Do you have Talents?

The Text: Matthew 25:14-30 

Often when we read the parable of the talents we see the word talent and we immediately think of abilities and the things we are good at. We often say of someone who is good at something—you’re talented. But when we look carefully at this parable we see that these talents are in fact large portions of money that are given to each servant to manage. So what might this parable be about?

Jesus uses this parable to teach us about the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus’ parable begins with a man who was about to leave on a journey. And he entrusted his servants with the task of managing his financial affairs while he was away. He divided this responsibility amongst his three workers according to their ability. He gave five talents to one worker, two talents to another worker and one talent to another worker. I guess you could call this ‘diversification’—putting your eggs in several baskets rather than one. Dividing your assets to provide more opportunities for growth and reduce risk.

And then, when the master returned, he called his workers before him to give an account of how they managed his money. Two of the workers doubled what they were first entrusted with and the master was full of praise for them.  He said, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servants. You have been faithful in handling these small amounts, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!’

But the third worker did nothing with the one talent that he was entrusted with. He had simply buried it. When this worker gave account of his actions, the money was taken from him and given to servant with ten talents.

Now, in Jesus days a talent was used in two ways: it was used as form of currency and also as a measure of weight. Bible scholars believe that for the average worker one talent was worth more than 15 years of wages.

Now if we look at this in today’s environment what might a talent be worth today? In Australia, in 2020 a person on the minimum wage working full time would earn about $40,000 a year. This suggests that in today’s context a talent could be worth at least $600,000 Australian dollars. Can you start to see what an incredible responsibility the master has entrusted to each of these three workers!

Even the person who has received one talent has received an incredible responsibility and an awesome opportunity. If only this servant had recognized this opportunity!

Now like all the parables, we need to look for the principles that Jesus is teaching us through them and ask: what does this mean for us?

Firstly, notice the trust that the master puts in his servants. How he delegates responsibility for so much of what belongs to him to his servants. He believes in his servants. He has full confidence in his servants. Secondly, notice the way he divides the responsibility – that he does not divide it evenly but he divides it according to their ability. In other words he knows the ability of each of his servants and divides responsibility appropriately.

In this parable we may choose to see the Master as Jesus, and we, his church, are his servants. He has given each of us responsibilities. In giving us responsibilities he recognizes our unique ability and gives us responsibilities according to our abilities.

This parabIe has often been interpreted as a frank and simple call to work hard at developing the gifts and talents that God has given us. Sadly, too many of us feel we have failed to fulfill the responsibilities God has given to us.

Maybe we feel we have failed to recognise the responsibilities God first gave us and have failed to try, to take risks, to learn, to grow, to ask questions. Maybe we feel we have failed to use our abilities to fulfill our responsibilities.  The challenge we face is to recognize our responsibilities and use our abilities to fulfill our responsibilities while we have them.

While it is true that God wants us to use his gifts and to multiply them for the benefit of his Kingdom, we are not judged according to the quantity of the work we do for God, nor even by the quality of that work. Rather, we are judged by our attitude: by our willingness to do as God wants us to do, by our willingness to risk all that we have been given for the sake of the Kingdom just as Jesus risked all of himself for our sake.

As Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

But if we reduce the parable of the talents simply to saying that we must be productive for God or else be condemned, then we miss what is so good about the Christian life! We miss the good news of Jesus Christ, the good news of the grace and mercy won for us on the Cross.

If we see this parable as all about productivity, we will end up like the servant who failed to invest the talent that his master gave him. We will end up being afraid—worried more about how well we are doing in the eyes of God than we are about actually doing anything at all.

Consider the servant who buried the talent entrusted to him. He was afraid and he took no risks. He did not see the potential for growth and he buried what he had to keep it safe. He did nothing. In what areas of your life are we burying our responsibilities and not exercising them according to our abilities?

The parable of the talents is not a lesson about success or our degree of productivity. It is a lesson about our attitude and responsibility. It is about faithfully stepping out with God’s treasure in our hands for the sake of others.

The servant was afraid – and so he did not try. What counts is not whether we win or lose, but whether or not we even try. What counts is whether or not we dare to risk those things that God has given us.

What counts is whether or not we invest ourselves in God’s kingdom:
– Whether we take what we have and use it for God’s purposes.
– Whether we pass on the blessings we have received.
– Whether we seek to build community and bring hope to the strangers among us.
– Whether we reach out to those in need and show them the love that God first showed to us.
– Whether we try to multiply joy and divide sorrow.
– Whether we willingly use what we have been given in the service of God.

Do we work with the resources that God has given us for his sake or do we focus on the fact that we might fail and so refuse to try? Do we use the gifts we have been given to build up the church and to bring praise to God or do we use those gifts only for our own benefit?

God gives us many gifts and resources. Why he does so is not always clear, but what God expects of us is clear. God expects us to develop the good things we have so that the world around us can benefit from them, so that those gifts might be fruitful in us, and add to the good things that God’s world needs.

God, like the master in today’s parable, trusts us to do well with his love, to develop the gifts he gives us so that all the citizens of his kingdom may benefit from them. God has blessed you with the priceless gift of salvation. Therefore we have nothing to fear! We can love God and love life. We can take risks with what God has given to us so that others may experience God’s love and his kingdom may grow near and far. Amen.

Are you wise?

The Text: Matthew 25:1-13


A famous teacher of the church once said: There are only two types of people in the world – fools who think they are wise, and the wise who know they are fools. What he meant was that the first step towards true godly wisdom is to know you are not wise, for there is always more to learn along the journey of faith. A person who thinks they have no more to learn is the person who still has a great deal more to learn.

In the Scriptures, to be wise does not necessarily mean having a head full of facts and figures. To be wise is not necessarily to be smart. The smart are not always wise, especially when it comes to the things of God; and the wise are not always smart, particularly when it comes to the things of this world.

In an earlier parable, Jesus describes the wise as those who build the house of their faith on the Rock (that is, on himself). He says that the wise are those who not only hear the word of God but also do it; that is, live it out in their daily lives. The fools, on the other hand, though they may hear the word of God, don’t do it; don’t live according to it. Instead they build their houses on the shifting sands of personal desires, opinion, culture, fashion.

