So maybe it is about economics?

In our studies on the parables of Jesus, I’ve been struck by how often the parables talk about money and economics. Perhaps, though, as Jesus’ teachings tended to make people upset, it’s not that surprising: nothing quite gets people as upset as challenging them about money, power, and their self-importance.

The parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20) challenges readers both about economics and their self-importance.

The traditional understanding of this parable is that of grace: like the day’s wage that each person is paid at the end of the day, all those who believe are given salvation (irrelevant of how long they have been doing kingdom work). Salvation by grace alone (not by works) is one of the often repeated themes in Paul’s letters, so while there is something wonderful about being reminded about God’s extensive grace, there’s not much surprising in this message. Nor does it fully explain the ending of the parable – the part where the landowner basically tells the ‘early’ workers to get over themselves and highlights the generosity of the landowner in making sure all those who’d worked received enough for their daily needs.

It helps to look at the context. This parable is probably being told to the disciples. The text surrounding the passage doesn’t give the best picture of the disciples: they rebuke the people bringing their children to Jesus, they ask what they’ll earn because they’ve given up everything to follow Jesus, and then two of them ask to sit at Jesus’ right and left in the kingdom (and the others get upset at their audacity). The parable then rebukes the self-importance and entitlement of the disciples, something that many of us ‘older’ Christians also tend to have. The challenge to the hearers of this parable is thus:

“Why do we find it so difficult to rejoice over the good that enters other people’s lives, and why do we spend our time calculating how we have been cheated? . . . Even while we speak of justice, none of us is satisfied with average. We always think we deserve a little more.” Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 378.

As the text surrounding this parable talks a lot about money and our desire to get what we deserve, it is also important to wonder what the strange economics in the parable might have to say to us today. Amy-Jill Levine does a great job of pointing out how the justice portrayed in this parable is a justice that is not related only to saving grace but also to every day life:

“The workers seek what they perceive to be ‘fair’; the householder teaches them a lesson by showing them what is ‘right.’ . . an economic lesson: the point is not that those who have ‘get more,’ but that those who have not ‘get enough. . . . If the householder can afford it, he should continue to put others on the payroll, pay them a living wage (even if they cannot put in a full day’s work), and so allow them to feed their families while keeping their dignity intact. The point is practical, it is edgy, and it a greater challenge to the church then and today than the entirely unsurprising idea that God’s concern is that we enter, not when.”  Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 213, 218

Why talk about difficult topics?

The studies in the second half of the spring semester focused on difficult topics in Christianity and the Bible. As many people avoid these conversations because of potential conflict, it’s not always obvious why we should talk about these things. Yet, studying these difficult topics can help us love God and those around us. Reading the Bible carefully, as well as listening to those around us, makes us aware that knowing and understanding the Bible isn’t easy. How could God command the Israelites to destroy all the Canaanites when they went into the promised land, an act that people today would consider genocide? Why would a caring, all-powerful God allow people to be attracted to people of the same-sex if it’s sin to act on those feelings? What about gender dysphoria? Hell?

These are hard questions that many struggle with. Not talking about them doesn’t make the struggles go away; in fact, it often makes it worse and may even cause people to question faith. Looking for answers to these difficult questions allows us to use our God-given intellect to know God better. At the same time, sometimes the answers are unclear, as witnessed by how differently Christians address these questions. The Bible also seems to suggest (in the book of Job) that as mere humans, it is not our place to understand all things. So sometimes the questions do not need to be answered so much as they need space to be voiced. When address the problem of suffering, Mike Wagenman, a campus minister at University of Western Ontario, notes that sometimes it’s not about answers so much as providing a “listening ear and open heart” in the middle of the pain and the struggles.

Worse than the nations around you

Ezekiel 5:6-7 says that Israel has been worse than the surrounding nations. Such an accusation seems strange, as it doesn’t seem merely to say that Israel was worse in not obeying the special laws that God gave them, but instead that Israel was objectively worse than those around them. How is this possible?

First, Ezekiel 16 and 23 provide a rather distressing picture of God’s accusations of what happened: Israel had rejected God and run after other gods. In no nation would it be appropriate to reject your own god.

