“What do you think?”

Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Philippians 2:1-11
Matthew 21:28-32

An old issue of Lutheran Digest contained this little number from “The Lighter Side”: “Salespeople are so rude these days,” complained a fellow in a leisure suit. “I went to a haberdasher to buy a tie and the salesman held one up for $20. I said, ‘Could you show me something cheaper?’ So he held up a tie for $10. I said, ‘Could you show me something cheaper?’ So he held up a tie for $5. I said, ‘You don’t understand. I’d like to see something real cheap.’ So he held up a mirror.”

Sometimes, seeing something (especially ourselves) from a different perspective is like seeing it for the very first time. Jesus used parables to give people a different perspective on things they thought they had down pat. This Sunday’s Gospel Lesson contains another of those jewels of communication and thought. For reasons known only to those who chose the lessons, the setting of the parable is omitted. If we are to get the point of a pointed story, it is very helpful to know what prompted it.

The place was the Temple courts in Jerusalem. The time was very near the tragic climax and triumphant conclusion of Jesus’ earthly ministry — probably Tuesday of what we call Holy Week. Jesus was teaching the people when some of His primary critics and enemies approached. “By what authority do you do these things?” the chief priests and elders asked. “And who gave you this authority?” As was His favorite way of dealing with them, He answered their question with one of His own. He promised that He would answer their question if they would answer His first.

His question was this little dandy: “John’s baptism — was it from heaven, or from men?” They immediately recognized it for what it was: one of those rock-and-hard-place predicaments. If they said it was from heaven, then Jesus would counter by asking why they didn’t believe John. But if they said it was from men, the people would be upset because they believed John the Baptizer was a prophet. They answered with the favorite response of little children: “We don’t know.”

Faithful to His promise, Jesus didn’t answer their question either, but He did ask another one in the form of a parable: “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

Charles Earle Funk, in Heavens To Betsy! & Other Curious Sayings, surmises that the phrase “over a barrel” comes from an early form of pulmonary resuscitation, performed by lifeguards. They would place the victim facedown over the side of a barrel and then gently roll it back and forth. Obviously, the person was entirely at their mercy. The chief priests and elders were drowning here, but they didn’t know it. Jesus had them over the exact same barrel as before, but they didn’t catch on. They didn’t see any trap here, so they answered that the first son was the one who did what his father wanted. At that point, Jesus gave the barrel a huge shove!

Let’s leave the chief priests and elders rolling along, for a moment, and turn our attention to the question involved. Let’s put ourselves, as much as we can, in Jesus’ time and place. It is the very beginning of the first Christian century in Near Eastern culture. The society is powerfully patriarchal — whether or not father knows best, father is obeyed. In public, father is obeyed without hesitation. Just questioning his authority in public, let alone refusing him, is considered verbal insolence. Such a father would be publicly humiliated and shamefully insulted. Consequently, when Jesus said that the first son refused his father’s order to go and work in the vineyard, we might have heard someone in the audience gasp in disbelief that the father could have such an insolent son. Likewise, we would not be the least bit surprised if the father took the equivalent of a First Century switch to the kid!

One of the most common Old Testament images for the kingdom of God was a vineyard. The very fact that a “father,” his “vineyard,” and his “sons” are involved could and probably should lead the hearers to think that the story might be about God and His people. In that case the insolence is even more ghastly, and the punishment could make a switch look like a wet noodle.

Nonetheless, the chief priests and elders chose the first son as the correct answer because the insolent brat eventually went out to work in the vineyard. Another factor also entered into their decision. By this time in Jesus’ ministry, His short fuse and scathing tongue toward lying and hypocrisy were well-known and documented. The Pharisees had been on the receiving end of more than one jarring tongue-lashing from Him because of it, so the chief priests and elders probably thought that the lying and hypocritical second son would be Jesus’ last choice. If he was the last choice and there were only two choices, their decision seemed easy.

Once they had committed themselves, Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.” It seems as if Jesus was saying that they could make the correct intellectual choice, but had made the opposite and wrong life choice. The chief priests and elders were like the second son, sitting in the “yea-and-amen corner” of the synagogue, but not doing the will of the Father. The tax collectors and the prostitutes were like the first son, at first refusing God’s direction for their lives, but then repenting and following Him.

Jesus’ two questions form an introduction and conclusion to this parable: “What do you think? … Which of the two did what his father wanted?” Well, what do you think? And are you more like one son or the other? Those are the questions that matter to us, aren’t they? There is also a marvelous truth that pervades the entire story, but receives little or no emphasis. I wonder if the chief priests and elders caught it — did you?