Notice in the parable that both the wise and the foolish virgins are waiting for the Bridegroom. In other words, this is not a parable about believers and unbelievers, but about two different types of believers. The wise are wise because they have prepared for every contingency by keeping their lamps filled with oil. The foolish, on the other hand, presume that they have enough oil to get them through to the end. In this parable, oil is faith. The wise keep their faith continually replenished. The foolish think the faith they have now is sufficient until Christ returns.

It is only when the point of crisis comes – the delay of the bridegroom – that they two groups are finally distinguished. Just as the two groups of builders are distinguished only when the storm comes. So, what are we to do? Well first we are to recognise that we cannot manufacture our own oil. Faith is not something we work up in ourselves; it is God’s gift that we keep on receiving from him through the means that he has provided. That’s why true disciples are those who continue in Jesus’ Word. This means not only reading and hearing it but also doing it, for that is faith’s purpose – to shine with the light of Christ, just as the oil’s purpose is to allow the lamp to stay lit.

Wisdom, therefore, is both knowing and doing. Not only does it keep faith replenished and thus prepared for any eventuality, but it also maintains one’s spiritual health. The story is told of someone talking to an old school friend who was telling him about his mother who is dying of emphysema. He said that she now has to be hooked up to an oxygen tank for 15 hours a day, and that the doctors have given her little time left. But the really sad part of the story is that in spite of this, she still chain-smokes more than a packet of cigarettes a day, removing her mask to take another drag. Now that is foolish – not only because she knows better, but also because she is knowingly continuing in the very behaviour that has made her so sick in the first place.

We do the same in a spiritual sense when we continue in a sin, fully knowing that it is wrong and that by continuing in it we are hurting ourselves (and others) and endangering our faith. I think we all have experienced such folly. We all know the lack of peace, the joylessness, the regret, the shame, the hiding and the self-deception and the self-loathing that comes on the heels of committing a deliberate sin. And we know who it is that we abandon when we do so; for sin is not just a ‘no’ to God’s law but to God himself, who is love, and the secret of joy.

That is why true wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord, with the wisdom of repentance; of knowing what to do and what to leave behind. Presbyterian minister, Frederick Speakman, tells the story of shaking hands at the door one Sunday when the service was over. As he came back down the aisle on the church after everyone had left, he noticed that some things had been left behind. A bulletin with a shopping list in the margins. In this pew, a pair of gloves; in the next, a pencil on the floor and a lolly wrapper on the seat. As he reached the altar he looked once more at the empty sanctuary and thought to himself, “I wonder what else has been left behind.”

Wouldn’t it be every pastor’s dream to come down the aisle after worship and find other items there. You know, in this pew someone’s deep grief; there, another’s bitter disappointment or sense of failure. In another section some secret sin, real or imagined, not all that important now it had been discarded. Further on, the bulkier rubbish of a badly bruised ego, or the remains of a heated argument on the way to church; or a deep, longstanding resentment between members. Anger, guilt, hurt – all this stuff that so easily beats us up and burns the oil of faith out of us – all swept up and thrown out with the rest of the leftover trash. For it is forgiveness that both replenishes our spiritual resources and greases the community of faith. “Received forgiveness – God’s grace as a renewable resource,” Speakman whispered to himself, “that’s the only thing that keeps us going, keeps our lamps burning.”

In many ways life uses us up; we get burnt out and depleted. But the message of the gospel is that there is also the possibility of replenishment. Drained, we can be refilled as we continue to draw our life from God through the forgiveness of sins. So, if you feel the flame of your faith burning low, then listen again to words the prophet Isaiah wrote so long ago, “a bruised reed [the Lord] will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” Remember: the folly of the foolish was not that they didn’t believe that the Bridegroom was coming; it’s that they figured had enough oil to last, that they could do it on their own, without God’s ongoing help. But they couldn’t and we can’t, and it is wisdom to realise that.

Meanwhile, we wait for the Lord, and as we wait, we have the option either to stay prepared, or not. It is up to us. So let us be and remain prepared by replenishing our faith through prayer and God’s word and shining Christ’s light to others through our heartfelt works of love and Christian example. And don’t worry that you will get burned out; for Jesus not only gave himself for us on the cross, but he gives himself to us at every step of the journey. “Ask, and you shall receive.” That is his promise to each of us. Ask, and you will find that there is rest and replenishment! There is forgiveness. There is hope. And the wise still trim their lamps with the oil of his grace. In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Who likes paying tax?

Matthew 22:15-22 

Who likes paying taxes?
Who thinks paying tax is good?

Some of the biggest political questions today are: Who should pay taxes? How much should you pay? Who should decide how your tax money is spent and what it is spent on?

If we had Jesus standing here today, and if I asked Jesus those questions, what would he say? And would you like the answers? It was a political question back then too, even more political than it is today.

When you have an election you get a say in who gets our tax money, and how they might spend our tax money. The overseer of the government in 1st Century Palestine was a king, Herod Antipas. He wasn’t elected to this position but was the king because he had agreed to exercise his rule within the great Roman Empire.

He would remain king as long as he toed their line, which included paying plenty of tax money to Rome. Herod exercised his authority with military might and the political will of the Roman government.

So there was a lot of political feeling about this question about whether a good Jew should pay taxes to the Roman Emperor. If you paid your tax money you were supporting the enemy. If you didn’t pay your tax money you could be arrested for treason.

The Pharisees were good politicians. They resented Jesus, because he was a threat to their petty power and religious status. They wanted to embarrass Jesus, discredit Jesus, keep him quiet, or get rid of him any way they could. They knew how to play the political games.

First, they butter him up. Jesus, we know that you always tell the truth. And that you are impartial, because you don’t consider people’s status.

And then they put the question. They know how to use a question that will force him to incriminate himself or to embarrass him in front of the people.

They have made sure that they are in a crowd where there a lots of witnesses, including people who are opposed to the Romans.