Secondly, there is something about religious systems that allow for a certain type of abuse. The beginning of 1 Samuel speaks of how Eli’s sons, priests, were taking advantage of their religious positions to take the best meat and sleep with the women serving at the temple. In light of what we know about power (cf #metoo and #churchtoo movements) the sexual favors were most likely not consensual. All of the abuse scandals within the church show us how easy it is to turn a blind eye when we believe that good people wouldn’t do that sort of thing. So the words ‘you have been worse than those around you’ are distressingly applicable not only to the Israelites in Ezekiel’s time but also to the church today.

On top of this, many people who are not Christians have a distressing image of Christians as being judgmental and unloving, especially to LGBTQ+ folks. In other words, we are perceived as being worse than those around us.

The book of Ezekiel is trying to get the attention of the people of Israel so that they realize how bad they really are. What will it take for Christians today to recognize our own shortcomings? Furthermore, what actions can we as Christians do to help believe that we are not worse than those around us? Those are the questions that our study of Ezekiel left us with, questions that are not easy to answer.

Applying Ezekiel to today

We’ve started a study on Ezekiel. The stories in Ezekiel are fascinating and peculiar, and so it is a joy for me to talk about what is going on in the text.

However, the strange-ness of the text makes it difficult to see how the text might apply to our lives. Going out and being like Ezekiel is not exactly an option: in the first five chapters, Ezekiel eats a scroll, is told to lie on his side for more than a year, create a mini-enactment of a siege, and run around the city hacking at a chunk of hair with a sword. Doing any of these things today would more likely result in somebody wondering what is wrong with you than having people assume such actions are God’s way of speaking today.

And yet, there is something to the startling nature of Ezekiel’s actions. They make people wonder (cf. Ezek 24:19). When we think about applying Ezekiel to today, the question we’ve been asking is what sorts of actions (or even words) we can do that would make people wonder about who God is and what it might look like to follow God.

Perhaps, as in the book of Ezekiel, it will appear as if those around us do not hear us. Yet, “whoever would serve as the messenger of God must recognize that the calling is not to success but to faithfulness.” (Daniel Block, Ezekiel 1-24, 131). In light of this, we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves if we are not radically changing the world or bringing more people to Jesus. At the same time, we can trust the Spirit is working in the world around us (including the university) and that people will indeed ask us who God is and what faith and spirituality look like.

Learning to enjoy Sabbath/ Sunday

To my delight, it was fairly unanimous during our Bible Study that Sabbath (e.g., Sunday rest) is considered to be a blessing. At the same time, it was also obvious that it was complicated. Some in the group had grown up with very strict guidelines of what should and should not happen on Sunday. Others had had very little structure in their day, making the day be not all that significant. Neither of these are what we really want for our lives now, but it’s not so easy to figure out how to do Sunday/ Sabbath well in the midst of busy, full lives in a way that fits who we are and remains intentionally turned towards God.

Suprisingly enough, seeing Sabbath as being more of a gift full of freedom makes it easier, I believe, to turn towards God. This is not to say to say that things like attending church or Bible reading aren’t important – they are! – but Sabbath ought not to be limited to God things or good Christian activities. It’s not supposed to be another day we strive to be good or please God. Sabbath is about slowing down and delighting in God’s world around us, both the creation and the people in our lives. Sometimes a bit of planning helps, at least to make sure that others are also available and also to push those of us who are lazy to actively participate in enjoying. It’s also good to realize that Sabbath isn’t just about one day, but about an attitude that will hopefully (after practicing it more intentionally on Sunday) carry on throughout the week, so that we slow down, realize that we are not in control, turn actively towards God, and delight in the good gifts He has given us.

It is also helpful to see Sabbath as a practice and discipline. Not because it’s one more thing we have to be good at as Christians, but to see that it takes practice to get better at it. Furthermore, just like some people take to jogging long distances more easily than others, some people take to the discipline of Sabbath more easily than others. Those of us who are naturally more worried or tend towards feelings of guilt often have difficulties with Sabbath, and perhaps it is easiest to take it at small doses at a time or find a ‘running buddy’ to do it. For those of us who are overachievers and define ourselves a bit too much on the basis of what we do, it can help to see Sabbath as being a way to refresh and renew, recognizing that rest actually makes us better productive. My hope, though, is that Sabbath becomes a gift to all of us – a day we look forward to for spending time turning towards God, without expectations or guilt or pressure.