Monthly Archives: November 2013

The Logic of Grace: Matt 20:1-16

There are very few passages I’ve taught that have generated quite as much heat as The Parable of the Day Laborers in Matthew’s gospel:

1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard.  3 And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place;  4 and to those he said, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And so they went.
5 Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing.  6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’
7 They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’
He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’
8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.’ 9 When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. 10 When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius.
11 When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’
13 But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. 15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’
16 “So the last shall be first, and the first last.”

(Mat 20:1-16 NASB; 1995 update)

The first time I ever taught this passage, I was filling in for a friend who usually led the worship service on Sunday afternoons at a senior citizens’ high rise. Rather than having a regular service, as the few participants expected, because I was dismayed by the very small turnout, I turned the worship service into a discussion session over this passage.

I had selected the passage merely because I had just finished one of my first major projects fresh out of the MBA program. I had spent several months with our then accounting firm, Delloitte Haskins and Sells, conducting a salary survey for the type of positions we had in the non-profit organization I worked for. There were very large income disparities among staff who had very similar skill sets and experience, as often happens when an organization has a mix of staff with longer- and shorter-tenure in the organization. Salary increases for employees who have been around for awhile rarely keep up with labor market rates. Newer staff, then, get hired with larger salaries though they are relatively less experienced. The project focused entirely on fairness in wages, and led to some very heated exchanges with the middle managers of the organization. My entanglement with that project made me think of this parable precisely because everyone of us responds to it by thinking, “That’s not fair!” In the real world, who would ever think it fair to pay workers who had worked for twelve full hours the same as those who had just worked one? If an employer ever did such a thing, he certainly would have kept it hidden, rather than broadcast it to everyone. I’ve seen too many employees become resentful when they are granted access to salary data.

I had barely started telling the story of our salary survey in order to get my small audience focused on fairness, when a lady in her ’80s turned absolutely livid, and most of the audience agreed with her. It turned out that a man who had lived a dissipated, degenerate, drunken life had died the night before. But, someone claimed that he had undergone a genuine deathbed conversion. After years of experience I now know that there are funeral-preachers-for-hire who always make such a claim. So I do not know what to think now, and I certainly didn’t back then. With the help of one very gracious little old lady, who obviously knew her God, I was able to gain barely enough control to make my main point: the logic of God’s grace does not turn on fairness. In some ways, it is unfair.

To really understand this, we must analyze the land owner’s answer into it’s three component parts. First, he answers one of the complainants, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what is yours and go.” The landowner argues that those who worked all day had no right to complain because he had an agreement with them, and he fulfilled that agreement. When we pass before the judgement seat of Christ, for God the Father has delegated judgement to the Son, He will be able to point to an agreement God has with every one of us simply by virtue of our status as creatures and His as Creator. According to Romans 1, there is sufficient evidence of the being and nature of God to constrain us 1) to worship Him as He has revealed Himself to us, 2) to be continuously grateful to Him, and 3) to obey Him in detail. The Old Testament and Jesus are united in summarizing this as the requirement that we love God with all our soul, strength, and mind, that is, with the entirety of our being. The tenth commandment, “You shall not covet,” demonstrates that this requirement does not stop at the edge of our behavior–for example, frequent daily prayers, calendar observations, or fasts–but penetrates into the heart. God has the right to make demands of our thoughts, emotions, and desires, and only He has that right. So, at the minimum, God will deal with humanity according to this Creator/creature agreement, they will receive their merited wage.

Second, the landowner asserts his own right to do whatever he wants with what is his, “But I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. 15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own?” The obvious answer to this rhetorical question is “Yes!” Of course the landowner has this right. The landowner could have become very defensive in the face of a situation that would seem to most as so obviously unfair, instead he turns the thinking around so that he, and his rights, become the focus of attention. Surely, when we see the landowner as God, we recognize that such God-centered, rather than creature-centered, thinking is right.

When we talk to non-Christians about their need for salvation–salvation from their merited wage–we are almost immediately pointed to hypocrites within the church and incredibly self-sacrificial acts of kindness by those who repudiate the church, Christ, or, even, God. They are absolutely right of course. We ought to grant them that as simple empirical fact. To try to explain away the sins of Christians by arguing that such people may have been much worse had they not submitted to Jesus Christ is futile. Instead, we need to think the thoughts of the landowner, asserting his rights. I have yet to hear a better analogy than the old one about the pirate ship, which I think I first read in Robert Horn’s little book about justification entitled, Go Free! Pirates can demonstrate many genuine human virtues toward each other such as loyalty, courage, generosity, comradeship. It would be silly to argue that when viewed in themselves these are not virtues. However, when such virtues are viewed from the perspective of Her Majesty the Queen, they become something else entirely; such “virtues” only serve to perpetuate the pirates’ rebellion against the Queen. These virtues turn into rebellion! So, too, this parable teaches us to look at human thoughts, words, and deeds not relative to each other but relative to God. Do such acts arise out of a whole-hearted devotion to God or as an assertion of human autonomy, as the philosopher Kant argued?