But they have also made sure that there are some supporters of King Herod there as well, who will report him if he says anything against the government.

Their question: Is it right to pay taxes to the Emperor, or not?

Jesus is not a politician, and he is not going to get sucked into their political games.

First, he exposes their devious motives: You hypocrites, he calls them. Why are you trying to trap me?

He knows that their respectful approach is just flattery. And he knows their question is meant to be a double-edged sword.

Their question: Is it right to pay taxes to the Emperor,
really means: is it right in God’s eyes, according to God’s will, in accordance with God’s commands of the Old Testament?

But he knows that they are not really interested in God’s will, except in using God’s commands when they suit their own purposes.

An astute politician would probably say: No comment.
Or try to evade the question. So instead of beating around the bush with their question, he gives them a much bigger picture of life, of life in their community, and life in God’s world.

He uses the question to teach the people a true God-pleasing relationship to their society. And a true God-pleasing relationship to God.

He asks someone to show him a coin. They all had coins in their pockets or purses. You all have coins and notes in your pockets or bags or wallets.

If you look at the coin, whose image is on the coin? Or the note? Queen Elizabeth, as symbolic head of state?

Whose image was on those old coins? Whose name was written there? Emperor Tiberius!

And that is significant. The government is responsible for pressing coins, and printing money. Can you print your own money? Governments tend to frown on people who print their own money.

The government has the right to print money, and if you have the right to make coins that shows that you are the government. And the government has the responsibility of maintaining the value of money.

If you have this money in your pockets, if you use this money for your daily life, then you have a responsibility to the government who provides the coins. Yes, you have a responsibility to pay your taxes.

Money was a very important invention that allowed societies to grow and become more complex. Now you produce something or provide some service, and you earn money. And you use that money to buy something that someone else has produced. That is the basis of the very complex financial systems that we have today.

But for Christians there is another dimension. Work is not just work – work is serving. Whatever you do, do it to glorify God, and to serve the needs of people.

How can you serve people who are long way away, whose needs are beyond your ability to help? Money can be a way of reaching them, as you give for their welfare according to their needs, so that they can afford to get the help they need.

This brings us back to taxes. What are taxes? You can think of taxes as a means of service. Taxes are the means of serving the community as a whole. Our taxes provide for our roads and our hospitals and our defence and our education. You are serving the people of your community, as together you are providing for your own needs.

You are also providing for the needs of people in your community who do not have the means to provide for themselves. If you have needs, you may also be benefitting from those means. So your taxes are a way of sharing, according to needs.

There are still always questions of how taxes should best be administered. But when you compare a community that has fair taxes, with a community that has no taxes, because it is has no effective government, then you can even be thankful for taxes.

You may even be able to pay your taxes with a smile. And you may be able to dedicate your taxes – God use these taxes for the benefit of many people.

So give back to the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor. Pay the coins that have the image of the Emperor stamped onto it.

But that is only half of Jesus’ answer. And pay to God what belongs to God.

What belongs to God? We often think that this means give some of your money to the government and give some of your money to God.

But I do not think that is what it means, and I do not think that is what Jesus intended.

Pay to the Emperor, because the Emperors image is on your coins. Pay to God, what bears the image of God.

Where do you find the image of God? Where do you look if you want to see the image of God? Look in a mirror. Look at yourself.

Think back to the story of creation. God created the world, everything in the world, and every creature in the world. Then God created human beings. In the image of God he created them. Male and female he created them. God created us, as human beings, in his own image.

What does that mean? It means that we are different to all of God’s other creatures. It means that God has put something of himself into us. Not in a physical sense, because God is beyond any physical image, but in a spiritual sense. God has breathed his Spirit of life into us.

It means that God has created us to share in his creation, and to pass on his gift of life. It means that God has created us to share a relationship with himself.

It means that God has given us a will to serve his will, to know and choose and do what is good and right and holy. It means that we have been created to live with God forever.

But we know that we have sinned against our God. As a human race, and each of us individually, we have sinned against our God.

Which means that this image of God in us has been spoiled. We have trouble seeing the image of God in one another. We have trouble seeing the image of God in ourselves.

Our sinful selfishness gets in the way. It ruins this relationship with God. It blots out life the way it should be, the life that reflects the image of God.

Our God has given us Jesus Christ.

Jesus is God coming into our world. But now God is in a form that we can see, God with a real physical human presence. St Paul says that Jesus is the firstborn of all creation, the image of the invisible God.

Jesus is God coming to us. And Jesus shows us what human life, our life, is, and what our life should be.

Not only shows us. Jesus brings us back to God. Jesus overcomes our sin. Jesus restores our life. Jesus gives us God’s Spirit anew. Jesus gives us a whole new life,
a life formed again according to the image of God.

So where is the image of God? The image of God is in you. You have been created in the image of God. As Christians, you have been re-created by the salvation of Jesus Christ into the image of God.

Now, pay to God what belongs to God. Pay to God, give to God, what has the image of God imprinted onto it. Give to God yourself. Give to God your own life.

That is the challenge that Jesus gives. To receive our life as God’s precious gift, God’s precious gift given twice over. And then to give our live to him. Because we belong to him.

To give our lives for serving him. For worshipping him. For loving him. To dedicate our lives as we trust him. And then to dedicate ourselves to serve as Jesus serves.

With a deep love that reaches out to other people, in all their needs, a love that embraces them into the love of God.

Jesus challenges us to see ourselves, and all of our lives, as an opportunity to live for our Lord, to serve and to give.

Now, it is not just how much money do I think I should give? Yes, our money belongs to God too, the money that we present as an offering, but also all the money that we need and spend for every purpose.

Now there is no room for silly political questions. Now there is just one question, one spiritual question. How can I best give myself to my God and Lord? Amen.

You are invited

The Text: Matthew 22 1-14

Have you ever been to a themed party where you had to wear a costume to get in?

