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A Note on the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

A Note on the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

I had occasion to discuss this passage a couple of days ago, and it reminded me of many discussions I have had regarding this parable. (It’s Matthew 20:1-16, by the way.) This is a short note and not an extended discussion.

The most common response I hear to this is that it isn’t fair. My most common response to the response is that God isn’t fair. Then people want to discuss whether as employers we should reward people according to their accomplishments, or whether this is a call for a different type of society.

My simple note is this: While I stand by my statement that God isn’t fair, I need to go farther and faster. God is not fair in that he gives us more than we can possibly claim. We are often afraid to simply note that God doesn’t really have to do anything.

Go back to the garden. God creates human beings, male and female, and places them in the garden. God doesn’t have to do that. We can say that it wouldn’t be nice to just dump them somewhere, but we have no way of calling God to account about that. In Scripture, God can be called to account, but it is only because God has set the standard and invites us to do so. When we talk about fairness we appeal to an outside standard.

To some, that makes God seem worse than us. God is unfair, and God can be unfair because, well, God! But what we see is God being kind and gracious even without that outside appeal. Many of us only do nice things because we might be seen, or we want the reputation, or—face it—because we have to. God does more than God has to because, well, God!

When we read this parable, I suspect we are not called upon to examine the fairness of economic systems (though that is a good thing to discuss), or whether the owner of the vineyard was a nice guy, which is perhaps questionable.

Rather, I think we are invited to think about who we are. And that’s tough.

I’ve never heard someone respond immediately by commenting on how unfair it would be to them, as the 11th-hour worker, to get a full day’s pay for one hour of work.

We think of ourselves as early, all-day workers. We’re wrong!

I think the passage’s main point is to invite us to think of ourselves as 11th-hour workers, people whose wages would be inadequate to feed our families if we just got the standard wage for our hour of work. We’re the ones who get something without a claim on it.

This is the value of a story: Helping us adjust our thinking by placing ourselves in the story.

I think if you get what Jesus is saying, one impact will be to change the way you think about yourself. In doing so, you may change the way you think about, and interact with, other people, those we have often thought of as getting more than they deserve.

Which is another value of a story: It carries over into so many different aspects of our life.

Featured image credit – Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

Numbers 33 and Matthew 1:1-17

Numbers 33 and Matthew 1:1-17

Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (CBC)Regarding Numbers 33 and the 42 stations on the route to the promised land, footnote #1 on page 420, (Cornerstone Biblical Commentary on Numbers), notes that “[p]atristic commentators compared these 42 stations to the 42 (3 x 14) generations in Jesus’ genealogy, but that doesn’t shed any light on ch 33 …”

It is quite true that this comparison sheds no light on chapter 33, but I doubt that there was any intention by the author of Matthew to shed light on Numbers. More likely, if he was making a connection, he was intending to have Numbers 33 shed light on his genealogy. Clearly he went out of his way to get 42 generations and divide them into three groups of 14. It’s very easy to make too much of numerology.

Despite that, I am more and more convinced that New Testament authors quite frequently intended to draw more of the Old Testament narrative into their writing than just what was quoted. One reason for this is that I have noted how the lack of knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament in modern audiences makes discussing certain passages more difficult. The corollary to this is that a greater knowledge would make discussion easier. New Testament writers could count on greater knowledge among their readers than we can today.

What might Matthew be drawing into the text here? I have argued that Matthew 2:15, when it quotes from Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I have called my son,” is drawing the broader story there into his narrative. At first glance, one might accuse Matthew of taking something that is clearly not Messianic and making a prophecy out of it. Hosea 11 continues with telling us that the more YHWH called his people, the more they went away. My initial reaction to this, and the reaction of many, is that Matthew is grabbing a single clause out of context, and making a prediction of something that isn’t actually a prediction. But I’d suggest instead that Matthew is presenting Jesus as Israel doing it right. When God called Israel at various times, they went away, as Hosea is saying. Jesus, on the other hand, when called out of Egypt or when called to the cross, continues to come.

My suspicion is that the use of 42, besides being the numerologically comfortable grouping of three pairs of sevens (and there are so many ways a set of numbers can be presented!), is intended to point us back to the travels of the Israelites in coming to the promised land. I am in no way suggesting that these 42 stops were in some way predictive, nor am I suggesting that Matthew 1:1-17 gives some sort of new or special meaning to Numbers 33. Rather, I’m suggesting that Matthew uses 42 generations as an allusion to Numbers 33 and to Israel coming out of Egypt and to the promised land.

Some Lessons from Tilling My Garden

Some Lessons from Tilling My Garden

Well, my prospective, perhaps presumptive garden, that is.

