as the one who invested five. Only the one who hid his master’s money and did not gain anything with it was condemned. (See Matt. 25: 14-30.)
And finally, we may wonder exactly what kind of fruit God is looking for. Is it obeying all His commands? Is it doing good deeds? Is it evangelizing and bringing people to Christ? All these may be involved, but I believe the fruit God is looking for is the fruit of the Spirit – "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (Gal. 5:22). However these things work themselves out in our day-to-day work and relationships is what produces the fruit God is looking for.
And when God sees growth in us, He is excited, prompting Him to do the things in us that will increase our fruitfulness. Just as we do in our garden, He may water, add fertilizer, cultivate, pull weeds, and even prune us to add to the fruit He is able to put into His basket. I can imagine Him happily showing off to the angels the fruit His people produce for His glory. I hope there will be some of mine in His basket.
© J.H.Nichols 2014