Both sons are sons at the beginning. Both are sons at the end. The father does not alter that relationship — neither for the first son’s insolence nor the second son’s eventual disobedience. William Willimon wrote, “We may have chosen which son we liked best, but the father has not. We may find ourselves identifying with this or that character in the story, but that does not mean that the father embraces one child instead of another.” God’s call to repent and turn to Him came to everyone — chief priests, elders, tax collectors and prostitutes — when John first uttered it. That same call continued to come to all those groups through Jesus, and it still comes to us today.

Over the years, I have found or invented a number of stories (Feddersen’s Fables) that touch us deeply, but still only give us a tiny glimpse into the amazing grace and love of God. Patience is a totally inadequate word for God’s persistent calling us to repentance and relationship, but Jesus had no story to illustrate it. He became that story — He lived it. In Jesus it becomes clear that even the phrase “undying love” is inadequate, because it fails to take His dying into account. Yet, even at His death, the love of God does not die; it conquers! And in His Resurrection we are guaranteed that our death cannot separate us from the Father’s love.

On the other hand, we can separate ourselves! God’s love allows that for us, because it is totally love – – no restrictions. But what a tragedy it is if we sit on our tails and say “No!” to His call, and never repent and follow Him. His love becomes painfully frustrated, and we are forever lost. If we say “Yes,”
but never respond and follow, the result is the same.

For many years, I helped third through sixth grade boys learn a little something about basketball. I selected and then coached teams in little league competition. It was always tough to make the final choices and cuts. Some kids who didn’t get chosen for the teams were just devastated. But I never chose a player who did not show up for practice and games. I simply cannot imagine it happening. Our Father has chosen us to work His mission . . .

Advertisements

Mid-Week Stewardship Thought

Perseverance in Faith

In the book of Acts, we read about the beginning of the Christian church, and throughout the twenty-eight chapters the author provides examples of those who persevered so the Gospel could be spread.  Consider Peter and John, who were called before the powerful Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish council and authority.  The members of the Sanhedrin commanded them not to “… speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18).  “But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge..  For we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard’ ” (Acts 4:19-20).  Following that bold statement, they met for prayer, asking for even more perseverance:  “And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to Your servants to continue to speak Your word with all boldness” (Acts 4:29).  History tells us that they persevered unto death.

Prayer: Lord, thank You for my faith and keep my faith steadfast. In Jesus’ name I pray.  Amen.

Blessings on your stewardship journey!

“Here, take my place”

Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:

Isaiah 55:6-9
Philippians 1:1-11, 19-27
Matthew 20:1-16

September 20,1999, Houston, Texas: Tickets went on sale today for the National League Playoffs. Blake Anderson, a steelworker on the late shift, was one of the first people in line. He took his place, at approximately 11:30 p.m., at an Astrodome window that would not be open until 9:00 a.m. To his surprise, 13 people were already in line. Anderson had orders from fellow mill workers for more than 60 tickets. At about 11:45, three men and a woman arrived who were greeted by two women ahead of him who had apparently “saved their place” in line. A few people grumbled about moving back four places, but no voices were raised. In a matter of minutes, however, three more people came, and Anderson now found himself in the twenty-first position instead of his original fourteenth. One fellow just ahead was a little agitated and yelled something about “line-crashers,” but there was no further response and no incident.

Between midnight and 1:00 a.m. the line grew tremendously behind Anderson. In an attempt to stay off the street and still stay within eyesight of the window, people began filling the entire width of the sidewalk and the line was no longer an orderly single file row. The steelworker had sat down on the pavement for awhile, leaning against one of the stadium pillars, but as people began to jostle about standing adjacent to or even a little ahead of his “place,” he decided to stand up. By 4:00 a.m., the mob was packed from stadium to curb, well around the turn of the building. A group of about 20 people came walking up the street. It was apparent that they had been “partying” somewhere, passing the time while the rest of their group “saved a place” for them ahead of Anderson. Their friends greeted them loudly, and they slowly moved from street to sidewalk to the dismay of many angry people. The people ahead started backing slowly, trying to make room for them, and Anderson was pushed backward through the crowd with more and more people now actually ahead of him.

Tired from a full shift’s work, standing in line for hours, and going on 24 hours without sleep, Blake Anderson lost his cool. He started yelling at everyone around him, and pushed his way toward the front, where he proceeded to verbally abuse the gatecrashers. One of them, looking more like a football player than a baseball fan, punched him in his left eye, knocking him to the pavement. In all, 23 men and six women were involved in the fracas when police arrived and took them all to jail.

Anderson was first taken to the hospital by ambulance. It seems that some who had taken his side had stepped on and fallen over him, adding to his injuries. He was raised into the ambulance, still yelling, “It isn’t fair!” Charged with Disorderly Conduct, and released on his own recognizance at 10:15 a.m., Tuesday, he learned that all tickets had been sold out. Anderson repeated: “It isn’t fair.”