One of the important elements to understanding stories in the Bible, parables included, is our perspective. In Christian circles, when we hear “the sower went forth to sow,” (Matthew 13:3), or perhaps “a farmer went out to sow his seed,” we generally see ourselves in the role of the one doing the planting. We are evangelising, and people have different kinds of hearts. Have you ever heard someone describe another person as being rocky ground? Or perhaps someone has said, “He’s trying to dig some hard ground there!” Usually these expressions are used regarding targets of evangelism.

garden and tillerI’ll mention evangelism later, but first, let me place myself in the role of one receiving the seed. Is that not what I do when I pray and hope to hear from the Lord? Is that also not what I do when I open my Bible and hope to be changed by God’s message? So I am the ground, not the sower.

But let me tell you the story of my garden thus far. Fortunately for me, I have few plans that involve saving money on food, supplementing my diet, or saving on the food budget. I had one purpose in starting a garden: I need to spend more time in physical activity. Now I’m a bit of a workaholic. I have a hard time not doing anything. The easiest way to get myself to do what I need to do was to make it into work. Then I can feel good while I do it.

So I picked a plot on our little place out here and started to work on it. It has gone through being broken up with an excavator (at which time I killed power to my office and broke our water line, but that’s another story), lots of hoeing and raking, and digging up of roots and rocks. This morning I finally got to the point of being ready to actually till the plot. My previous work had been aimed, not at getting the soil ready for actual planting, but at removing obstacles. I have a large pile of brush, roots, and rocks at either end of the plot, things I have removed as I worked.

Then I had a period of time when I was just too busy with work. Between my work with computers and computer networks and my publishing work, I was simply overwhelmed. The phone would ring by 8 am and I wouldn’t get that much done outside. What do you suppose happened? Well, the plot got some new growth, but not the stuff I want to grow, of course, since I hadn’t yet planted. So out came the weedwacker, the hoe, and finally the rake.

Today I finally got to the tiller. That’s the tiller, in the picture to the left. I borrowed it from my friend Tom Hunt. If you need a floorplan done for a new house, he’s the one to go to.

There were some interesting things about using the tiller as well. Weeds leave behind small roots that tend to wrap themselves around anything available. No matter how may rocks you’ve removed there may be a few more. Run the tiller in a couple of directions. The pile of dirt from one pass may hide some hard soil. Power tools are great, but I ended my morning session more tired than when I worked with the hoe. The tool helps, but the human still better put heart and back into the effort.

Let me apply these to Bible study just a bit. You might want to reference my post from yesterday. Here are some thoughts I had while listening to that wonderful purr (or roar) of the tiller motor.

  1. Different tools accomplish different things. No matter how much you may have gotten with one approach, try taking another look from another angle or with some different help.
  2. Weeds don’t stay dead. You’re never really done. It’s easy to get complacent and think you already have it covered. Now it’s all about telling other people. Don’t get in that place. If you neglect your heart garden for a while, you may find the ground hardening and the weeds getting tall.
  3. Don’t imagine that a period of neglect is the end. That’s what weedwackers, hoes, shovels, rakes, and tillers are for. Those of you who have forgotten your biblical languages after seminary, consider this as well. How about working on reviving them? Yes, I believe you can study the Bible effectively without the biblical languages, but after investing all that time and effort wouldn’t you like the benefit of that tool?
  4. Don’t be blind to the rocks that are still there. You may have removed bunches of rocks, yet there are still some to find and remove. I often joke with Jody that it would be nice if I could measure the quality of my cleaning by the quantity of dirt I removed and not by what was left. Read 1 Corinthians 8:1-3 if you’re thinking you’re good!
  5. Tools help but they don’t do the job. I love Logos Bible software. I love sites that let me compare versions (, for example). But these things don’t do your studying for you. They will make you more efficient. Many Bible students amass information and yet don’t get to what the text is saying to them. I was reminded of that forcefully as I moved the tiller through my prospective garden. It did more work than I could have accomplished with the hoe, but it still required me to make the application!
  6. Sometimes you get so tangled with the weeds that you can’t really go on clearing and tilling. I experienced this as left-over weeds and roots tangled up the tiller. I had to stop and clear the blades so the tiller could work efficiently. I’ve experienced this in preparation for teaching my Eschatology series on Google Hangouts on Air (link to next session, Thurs. night at 7 pm central time). Eschatological views are based on many, many texts, and there are many, many views on each of these texts, plus mountains of theology done to tie them together or explain them away. It’s very easy to get so tangled in the details that you can’t see the actual text in front of you. I bounced this off my wife Jody, who has a practical mind set. I asked her to read Mark 13 the other day and then question me about it. She had a set of questions that helped clarify the chapter.