In the Northern Territory, bush sports weekends often have a ball on the Saturday night, even though everyone is camping out in the bush in tents or swags. The ladies get dressed up in their fancy dresses and the blokes put on a tie. In fact if you don’t have tie, you don’t get in. But so that no one misses out, the organisers often have a collection of ties at the door so that any man who doesn’t bring one could put it on and meet the dress code.

This I think gives us a clue as to what Jesus was on about in his parable where the man is thrown out of the feast. He didn’t have the correct celebration clothes on. But how did all those others get the right clothes?

Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.

“Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’

“But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.

“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ 10 So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12 He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless.

13 “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

14 “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”

Kingdom parables often begin with that word “like”, or the ESV uses the phrase “can be compared to.”

Not everything about heaven is ‘like’ a wedding feast, but there are some similarities. We need to know what are those similarities and where does the likeness stop.

For instance Jesus doesn’t talk about the drunk uncle boozing up in the corner, or the bride who over indulges – he tell us the things that are similar.

Invitations go out, maybe even save-the-date-invitations, sometimes months in advance. In the parable the first recipients don’t want to come; some are too busy on the farm, others in the office and then the rest of them kill the messenger. It is obvious by where Matthew has put this parable who these people are. The invited guests are the nation of Israel, especially the religious leaders, the Scribes and Pharisees. The same nation who killed the prophets, God’s messengers. It matches exactly with the previous parable we heard last week.

However, this parable is not in the Bible so we can point the finger. As those who have heard the message of the Gospel, we also have the invitation. This parable is now a warning for us, to not be like the Pharisees and ignore the invitation. The invitation is quite simple, all it requires is for us to believe the Gospel – that our righteousness is not righteousness at all and that we instead need the righteousness of Christ. Christ’s righteousness is our only hope to stand before God with a good conscience and receive his favour. The problem with the Pharisees was that they looked to themselves and mistakenly thought that God would be pleased with them by how they measured up. We are tempted to think like this too. We are inclined to think, ‘I’m a good Christian’, or ‘I’m not as bad as those other people’. When we think like that, we’ve become self-righteous and when we are self-righteous we have decided we don’t need Jesus and we’ve rejected his invitation.

So the self-righteous are out.

The party must go on, the feast is ready, the tables are spread, the wine is about to flow, so we need some guests.

Bring in all those who never thought they would ever get an invite!

Just we would at our wedding, God invited his family first, his people, the nation he had chosen. When the tables are not filled he brings in all those who are left on the streets, good and bad. He doesn’t send them home to get dressed, he doesn’t give them a chance to get busy, he just brings them in to the feast. Truth be told this was the intention all along, that the whole world would be invited, but the Scribes and Pharisees don’t realise that.

Weddings have a dress code, guests need to wear the right clothes. But none of those dragged in off the street would have been suitably attired, yet they are all dragged in.

Why is it that one person is singled out as not being dressed correctly? Shouldn’t all those rushed in at the last minute be in the same situation? Obviously not, somehow they managed to meet the dress code, to put on the right clothes. The only logical conclusion is that the host graciously provided clothing for his guests. How else would they have met the dress code? But one obviously wouldn’t receive the gift, he would not put on the free clothes.

So who is he like?

The clothes that we are provided when we are rushed in at the last minute to the feast, rushed in at that last minute to heaven, is Christ’s righteousness. We see it all through the New Testament, and even in the Old, ‘Put on Christ’, ‘be covered with his righteousness’. That is the dress code for the feast, either perfect obedience where we fulfil the law ourselves – that’s impossible – or righteousness that is not our own but a gift of the host.

All those who missed out on the feast were self-righteous. The one singled out for not wearing the right garment was self-righteous because he obviously didn’t think he needed to put on anything else than his own clothes. He was good enough in himself. He had a take-me-as-I-am attitude. But he wasn’t good enough in himself; only one garment gets you in and that is the righteousness of Christ. The nation of Israel were self-righteous and the incorrectly dressed man was self-righteous; the warning for us is not to be self-righteous, but to put on the righteousness of Christ.

We put on this righteousness every day, and sometimes many times a day. Whenever Christ proclaims his forgiveness to us he puts his righteousness on us. Every time we see that we are sinners and receive forgiveness, Christ puts his righteousness on us. Jesus didn’t say ‘the kingdom will be like’ as if it was to happen sometime in the future, he said ‘it is like’, it is happening now. The king has already been crowned, the table has already been spread and we are already living in the kingdom. We might not see the table, the food or the wine, but the feast is happening, heaven isn’t waiting for us to die or be ready before the celebration can begin. The celebration is continuous, and we need to be dressed in his righteousness in preparation and participation.

This parable must be a warning to us on both accounts. We are just like the nation of Israel, in that we have the invitation but are inclined to reject it saying; ‘I’m too busy’, ‘I’m shearing this week’, ‘I’ll get to that another day’, or ‘I’ve got a crop to plant’. We have the message of salvation but are we accepting the invitation?

This is a warning also not to think we deserve to be at the feast without the proper clothes. It’s a bit rude really that a man dragged in off the street after being offered fresh clean party clothes would not put them on. It’s not as if he deserved to be there in his own right, so we must realise we don’t deserve to be at the feast in our own right, but we are assured that our clothing is provided, new and bright, ready for the celebration.

While the celebration is continuous in heaven we get a taste of it here on earth, not just as we put on Christ’s righteousness when we receive forgiveness, but also when we join in his heavenly meal kneeling at the table. So we get a foretaste of the feast that is yet to come for us, but is already in progress.

You are invited to the feast of the King!

And the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.


Vines and Wines

The Text: Matthew 21:33-46

Some people have a passion for their vines and their wines. Someone who owns a vineyard loves the place.

It has to be the right place to grow wines. They love the soil. It has to be the right soil to produce the right flavours. They love the vines, those funny knobbly sticks that suddenly spring to life. They love the fresh greenness of the growing vines.

They love to watch the fruit forming, growing, filling out, colouring. They love the vintage, the frantically busy time of picking the grapes and carting them into the winery.

They love the pressing – not too many do it by treading the grapes with their bare feet any more, but that shows some of the joy of feeling the grapes give up their rich juice.