You have just read a Feddersen’s Fable, but similar incidents occur every year at sporting events, theaters, and other gatherings of fans. My character may be fictitious, but his statement is as true as it is common to much of human life — it isn’t fair. While the quotation does not appear in this Sunday’s Gospel Lesson, it is the obvious feeling generated by the events in Jesus’ parable and the source of grumbling from some of the characters Jesus portrays.

The story is about a landowner who needs workers for his vineyard. He got up early in the morning and found a group, more than willing to labor for a good day’s wage. At 9:00 a.m., he went and found some more, standing idle in the marketplace. He sent them off with a promise to give them what was right. Unemployment being what it is, he continued to find others throughout the day. He put the last group to work at 5:00 p.m. About an hour later, he told his foreman to pay the workers, starting with those who only put in one hour. They, along with those who worked three, six, or nine hours, all received the usual good day’s wage.

When those who had worked since sunrise received the same thing, they began to grumble. (It’s a good thing Blake Anderson wasn’t there — he’d have gotten arrested!) The landowner answered, “My friends, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for this wage? Take what is yours and go. What difference does it make if I wish to give these last ones the same as you? Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?” Jesus had said that this story was an illustration of what the kingdom of heaven is like. He concluded, “Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

It’s a good thing that He said this was about the kingdom of heaven — it would certainly be a tough guideline for labor- management relations! I can just imagine what would happen the next day when word circulated that the landowner was out looking for workers. Everyone would be sitting in the shade, singing, “In the cool, cool, cool of the evening, tell ’em I’ll be there.” In a Concordia Journal, one of my former professors, Francis Rossow, emphasizes that this is a parable: “An earthly story with a heavenly meaning.”

This is a story about grace — sheer, abundant, generous, and amazing (no matter how unsettling, disturbing and capricious it may seem) — grace. It is certainly not a story about labor and management. It is not even a story about labor and wages. It is about a gift!

Another Feddersen’s Fable concerns a toy manufacturing plant at Christmas. A reporter heard that the owner of the business had decided, at the last moment, to give a thousand toys to needy children. She went to the plant to interview the donor, but asked if she could see some of the toys first. She was taken to a large room with the sign “Packaging A” on the door. Inside, people were busy wrapping the gifts. Christmas carols were playing in the background, but the workers seemed oblivious to the music. Their mood was hardly “Merry,” in the spirit of Christmas. They were hard at their task, and it seemed laborious. “These people don’t seem very happy,” she said. “Who are they?” “They are some of our employees,” she was told. “After all, they were supposed to get off at noon and, although the boss is paying them double-time, it is Christmas Eve, and they want to go home.”

The reporter was then escorted to a similar room marked, “Packaging B.” Here, the workers were also laboring and sweating, but these were laughing, joking and singing along with the carols. “Who are these people?” she asked. “Oh, these are some volunteers who showed up when we opened this morning and offered to help wrap the presents for the kids.”

When Jesus was crucified, in addition to the long list of “bad guys” and “good women” who were present, two other “good guys” are also mentioned. One is the disciple John, whose family connections made it possible for him to be there in relative safety. The other is one who had no other choice — the thief on the cross. An interesting question is: “Which of these would you rather be?” At first glance, a living disciple has a few advantages over a dying thief. On the other hand, the now ex-thief would be in Paradise with Jesus that very day. All of his troubles and struggles were about to be over forever. The worst of John’s struggles were about to begin. Serving God is a joy and a privilege, but nobody ever said it was easy!

The last follower of Jesus had been both lost and a loser all his life — Jesus found him just in the nick of time. He was the first in line when Jesus arrived in Paradise. Now wait a minute! This is Jesus’ home, right? Surely, He enters first, then the ex-thief. No, as a matter of fact, the image Jesus offers is one where He keeps stepping back to let someone else have His place in line for His House, His inheritance, His eternal life. The Bible makes it very clear that He took our place so that we could have His place.

The line starts here on earth. When I was born my mother and father stepped back to make sure there was room for me. Later, my pastor stepped back at my Baptism and again at my Confirmation, also trying to make room. I have been trying to let more and more people go ahead of me ever since, but my parents and pastor are some great servants of God that I’m chasing backwards and I am resolved that I’ll never catch up (or is it down — it’s so confusing). In any event, they get closer to Jesus every day, back at the end of the line, but He keeps letting more and more go ahead every day as well. All in all, it’s a great race. Do you want in? Here, take my place.