Most importantly, however, we must inwardly agree, with entire submission, that God has the right to do whatever He wants with what is His. That includes us. If He is the Creator and we are creatures then He owns us. That moves us on to the next point.

Third, the landowner, in the form of a very pointed question asserts his right to generosity, “Or is your eye envious because I am generous?” The landowner’s question contains an accusation: “You are envious of my generosity.” The parable, therefore, serves as a test of the degree to which we have had our minds transformed by the logic of grace. Do we read this parable still reacting to the unfairness of the landowner’s treatment of the workers who labored in the hot sun for a full twelve hours, or, like that little old lady in the senior citizens’ high rise who rescued me, do we admire the generosity of the landowner to those day laborers who otherwise would have gone home with just one hour’s wage. God has the right to do whatever He wants with His creatures. He could treat all of us according to the requirements of nature, but He doesn’t! Instead, He has chosen to be gracious and merciful to some, to those who believe in His beloved Son, the LORD Jesus Christ.

Is that not fair? He would turn to you and ask, “Is your eye envious because I am generous?” To answer that question correctly, “No!” is to have the mind shaped by a different way of thinking: the logic of grace.

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Puzzling Verses: John 1:12,13

12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name,
13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.   (John 1:12-13; NASB update)

I have always found these two simple verses to be very confusing. I will not resolve my confusion by writing this short post; I will merely expose it.

Verse 12 clearly seems to be speaking of the Christ-believer’s adoption into the family of God. That this is adoption, and not birth, is made obvious by the clause saying that the Christ-believer is given the right, the authority, to become a child of God. The verse does not say anything about how the Christ-believer exercise that right, how he cashes it in. From the rest of Scripture, we know that transaction occurs automatically following faith.

The additional clause, “even to those who believe in His name,” clarifies the opening statement: receiving Christ, as opposed to those who rejected Him, is the same as believing in His name, where His name refers to His Person, character, mission, and the works He performed to fulfill His mission.

But then verse 13 creates a couple problems: 1) it describes being born of God, not adopted, and 2) it explicitly excludes any preceding voluntary act on the part of human beings. Both of these feed each other: in being born a baby is entirely passive. He cannot do anything to make conception occur.

Nicodemus obviously understood this, later in John, when he responded to the rebirth metaphor by asking, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” (John 3:4; NASB) One old commentator suggested that Nicodemus took Jesus too literally. But that’s absurd. Nicodemus was “the teacher of Israel.” Surely he was well accustomed to using and hearing figurative language. His response to Jesus built on the metaphor. He essentially replied, “What am I to do? I cannot make myself be born. Being born just happens to us without any will or action of ours. You’ve left me nothing to do!” That was precisely Jesus’ point. “You must be born again,” is not the gospel message except in demonstrating the need for it. Jesus’ was demolishing Nicodemus’ pride. This is a pre-evangelistic message.

To return: being born without any choice or voluntary action seems very different from believing in or receiving Jesus Christ, or becoming a child of God by right rather than by birth. So how do these two verses relate to each other? Is the antecedent of the pronoun “who” that begins verse 13 to be found in verse 12. The most natural way to read the verse is to take verse 13 as further explaining what it it to be a child of God in verse 12. I have no statistics, but my guess is that’s the most common way of reading the two verses. If that is the correct reading it seems contradictory. It certainly minimizes the importance of the phrase “He gave them the right.” That seems to be a redundant action. But it still has the problem of explaining how verse 13 explicitly excludes any human action with becoming a child being a consequence of receiving or believing. Surely these are human volitional acts, but they are explicitly excluded by verse 13, “not of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man.”

Another possibility is that the antecedent of “who” in verse 13 is “those who believe in His name” immediately preceding in verse 12. The exclusively divine act, without human participation, in giving birth produces Christ-believers. So, God acts alone to give birth to children. These children then believe voluntarily, and God makes them His children by right, i.e., by adoption, as a consequence of their faith. So every believer is a child of God twice over: by birth and by adoption. This seems unnecessary. But that is what we learn to expect of this God, a hyper-abounding grace. He acts in order to give His people assurance that they are His people and He is their God.

Now I must admit that this is not the most natural way to read these two verses, but then their syntax is very awkward. I’m not sure there is a smooth way to read them. If my analysis of these two often cited verses is correct then it has tremendous implications for our view of the relation between being born again and faith. Instead of the common evangelical view that believing causes us to be born again, these two verses must be read as teaching that being born again causes faith which then causes our adoption into the family of God. They teach two ways of being children of God, birth and adoption, rather than just one. And the first is solely the act of God, without any participation of ours.