I’m sure there are many more lessons, but those are the ones that occurred to me as I worked this morning. But does any of this apply to evangelism?

  1. Quit trying to judge the people you witness to. You can’t see what’s under the ground.
  2. The best way to witness is to till your own heart. I can’t emphasize this enough. Most people can tell very quickly if you’re trying to use them for something else. So if you are making relationships with other people in order to convert them or make them into church members, they’re going to get that feeling. But if you are genuine and genuinely care about them, they will also know that.
  3. The Christian life and Christian witness isn’t a strategy. See #2. Enough said!
  4. God is the one who changes people. You witness. God acts. Be humble enough to give God the credit. Be humble enough to let God take the responsibility.

Do you see what happened? Quite frankly, all the lessons but one applied to me. As for reaching others, I have one duty: plant the seed. Now planting the seed can be complex, but I suggest that it starts with some of the points I made above. Let God’s word impact your life. Continue to let God’s word impact your life. Continue some more letting God’s word impact your life. Continue yet much more letting God’s word impact your life.

You’ll impact the lives of others.


Is the Virgin Birth a Mistranslation?

Is the Virgin Birth a Mistranslation?

Mark Goodacre has an excellent podcast on this question.

What I’d want to get across in a brief answer to this question is:

1) Greek parthenos is not necessarily a bad translation of Hebrew almah. The semantic ranges do overlap substantially, though (as Mark points out) parthenos tends more toward “virginity.”

2) For reasons that do not involved the translation of almah (in my opinion), Isaiah 7:14 is not intended as a Messianic prophecy.

3) I have heard people claim that Matthew was not asserting a virgin birth, but one has only to read the whole text to see that he clearly is doing so. Again, in my view, the correct translation in Matthew is “virgin” irrespective of one’s view of how almah should be translated in Isaiah 7:14. I would translate almah as young woman and also “is pregnant” rather than “shall conceive.”

4) This provides an interesting case for discussing Matthew’s use of Hebrew scripture. Dr. Goodacre also mentions Matthew 2:15/Hosea 11:1 which is even more interesting.*

Listen to the podcast!

(In my notes here I’m speaking for myself, not attempting to summarize Goodacre’s arguments.)

* While I find Matthew 2:15 / Hosea 11:1 interesting, it is not the one mentioned by Dr. Goodacre. He references Matthew 2:23. This was an error in my original post.

The Trials of Mike Licona

The Trials of Mike Licona

I actually didn’t know who Mike Licona was until a few weeks ago, but I’ve discovered that he is a Christian writer who is a strong supporter of the historicity of the resurrection and generally defends the historicity of the Bible.

Unfortunately for him, he recently suggested the possibility—just the possibility, mind you—that Matthew 27:51-53 (the raising of the dead saints) is apocalyptic language rather than intending to portray a historical event. I’m very pleased to see that Michael Patton has been defending Licona and calling for a great deal more generosity concerning this disagreement.

And this brings up an issue that I have with many arguments regarding biblical interpretation. Too many people are very quick to argue that their opponents are denying scripture, when they are simply interpreting it differently. There are interpretations that are so lacking in legitimacy that one may suspect that even the person who concocted them doesn’t believe them. But many arguments are between people who both have a great deal of respect for scripture, but who disagree on what scripture actually intends to communicate.

This passage is an excellent example. I can certainly how one can legitimately disagree about what Matthew is trying to convey here, starting with the veil in the temple being torn in two. Is that literal or figurative language? (I’m speaking here of Matthew’s intent in writing it, not whether one believes he is historically accurate.) Did Matthew mean that this literally happened, or was it something that happened in the spiritual realm?

It is doubtless an incredibly important spiritual point that is being made, whether the language is intended historically or not. It’s a point that can be made in either case.

I don’t think that the argument that either party (or parties) in this dispute doesn’t care about scripture. All involved are committed to the inerrancy of scripture, and understand it in a similar way, as requiring historical accuracy. There is apocalyptic language in the Bible. It’s not impossible that this language is. Indeed there are some indications that it is.

Similarly, debates about creation hinge on just how one reads the texts. If one reads the text as historical narrative, one has one set of options (accepting it as accurate, or assuming it’s pretty much useless). On the other hand, there are many elements of the creation stories (pretty much all of them) that would suggest something other than historical narrative. Yet many will accuse anyone who doesn’t take these texts as historical narrative of not believing what the Bible has to say.