Mid-Week Stewardship Thought

Perseverance in Prayer

Jesus told many parables, one of them to His disciples “…to show them that they should always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1 NIV).  The parable was about a widow who, time after time, pleaded with a judge to give her justice.  The judge, although not moved by pity or a desire to have justice served, finally relented, saying, “Though I neither fear God nor respect men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming” (Luke 18:4-5)! Then Jesus added, “And will not God give justice to His elect, who cry out to Him day and night?  Will He delay over them?  I tell you, He will give justice to them speedily” (vs. 7-8a).  “Never give up” is the message of this parable.  Our heavenly Father promises that we will receive whatever we ask for in His name (Matthew 7:7).

Prayer: Dear good and gracious Heavenly Father, thank You for Your promise that You will hear and answer our prayers.  Forgive me when I’ve neglected to pray.  Help me to seek time with You in prayer throughout each of my days.  In Jesus’ name I pay.  Amen.

Blessings on your stewardship journey!

Lessons and Hymns for Pentecost 16 A (Proper 20)

These are the Scripture readings you will hear this coming Sunday:

Isaiah 55:6-9
Philippians 1:12-14, 19-30
Matthew 20:1-16

Click here to read the above lessons and the propers for the day.

Disciples Live in Their Vocations by Grace through Faith in Christ

Those who are sent as “laborers for his vineyard” (Matt. 20:1) depict the wide diversity of vocations to which the disciples of Christ Jesus are called. Whatever our particular stations in life may be, we are called to live and serve by faith in His promises. Our labors do not merit anything before Him, for He is already generous to one and all without partiality. In mercy, He has chosen to bear “the burden of the day and the scorching heat” on our behalf, to make us equal to Himself and to give us what belongs to Him, that is, the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 20:12–15). This way of the Lord is foolishness to the world and foreign to our thoughts, but He draws near, so that “he may be found” (Is. 55:6), “have compassion” and “abundantly pardon” (Is. 55:7). So it is that we are found in Christ Jesus, and He is honored in our bodies, “whether by life or by death” (Phil. 1:20), by “fruitful labor” (Phil. 1:22) or by suffering. It is by faith in His forgiveness that our works are “worthy of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27).

These are the hymns we will sing:

Salvation Unto Us Has Come (LSB 555:1-5)
Salvation Unto Us Has Come (LSB 555:6-10)
Praise, My Soul, The King of Heaven (LSB 793)
Jesus Comes Today With Healing (LSB 620)
Almighty Father, Bless the Word (LSB 923)

Lessons and Hymns for Pentecost 15 A (Proper 19)

These are the Scripture readings you will hear this coming Sunday:

Genesis 50:15-21
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

Click here to read the above lessons and the propers for this Sunday.

Forgiving as the Lord Forgives Us

In settling His accounts with us, our Lord acts not with anger, but with compassion. He does not imprison us as we deserve, but He forgives all our debts and releases us (Matt. 18:23–27). Therefore, our Lord bids each of us to have “mercy on your fellow servant” and “forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt. 18:33, 35). By the Lord’s forgiveness of our sins, we are free to forgive those who sin against us, because He has been handed over to the jailers in our stead and He has paid our entire debt with His lifeblood. Whether we live or die, we “are the Lord’s” (Rom. 14:8). Since we all will “stand before the judgment seat of God,” we are not to despise our brother (Rom. 14:10), but gladly forgive him. By the grace of God, our brother also “will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Rom. 14:4). Though we daily sin against each other, the Lord intends “to bring it about that many people should be kept alive” (Gen. 50:20). Jesus speaks kindly by His Gospel and promises: “I will provide for you and your little ones” (Gen. 50:21).

These are the hymns we will sing:

Where Charity and Love Prevail (LSB 845)
Chief of Sinners (LSB 611)
Jesus Sinners Doth Receive (LSB 609)
O Bless the Lord, O My Soul (LSB 814
The Day Thou Gavest (LSB 886)

Mid-Week Stewardship Thought

Perseverance in Prayer

Jesus told many parables, one of them to His disciples “…to show them that they should always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1 NIV).  The parable was about a widow who, time after time, pleaded with a judge to give her justice.  The judge, although not moved by pity or a desire to have justice served, finally relented, saying, “Though I neither fear God nor respect men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming” (Luke 18:4-5)! Then Jesus added, “And will not God give justice to His elect, who cry out to Him day and night?  Will He delay over them?  I tell you, He will give justice to them speedily” (vs. 7-8a).  “Never give up” is the message of this parable.  Our heavenly Father promises that we will receive whatever we ask for in His name (Matthew 7:7).

Prayer: Dear good and gracious Heavenly Father, thank You for Your promise that You will hear and answer our prayers.  Forgive me when I’ve neglected to pray.  Help me to seek time with You in prayer throughout each of my days.  In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

Blessings on your stewardship journey!