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The Incredible Influence of a Comma, Ephesians 4:11-16

After more modern editions than the King James Version of the Bible began to be used, some readers observed a change in the punctuation of Ephesians 4:11,12, which had tremendous implications for our view of the church, especially the respective responsibilities of the pastor and ordinary church members.

The King James Version read as follows:

    11 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; 12 for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:

a reading which clearly implies that pastors had three duties:

  1. to perfect the saints, that is, to lead the saints to maturity or equip them,
  2. to perform the work of the ministry, and
  3. to edify the whole body of Christ.

This had the potential of leading to extreme forms of clericalism, where all of the responsibilities for the care of members within a church laid heavily on the shoulders of one man: the pastor.

More modern translations, the RSV in the 1952 and the more evangelical NASB twenty years later, punctuated these two verses a little differently, dropping one of the commas and changing the meaning of the text significantly:

11 And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,  (Eph 4:11-12 RSV)

11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; (Eph 4:11-12 NASB)

The responsibility of pastors, in distinction from the saints, the ordinary members of the church took on a very different meaning: pastors aren’t responsible for the work of the “ministry;” the members of the church are, thus leading to the “every member ministry” movement in the church. The entire passage began to be read almost as job descriptions outlining the respective responsibilities of pastors and laity in the church: pastors equip; members minister. Both still have the same ultimate goal, building up the body of Christ, but differing responsibilities. This insight was greatly liberating both to the overburdened pastor and to the under-committed church member. Even as late as the 1980s, books poured out proclaiming this liberation from clericalism; for example, Melvin J. Steinbron’s, Can The Pastor Do It Alone?:  A Model For Preparing Lay People For Lay Pastoring.

Though I celebrate this liberation from clericalism, I am very concerned that we have somehow gotten stuck on a single insight from this passage. I doubt very much that Paul’s primary intent was to write job descriptions for the pastor and church members. An overemphasis on this distinction, “pastors equip, members minister” can still insinuate a different sort of clericalism where the pastor is distinguished from the body. Surely Paul considered these offices gifted to the church, listed in v. 11, as part of the body of Christ, not separate from it. As Paul puts it later, the whole “body builds itself up in love,” each member, including pastors, serving each other, using the spiritual gifts the Holy Spirit has chosen to bestow on each.

I do not believe that this passage should be used to argue that pastors are not responsible for pastoral care. The very idea seems absurd. The one verb that is used most often to describe the responsibility of elders, bishops, or pastors—they are all the same thing—is to pastor, simply a transliteration of the Latin for “to shepherd.” What is pastoral care if it is not to shepherd the flock in such a way as to give an account to the Chief Shepherd for the well-being of His sheep entrusted to one’s care? (Heb 13:17, 20; 1 Pet 5:4) The idea that pastors cannot do it alone argues more for a plurality of elders as well as a fully engaged laity serving one another. I am afraid that focusing on this passage as a job description has caused us to lose insights that Paul probably did have in mind.

11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. 14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; 15 but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. (Eph 4:11-16 NASB; 1995 update)

My first observation of this passage that its theme is truth: its propagation and preservation and our growth into it. The gifts Paul selects to highlight, in contrast with some of his other list of spiritual gifts, are the truth propagating offices Christ bestowed upon the church (v.11). The goal of church members’ joint growth is unity in “the faith” and knowing the Son of God (v.13). Although Paul has previously described a unity to be maintained (v. 13), here Paul refers to a unity that is to be attained. The NASB places the article in front of the word “faith” making it designate the content of our faith rather than our confidence in things not seen. It is “the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 4). Given the other references to truth content in this passage I believe that article is correct. We are to be steadfast in discerning truth from falsehood, “not carried about by every wind of doctrine” (v. 14). We are to “truth it in love,” a literal translation of Paul’s verb in v.15, which I take to mean that all of us have the responsibility to apply scriptural teaching to each other as the occasion requires: encouragement, exhortation, consolation, admonition, rebuke. The church is the “pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15), which permeates all her activities, and the actions of every member of the body, pastor and flock alike.

The second and perhaps most important observation is that there is just one correct interpretation of scripture. This is clearly implied by the goal of attaining to “the unity of the faith” (v. 13). If there were several equally valid interpretations of Scripture, multiple truths with a lower case “t,” then unity would not even be theoretically possible. Yet Paul establishes this as the final end of edifying the body of Christ.