They love the wine making, blending just the right juices, storing them in barrels while they ferment and mature. They love the tasting, discovering just what sort of a vintage it has turned out to be.

They love sharing the wine, getting others to taste and tell them what a wonderful job they have done. They love marketing the wine, putting their own label on and offering it to the world.

There is something about owning a vineyard, growing your own grapes, making your own wine, that brings together so many of the best things of living with the fruitfulness of the earth, and the rich blessings of life.

A genuine owner loves their vineyard and loves their winery. The Bible uses that picture for the way that God loves his people.

We hear from the prophet Isaiah in chapter 5 the love song for the vineyard. It tells of the man who planted his vineyard with great love:

My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug up the soil and cleared away the stones. He planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower so that he could guard it against animals or birds or intruders. He dug a winepress, where he could tread the grapes.

When the time for the vintage came he went out to pick the grapes. But it yielded only bad fruit. The grapes were all withered, or sour.

What had gone wrong? You can feel the anguish of this owner who had invested so much effort into the vineyard. You can feel the pain and disappointment of the man who had put in so much love, and who received nothing in return.

That is how God had gathered and built up his people. Our Psalm says to God:  You transplanted a vine from Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it, and it took root and filled the land.

Remember the story of God leading the people out of slavery in Egypt, leading them across the desert under the leadership of Moses, and giving them a land where they could settle and thrive.  He called on them to live as his holy people.

But they disappointed God. Again and again they forgot about God. They followed their own ideals and became greedy and corrupt.

Isaiah tells how the people have let their God down: The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are the garden of his delight. He looked for justice, but saw bloodshed. He looked for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.

Here is the pain of God when his vineyard, his people, let him down: What more could I have done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?

Now God’s relationship turns to judgment. He says: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled. I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and thorns and thistles will grow there.

The people who have deserted their God will suffer the consequences of their desertion, and the punishment of their rebellion. The love of God becomes the pain of God.

Jesus uses a very similar picture in his parable about the vineyard. In Jesus’ parable the landowner does exactly the same: digs up the soil, puts up a wall around the edge, builds a watchtower, and digs a winepress.

But then he has to leave that town, so he rents out the vineyard to some tenants. The rent will be a share of the vintage when it is harvested.

When the time comes he sends his servant to collect the harvest. But the tenants turn on the servants, beat them up, and even kill them.

Now we see the love of the landowner expressed in patience and hopefulness. He sends more servants to complete the mission. But they too are beaten up and murdered.

The landowner loves his vineyard, and he wants to be able to claim its fruit. He decides to send his own son to collect his harvest. He thinks that surely they would respect his son.

But instead of respecting the son or the father, they work out that they can kill the son and heir. And if the landowner has no heir they will be able to seize the vineyard, and own it for themselves.

So when the son arrives they grab him, and drag him out, and murder him.

Jesus asks the people what the landowner should do. They are horrified and angry. They must be punished and killed. And he should find some other tenants who will do the right thing and who will produce a harvest and hand it over where it belongs.

Right, says Jesus. And he turns to the people who are the religious leaders. You are those wicked tenants who turn against their benefactor, he says.

Why? Because they had been entrusted with the spiritual life of their people. God had appointed priests and elders to lead the people in worship, and to teach them to trust God, and to show them how to follow God. They had been called to serve their God and Lord. They had been given positions of trust and responsibility.

And they had taken those positions and used them for their own status and power. They had turned it around and trusted their own goodness, rather than the goodness of God. They sought the honour and glory from the people, rather than giving honour and glory to God. They were the tenants who wanted to be the owners.

God had repeatedly sent prophets to call his people to repentance and faithfulness. The message of the prophets was often a direct challenge to the religious leaders, and it was the religious leaders who rejected the prophets. The prophets were persecuted, and hunted down, and imprisoned, and killed. These were the servants, whom God had sent for the harvest, but who had been beaten and killed.

In this story Jesus is speaking prophetically about himself. When Jesus came, he proclaimed the kingdom of God. He told the people that God’s kingdom was coming, and he showed that he was bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth.

The message of Jesus, and the response of the people to Jesus, threatened the self-interest of the religious leaders. They were already plotting how they could get rid of Jesus.

In telling of the landowner who sent his son to collect the harvest, Jesus is telling how his heavenly Father had sent him into the world. He had done so with great love and deep patience and hopefulness.

Surely people who professed faith and loyalty to God would receive God’s own Son with devotion and faithfulness? But Jesus knew that the knives were out.

The Gospel says that the chief priests and Pharisees knew that he was talking about them. But instead of hearing this as a warning, they are all the more determined. They are looking for a way to arrest him. The cross is not far away.

And even as they do so, they are condemning themselves. They are the ones who want to seize and control God’s kingdom. They are the ones who want the power and the glory for themselves. They are the ones who are bringing God’s own judgement on themselves.

We can think of this parable as a warning to the religious leaders who were there at the time of Jesus.

But we can also hear this parable telling us about the deep love of God for all of his people, and his pain and disappointment whenever people abuse the grace that he gives to them. We can hear this parable as God’s warning also to us.

You may or may not appreciate vineyards. You may or may not enjoy the fruit of the vine. But you have been given the opportunity to share in the wonderfully rich and beautiful kingdom of our God.

God is at work, planting, growing, tending, building, and his work is the life process of growth, health, production. The fruit of the vine is a great symbol of the joy and celebration of belonging to the kingdom of our God.

And God has also given us the privilege of working in his vineyard. God has called us to serve in his kingdom. God has entrusted the work of his kingdom to his people on earth. God has appointed us to be his tenants, working for him, and responsible to him.

But with that comes the temptation, to think that the vineyard belongs to us, and to try to get it for ourselves. As soon as we do that we are rebelling against our God. We are taking what belongs to God. We are looking for our glory and our power.

Spiritual power is a wonderful gift from God, the power to live for God, and to use his word and his life. Spiritual power is also a temptation, a temptation to pride and selfishness and self-righteousness.