My point here is simply this: You can’t tell whether someone is ignoring the meaning of scripture until you have determined its meaning. Differing regarding interpretation, as long as the interpretation is an honest attempt to understand the text, does not constitute rejection of scripture.

Lent 1A – Theme

Lent 1A – Theme

Well, I’m back again on one of my irregular forays into lectionary blogging. I hope visitors in the meantime have found value in the links to other people’s lectionary blogging found in my sidebar.

It’s not hard to find a theme in this week’s lectionary texts, nor to imagine why those are the texts for today. I think the Romans passage ties the theme together nicely, and if I were to teach this myself, I’d probably start from that point.

Paul tells us that one sin made everyone into sinners, and thus one obedient man, or one act of obedience (carried throughout his life) could make us right with God again. Our texts simply point to the pieces of the puzzle. In Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, we have the original temptation and fall. Here the first couple are placed in the Garden of Eden, but directed away from the tree. Yet they eat in any case.

In Matthew 4:1-11, we have the opposite effect. Note that in Matthew 4:1, it is the Spirit that leads Jesus into the desert to be tempted. Even more so than Adam and Eve were directed away, Jesus was directed into the test so that he could pass and show that he would reject divinity, improperly offered.  Adam and Eve were human and wanted to be gods. Jesus was God and accepted humanity (Phil. 2:5-11).

The final element of this puzzle is Psalm 32 which, in my view, connects us to the other two. It describes guilt, repentance and forgiveness. It is repentance, a turning to God and away from evil, that allows us to be incorporated into the family that Christ represented in his act(s) of obedience. Lent is not just about the fall and redemption. It is about us becoming part of that new family of faith, incorporated into God’s family, established by the obedience of Jesus Christ.

Reconciling the Gospel Genealogies

Reconciling the Gospel Genealogies

There are generally two reactions I hear to this in Sunday School classes and church pews–it’s either fascination, as if the genealogies make or break the Bible or complete indifference, as in “who cares?”

Both reactions miss the point.  Matthew and Luke are each making a point, and they are making it in a way that their early readers probably understood fairly well, though there is disagreement on the meaning in some quite early literature.

There’s a great article on the genealogies and their meaning on the Christianity Today web site.  I think this presentation illustrates the importance of not reconciling texts before we understand what they’re trying to say as they are.  Many treatments of this issue simply list possible resolutions of the differences, which misses the message that each evangelist was trying to convey.

Grant Osborne, the author, says:

Examining each genealogy closely reveals the authors’ different purposes.

Just so.  Go, read and enjoy!

Matthew 25:14-30 (The Talents)

Matthew 25:14-30 (The Talents)

14[The kingdom of heaven] is like a man going on a journey.  He calls his slaves and hands his property over to them.  15To one he gives five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each one according to his strength.  Then he goes on his journey.  As soon 16as he goes, the one who received five talents did business with them and gained another five.  17Likewise the one with two earned another two.  18But the one who received one went out, dug in the ground, and hid his lord’s money.  19After a long time the lord of those slaves returned and settled accounts with them.  20The one who had received five talents brought another five talents, saying, “Lord, you handed five talents over to me.  Look, here I’ve gained five more.  21His lord said to him,
“Excellent, good and faithful servant.  You have been faithful over a little, I will put you in charge of much.  Enter into your lord’s joy.  22Then the one who had received two talents said, “Lord, you handed two talents over to me.  Look, I have gained another two talents.”  23His lord said to him, “Excellent, good and faithful servant.  You were faithful with a little, I’m going to put you in charge of much.  Enter into your lord’s joy.”  24But the one who had received one talent came and said, “Lord, I knew you, that you are a hard man, harvesting where you didn’t plant, and gathering where you didn’t scatter.  25I was afraid, and went out and his your talent in the ground.  Look, you have what is yours!” 26But the lord answered him, “Wicked and lazy servant!  You know that I harvest where I haven’t planted, and I gather where I haven’t scattered?  27You should have given my money to the bankers, and when I returned, I could have received my own money with interest.  28So take the talent away from him and give it to the one who has ten talents.  29For to everyone who has it shall be given, and it will overflow, and from the one who doesn’t have shall be taken away even what he has.  30And throw the useless slave out into the outer darkness.  In that place there will be weeping and grinding of teeth. — Matthew 25:14-30

The boundary between verses 15 and 16 is doubtful.  Di he immediately go on a journey, or did the servant go out and immediately begin doing business.  It’s not a matter of great theological important, of course, but it is interesting.  The very best manuscripts would suggest that “immediately” goes with the servant’s action, but there are a larger number of the immediately next tier of manuscripts that suggests the opposite.  For example, the original hand of Sinaiticus goes with the reading I have translated, but the second corrector changes it.  Vaticanus supports the text as I have it, but Alexandrinus is on the other side.