Third, growing in our knowledge of the truth is a measure of our Christ-likeness (vv. 13,15). It is as much a part of our ongoing sanctification as is our moral development. We are to make it our aim to measure up to Christ’s mature understanding just as much as we are to display His glorious virtues, to follow in His footsteps as He was berated, slandered, and mocked by His enemies (1 Pet 2:21ff.).

Fourth, this focus on truth must be saturated with love. We are to truth it with one another in love (v. 15) and the body builds itself up in love (v. 16). It is true that elsewhere it seems that Paul seems to contrast love and knowledge, but here, in this context, the two are mutually reinforcing: love must be informed by truth; truth must be saturated with love. Often the Christian encounters the need for what the military calls “ground truth,” truth that is not gained in the classroom but learned on the battlefield. We are faced with difficult real-world cases where the most loving thing to do is not always obvious. Paul prays precisely for such situations when he reports to the Philippians, “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent,’ or the marginal reading, “distinguish between the things that differ” (Php 1:9,10a). Such discernment is learned by practice in trying to apply biblical principles (Heb. 5:13,14) and by a resolute commitment to having one’s mind transformed by Scripture (Rom 12:2)

Finally and paradoxically, by implication we are to hold onto our doctrinal differences. If truth is as important to the church as this passage says it is, then we ought to take it seriously, not lightly. We ought to hold fast to our differences even if others ridicule them and use them as an excuse taunting us that the church cannot possibly have the Answer. If we disagree with each other over trivialities, then how can we claim to know what is right, true, and beautiful? Unless we are indeed differing over the things that are indifferent, such as those Paul lists describes in Romans 14 and 1st Corinthians 8-10, we must ignore such ridicule. We must hold fast to our distinctives while at the same time seeking unity. This is a part of our sanctification; it will not be attained this side of the resurrection any more than our Christ-likeness will be.

I have had a long-standing concern that we, the church, have been missing out on the beauties of this passage because of our fixation for reading it as a job description. I have never, in my forty years as a Christian heard a sermon about this passage that did not have the message “pastors equip, members minister.” I hope by writing this post I might have encouraged you to meditate more deeply on this beautiful passage of Scripture.    

UPDATE: I have received a few comments from readers that seemed to miss the point of my post. A couple have focused on the underlying Greek pointing out that we do not have the same preposition, “eis,” repeated three times in what are translated as three purpose clauses. The first preposition is “pros,” indicating that the first purpose clause is subordinate to the second. So, Paul could not have intended to set up three parallel purpose clauses here. I did not intend to advocate a return to the KJV translation. I accept the modern translations! My problem is with the fixation on the “job-description interpretation” of these verses. And I am very concerned that pastor/teachers are somehow distinguished from the body instead on included within it. I still very much doubt that Paul intended to write specialized job descriptions for pastors and members in the context of this passage. I would love to engage in a debate at that level.

Secondly, just to be contrarian, I am not always convinced by these arguments from changes in Greek prepositions, especially by non-classicists. I took two years of classical Greek while a young man in which the possible sound of the language was emphasized. I remember attending readings in which a scholar attempted to read classical Greek poetry using his/her reconstruction of its sound. I wonder sometimes if it isn’t possible that Paul used different Greek prepositions simply because to the Greek ear “pros” sounds better before consonants and “eis” sounds better before words that begin with vowels with smooth breathing. I do not claim to be enough of a scholar to settle the issue, but I think we ought to be more attuned (pun intended) to possible stylistic changes because it sounded better. Again, my point is NOT to dispute the modern translations; I celebrate the influence they have had in freeing us from a stultifying clericalism.

Finally, I was very disappointed to receive a note from a good friend that simply reasserted, “pastors equip, members minister.” This raises a point that I did not make in my original blog post: the use of the translation “ministry” instead of the more literal “service” even among those who use the NASB as I do. The word “ministry” carries with it far too much freight, connotations associated with the old clericalism. At least Steinbron’s subtitle is more honest: A Model For Preparing Lay People For Lay Pastoring. This is dead wrong unless we are talking about lay people who are called to be elders. The verb most commonly used to define the activities of an elder is “to shepherd,” transliterated into Latin “to pastor.” Even though Hebrews 13:17 refers to leaders and not pastor teachers, I believe Hebrews 13:20,21 tells us what the author had in mind, “Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord, equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” Pastor/teachers or elders are under-shepherds to whom has been delegated a special responsibility for the flock, and will give an account for the well-being of their people’s spiritual lives. This is not something safe to grasp at if the Lord has not called you, much less a responsibility to disperse willy-nilly. Our Lord is not safe! There is a pastoral care only pastors can/should give. That does not exclude a member care that members can/should give in small groups, Sunday School classes, or special ministries.

Just to repeat I’m afraid we have missed the riches in this passage because of our fixation on a job-description interpretation.

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