We think that God has gone a long way away, and now we can please ourselves, do what we want, all under the justification of religion.

God calls us, entrusts us to work in his vineyard. It is our great privilege to be able to speak God’s word, to show God’s love, to share in the life of the vineyard, its planting, growing, tending, harvesting, to see the great things that God is doing, also through us.

God has even sent his own Son to us. We welcome him as our Lord and our Saviour. We look at all his has given us, and we pledge to serve with his spirit of love and generosity.

It is always God’s harvest, and God’s gift of love. Wherever and whenever we see the new life of the kingdom, we give thanks to God, we offer it back to God, and we rededicate ourselves to serving God more and more.

We offer our service to the glory of our Lord. Let the vineyards be fruitful, Lord.


Who said you could do that?

The Text: Matthew 21:23-32

“By whose authority are you doing these things?”

“Who said you could do that?”

“Who says so?”

These are words of protest, accusation, and doubt, but they’re also words of rebellion. The person who usually asks these questions is challenging the authority of the other person. It’s a basic question of who’s in control; who’s the boss right here, right now.

As Australians, we typically like to challenge every authority. We like to disobey or question our parents, thinking we know better than them. We like to see how much we can get away with at work, like attempting to fool our bosses by taking sickies on long weekends (unless of course we don’t trust any other bosses and want to be self-employed). We flash our lights at oncoming traffic to ‘stick it’ to the police who may have a speed camera up ahead. We like to rubbish or lampoon our Prime Minister or parliamentarians. Basically, if anyone thinks they’re above us in any way, we’ll soon cut them down to size!

But when we do these things, we’re attempting to set ourselves up as our own authority, our own boss, or even our own little god who controls our own little world.

When we complain about our parents, our boss, our Prime Minister, or our pastor, we’re really complaining about God who placed them in their position of authority in the first place. They don’t even have to be Christian for God to place them there, after all, even Jesus tells Pontius Pilate he recognises his authority to crucify him (or not) because it was given to him from above (Jn 19:10-11).

In this sense, whenever we challenge or question those in authority over us, we’re challenging or questioning God’s authority, which brings us to the gospel reading for today.

Jesus had entered Jerusalem on a donkey and overturned the marketing tables in the temple. The local authorities (which were the chief priests and elders) came to challenge Jesus by asking whose authority he was doing these things. In other words, “We’re the local authority, and we reckon you have no authority here, so you better come up with your authorised credentials quickly or you’re in big trouble!”

He, in turn, asked them a question about authority. He wanted them to answer by who’s authority had John the Baptist been baptising people? Was he doing this with heavenly authority (which meant it was authorised by God), or was it from humans (which meant it was false, unauthorised, illegitimate, and therefore possibly evil)?

Now, as the local authority experts, they had the choice to back John’s baptisms as authorised by God himself (and therefore give their theological and pastoral blessing to it), or else reject it as false and evil. Since they hadn’t acted on stopping or getting rid of John earlier, you’d think they’d side with his baptisms being authorised by heaven (which many of the lay people believed it was), but they stopped short of doing this for one reason: fear!

The local authorities were afraid of the people and their opinions. Giving up their authority to say what was of God and what wasn’t, they now disqualified themselves from their position of authority. As disqualified leaders who lacked the courage to trust the work of God, Jesus wouldn’t entrust these people with the answer to their question.

When we’re afraid of what people will think of us and our faith, we’re often too afraid to listen to, and trust, God’s authority.

Because we’re afraid of what people will say, or think, or do to us, we give others a kind of fake authority which entraps us into more fear. Instead of letting God have the final authority and the last word on a matter, we listen to the opinions of others. When we’re afraid, we don’t listen to God properly. In response God will often challenge the authority of what we’re afraid of, but we often let our fears deceive us into a false sense of security.

Jesus goes on to teach these disqualified authorities through a parable of two sons – one who said ‘no’, but later obeyed his father’s authority, and the other who said ‘yes’, but then rebelled. He compared these two sons with two groups of people – the ‘tax-collectors and prostitutes’ who will enter the kingdom of heaven and the ‘chief priests and elders of the law’ who won’t.

One group lived rebellious lives but believed John’s and Jesus’ ministry and so acted accordingly in faith, while the other group did and said all the right things on the surface (and so seemed righteous in many people’s eyes, including their own), but didn’t believe their ministry was from God and therefore wouldn’t enter the kingdom.

But notice it wasn’t just faith itself (as if only believing in our own head or heart is enough), but a faith which trusted and acted according to what he or she believed, and so participated in the life and ministry of God’s authorised representatives.

“By what authority are you doing these things?”

Well, let’s see. Pastors, as called and ordained servants of the Word forgive us all our sins. In the stead of, and by the command of, Christ, they forgive us as Christ’s personal ambassadors. Of course, we could believe our own opinions or thoughts which might want to challenge those words. We could believe others who will keep reminding us of our failures or mistakes or regrets. Or you could trust when Jesus says we’re forgiven, we’re forgiven. He has the authority to forgive us and has passed on this heavenly privilege to his church, which is enacted through its authorised servants.

Similarly, at the end of Matthew’s gospel account we hear Jesus has been given all authority and now hands this authority to the church to baptise and teach. We enact this heavenly authority whenever we baptise people.

Whenever we celebrate the Lord’s Supper Christ’s words are repeated and Christ’s authority is enacted. Here again God’s word does what it says so that the bread and wine we eat and drink is also the very body and blood of Christ himself given for us for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of our faith.

Of course we could believe our own opinions about this meal and think it only a symbolic reenactment, or on the other hand we could trust Jesus’ authority to share with us his very own body and blood for us, which means heaven itself, in all its fullness, touches us here.

You see, it’s not just by whose authority we’re doing all these things, but how this authority is enacted. In the reading from Philippians this morning we hear how Jesus didn’t use his authority to lord it over you and me, but he emptied himself and became a suffering servant to do his Father’s will.

He trusted and obeyed his Father’s authority by enduring the cruel cross and dying for you and me. You could say he’s unlike the sons in the parable. He’s never changed his mind – his answer has always been, and always will be, a ‘yes’ for you and me – both in intention and in action.