For verses 21 and 23, “enter your lord’s joy” CEV has “share in my happiness.”  I like that, but I’m not sure it’s correct.  I wonder if it may be “welcome to your lord’s pleasure” or something like that.  I may update this post later with a note on the matter.

Otherwise, the translation is not the major issue here, but rather the exegesis, which, I suspect, makes some folks uncomfortable.


Quick Note on Applying Matthew 7:1

Quick Note on Applying Matthew 7:1

(This is an exegetical and application note on Matthew 7:1 to accompany a devotional on my wife’s devotional list.)

There are two directions that people have taken on Matthew 7:1, both of which I think are mistaken. Even Jesus cannot create a one liner that someone else can’t apply foolishly.

The first approach to Matthew 7:1 is to broaden it excessively and try to live that way. We try to create a community in which nobody exercises critical thinking or discernment about what anyone else says and does. A number of things result. First, we have some of the moral and spiritual problems so ably discussed by Paul in 1 Corinthians. Second, we can’t really live without any form of judgment, so we find ways to judge while claiming that we aren’t. One saying is that you can’t judge, but you can “inspect fruit.” This draws on Matthew 7:15-20. But very frequently “fruit inspecting” looks very much like judging.

The major alternative is to narrow down the command so that it can be applied universally. One option is to take the element of “judge” that means “condemn.” So “don’t condemn so you won’t be condemned.” Another is to say that we can judge people’s actions and appearances, but not the content of their hearts. That’s true, but perhaps not complete.

I would like to suggest a third way to think about this verse in practice. With each action of testing, whether it is spiritual or physical, whether I think it’s fruit inspecting or outright judging, whether it involves criticism or approval, I need to consider how my words or actions impact the community of faith, the kingdom of God.

I want to note here that we do not avoid Christ’s command simply by speaking only in approving terms. When we speak positively about something, and then simply say nothing about another thing, that second thing is condemned by our silence. If we speak positively of things that are not positive, speaking without judging, then we are liars.

We should ask with each act of testing, when we decide whether something is right or wrong, how our response to that thing will impact other believers. I think Jesus points to us (lest you be judged) because that is the thing that catches our attention the most. If I point out a brother or sister’s weaknesses, I stand to have mine pointed out as well. It may not be the holiest of motivations, but it is certainly the most human.

By either trying to make the command of Jesus a context-free absolute, or by narrowing it to one part of the command, we reduce the impact of what Jesus was trying to say. We need to keep Matthew 7:1 in mind at all times, making sure that when we exercise judgment, we are exercising good judgment.

Reading the Passion Narratives

Reading the Passion Narratives

I was reading from Darrell Bock’s book Jesus According to Scripture, and I was struck by a footnote. I’ve been reading from the passion narrative in Matthew, because it is the lectionary selection for this year, but I like to read Bock’s notes because he points out the similarities and differences between the various accounts.

In his note on the last supper (p. 359n54) he comments that:

. . . To the extent that an interconnected tradition makes these points about the event, whether explicitly or implicitly, the order of the Gospels becomes less relevant, beca7use the basic symbolism of the event is there in all these elements in all versions.

I’m not writing to critique Bock’s approach, though he is somewhat more conservative than I am. But I’d like to suggest a couple of things about reading. First, no single gospel story makes a train wreck of the passion accounts, i.e. the message is still there. Second, each gospel account has a unique emphasis, which we should watch.

We tend to read these stories for history, which is why reconstructions of the sequence of events, telling us precisely how many cock crowings there were, or when Peter made each denial, or clarifying just who went to the tomb and when they did it. That sort of thing has a certain interest. But when we’re looking at those details and compiling a full story from our multiple sources, we can easily be missing the message of the gospels.

As a believer, I like to read these stories simply for the impact, the symbolism, or might I say, the “mythical” element. “Myth” has a bad name, but one element of myth is that the story has a meaning beyond the narrated facts. A myth explains how one’s world hangs together and why. What I mean by looking at the mythical elements is to read the story for its broader meaning in salvation history. Change the questions. Go asking, “How can this story impact my life and the life of my church?”

I have no problem with reading for history, but such reading is only a small part of truly absorbing the text and letting God work on your life through what you read. I would recommend reading or hearing these texts read aloud. I know the passion narratives are long, but the gospels spend all that time on them because they are important. Read them slowly. Absorb the symbolism. Let God speak.

It’s much more important than sorting out the crowing cocks and denying disciple!