Jesus Christ always exercises his heavenly rule and authority according to the upside-down ways of God’s kingdom for us. He comes as a servant for our sake. He serves us by forgiving us, washing us clean, adopting us as his brothers and sisters, feeding us with his own body and blood, teaching us his ways, and blesses us in order that we may also serve as his own authorized, humble servants wherever he’s placed us.

He’s given us the authority to serve – to faithfully serve as a child, a parent, a citizen, or a boss, under the authority of God. Like Christ himself, we don’t use this authority to rule, but to serve humbly in such a way we don’t think of ourselves as better than anyone else, but as if others are better than us. Because we’re united with the suffering Servant, we don’t look for ways to serve our own interests, but we instead serve the interest of others.

This means, instead of thinking ‘What’s in it for me?’ we may instead think ‘How may I best serve you today?’

Don’t be like those who grumble about those in authority above them, or like those who seek to deceive out of fear, but let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ mean ‘no’ as we all submit ourselves under the authority of God to serve each other in humbleness and grace. And the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, which will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

“That’s Fair!”.

Matthew 20:1-16
“That’s Fair!”

If you follow any code of football, you will know that it’s the season for the finals – and usually there is also a ‘best and fairest’ medal count.  During the medal count, fans watch in suspense as points are tallied up, match-by-match, until finally a winner is declared.  Occasionally there is some big news in the weeks leading up to the medal count when the favourite for the ‘best and fairest’ medal is penalized by the tribunal for rough conduct and is rubbed out of contention for the medal. “It’s not fair!” the fans will complain.

If that’s not fair, then try and imagine the complaints there would be if a footballer who had played only a few games at the end of the season was also awarded top points and the ‘best and fairest’ medal.    “It’s not fair!” the fans would complain. The ‘best and fairest’ medal is awarded on the basis of a match-by-match accumulation of points.  You have to play the games – and play well in all the games – to get the prize. 

That may be a situation very much like Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard. In Jesus parable, workers were hired at different times during the day and therefore expected to be paid for the hours they worked, but when pay time came, all the workers received the same amount.  The ones who had worked only one hour received as much as those who had worked all day in the heat of the sun.

It is not surprising that they accused the boss of being unfair.  These workers were operating with the common assumption that people must get what they deserve; the wages must match the work.  At one stage, even Jesus had said to his disciples, “A worker should be given his pay” (Luke 10:7), but here is the same Jesus telling a story that seems totally unfair.  He’s using it as an example of how the Heavenly Father rewards people who come into his kingdom at different stages of their life.  He rewards them all with the same gift, regardless of their time in his kingdom.

Hearing such things may appeal to our inner sense of justice, especially in matters where our own welfare is concerned.  We see it in children when they compare what they have received with what others have received and say, “That’s not fair!”  We see it in adults who cast an envious eye over what others have and say, either openly or inwardly, “That’s not fair!”

Maybe you’ve felt it also in your life as a Child of God.  Hearing this parable may even invoke feelings of “That’s not fair!” How fair is it to think of a person who has lived a wicked or wayward life, making a deathbed repentance and receiving the same gifts from God as the faithful church member who has ‘borne the heat of the day’, serving God all his life, sacrificing himself, taking up his cross and following Jesus? “How come he gets the same reward?” you may ask. “That’s not fair!”

To understand Jesus parable properly we need to see beyond what seems to be the injustice of God and understand that it is also a parable about the generosity or amazing grace of God which is available to all people.

If we human beings really want to take up the matter of the justice of God, then we’re in for a rude shock.  If God really did what was fair or just, no one would receive any reward for God.  We are all sinners and none of us deserve his love, his forgiveness or his gift of eternal life.  As Paul wrote to the Romans, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom.3:23).  What we rightly or justly deserve is his punishment, not his reward.  If we’re interested in justice, that would be fair.

But God is interested in more than justice.  He is also very loving and generous.  That’s why he sent his only Son Jesus Christ to live a perfectly good life in our place and to die, also in our place, for our sins.  Jesus did that to satisfy the demands of God’s justice.  He did it so we could be ‘justified’, put back into a right relationship with God. I don’t think too many Christians would say, “That’s not fair!” to that.

That’s because everything we receive from God is a gift.  The spiritual blessings we receive are never to be considered a wage, but a free gift.  As Paul also wrote to the Romans: The only wage we deserve is death; but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom.6:23).  We have received God’s gift of love, forgiveness and eternal life, not because we have worked for it, but because God is so generous.  It is not something we earn like ‘best and fairest medal’ points, or wages.

In Jesus’ parable, the employer said that he gave the workers whom he had hired last the same amount because he wanted to and because he had a right to do as he wished with his own money.  In God’s kingdom, he gives all people his love, forgiveness, and eternal life simply because he is generous.  He wants to and has a right to hand out his grace and love as freely as he wishes.

No one in God’s kingdom should ever need to feel cheated because they have worked harder for their spiritual blessings than another.  Instead we should learn to rejoice that God’s love and forgiveness is great enough to give even the worst of sinners who have lived the wickedest of lives, the gift of eternal life.  We should learn to rejoice that God’s gifts of forgiveness, life and eternal salvation are available to all who are led to trust in Jesus, right up ’til their dying breath.  We should learn to rejoice because we have received those gifts, even though we don’t deserve them.

It is good news that the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross for sinners was big enough to save the worst of sinners in the latest of deathbed repentances.  Like the angels in heaven, we should learn to rejoice at their salvation rather than falling into the trap of thinking, “That’s not fair!”

Whether we were baptised as an infant and led a faithful Christian life for 80 years or more, or whether we repent on our deathbed after a shameful life, we still have reason to rejoice in the generosity of God and in his gift of forgiveness, life, and salvation.

Just as the workers hired first had agreed on their reward when hired (v.13), we who become Christians early in our life also know what Christ offers us.  At the end of our life he gives us no less than he had promised and he will give us no more because he has promised us all he has to give.  He has held nothing back.

So, instead of feeling, “That’s not fair!” or seeing the Christian life as some sort of medal count, let’s learn to rejoice, first of all, in what Christ has promised us in our baptismal covenant right at the beginning of our Christian life:  his free gift of forgiveness, new life and eternal salvation.  Let’s treasure and nurture that gift as we ‘bear the heat of the day’ – offering our lives as living sacrifices in service of God and others.

Let’s also learn to rejoice that God’s love is generous enough, and Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is big enough, to offer that love and forgiveness to anyone who turns away from their sin and puts their trust in Jesus, at whatever stage in their life. 

It wasn’t really fair that Jesus, who did no wrong, should have been punished for what we did, but he did it for us.  Now he gives freely and generously of his love and forgiveness to all who turn from sin and put their trust in him. I think we all have to admit, “That’s fair!” and praise God for his glorious grace.  Amen.

And may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

7 Strikes and you’re out?

Joseph Stalin’s biographer said this of his subject. ‘Stalin never forgot nor forgave an injury done to him. He bided his time and, in the end, always hit back.’ The death of countless millions can testify to the murderous intent of Stalin’s unforgiving heart. He turned the energy of a grudge nursed into the fullness of evil.

 A Christian GP ran a workshop on the topic of forgiveness. She began the workshop by quoting this statistic from a Christian psychologist in the US: “Non-forgiveness, resentment or bitterness is the leading cause of death in the U.S.A.” She went on to explore the physical effects of not forgiving others: depression, which can sometimes be internalized anger, and anxiety, for which people may resort to drugs or alcohol in order to cope. Resentment requires energy, and this comes via the adrenal gland, which pumps out hormones. We know it as the fight or flight response, but when it’s perpetually primed, it can suppress the white blood cells and the antibodies which fight illness.

I’m certain that each of us knows in our own lives the heartache of an issue that remains unresolved. Perhaps it’s a long estrangement between family members. Or a simple dispute with a neighbour which has taken the form of an ongoing, unresolved border dispute. Or perhaps someone we trusted has passed on something we told them in trust, and now we refuse to have anything to do with them.

Suggesting that the solution to all these issues is forgiveness is seen by many people to be the easy way out, featherbedding people who deserve to suffer for what they’ve done wrong. Witness the ‘law and order’ debate which comes around every election time. Some states have what is called ‘mandatory detention’ of defenders after a third offence; ‘three strikes and you’re in’ legislation. The third conviction places a person in jail, no matter what the crime.

Perhaps this is the origin of Peter’s proposal to Jesus. “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times? (Matthew 18:21, NIV) Seven is more practical than three, given how much we offend against each other, but it still involves keeping tally of people’s faults. It just requires better accounting and a more powerful memory. Then I wipe them out of my life.

Jesus replies: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. (Matthew 18:22 NIV) Peter does the maths and rocks back on his heels, and we wonder whether Jesus is another one of these do-gooders, blind to the potential of human beings to hurt each other. That’s when Jesus decides to tell a story about kingdom accounting. The numbers in this parable are mind-blowing. A slave comes to the king owing the equivalent of a middle-size country’s gross national product. His debt is enormous. A talent was the largest coinage known at the time. And ten thousand was the largest number conceivable.

Amazingly, unbelievably, the king is moved by his servant’s plea for mercy. There’s nothing in it for the king. The debt will never be repaid, but in his compassion, he forgives it. He throws the abacus out of the window. What to do now that life has opened up again. Aren’t you shocked that the freed servant chooses the way he has just escaped from? How could he continue to account for other people’s wrongs against him, when he has been forgiven so much? Our anger begins to rise at his audacious behaviour. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. (Matthew 18:28, NIV) A big debt, no doubt, 100 day’s wages, but minuscule in proportion to the one he had blithely walked away from.

What was he thinking? Forgiveness might be good for God, and the do-gooders around the place, but it doesn’t work in the real world. You can’t let people take advantage of you. You’ve got to show them who’s boss. But the king, the one has just pardoned him, gets to hear about what he’s done, and is shocked, and mightily angered too:  33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. (Matthew 18:33-34, NIV)

Do you and I get stuck in accounting mode? Even though we know that we have been forgiven by God, do we transfer this grace across to the way we treat those who have wronged us?  This is where Peter starts this conversation: he asks Jesus for a number. He wants to know just how much is reasonable. And so he suggests what he thinks is a more-than-sufficient amount of forgiveness.  

In turning forgiveness into a transaction, we dismiss grace. And we leave people locked in the prison of our hate. Who have you imprisoned? Who do you still want to punish because they hurt you? What can’t you let go of because it seems unfair that your hurt will be forgotten and therefore not validated?

We’ve all been stuck in a place like this, and these thoughts and emotions become a prison which entraps us. An unforgiving and unrepentant attitude causes harm to us as much as it does to other. It’s corrosive to faith and it sets us on a collision course with God who has treated us so graciously in the forgiving way He has embraced us through our Baptism and blessed us with a living relationship with Himself.

“The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.” (Matthew 18:27, NIV)

This word “pity” is used by Matthew to refer only to God’s love. God was wiped the slate clean. In the words of Psalm 103:as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:12, NIV) But in choosing to remember and account for each wrong, we are rewriting our history. We are throwing back in God’s face the fact that He has rescued us from spiritual bankruptcy. And if that’s what we want from God, then sadly that’s what He will give us. “This is how My heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:35, NIV) If you and I want to keep count, so will God. And He has a far better memory than us.

But this is not the way of full life which Jesus promises those who trust in His love and grace. God is ready and waiting for us to return to Him to seek His forgiveness, and to pray to Him for strength to forgive those who have hurt us. And this can be immensely difficult, for forgiveness is not the easy way out. It is much easier to ignore other people’s hurts, our underestimate the pain they’ve caused us. But when we do that, we file the hurt away, and we brood on it. It grows and develops a life of its own, and we can’t resist the desire for revenge. But this isn’t love in the name of Christ. Remember what Paul says in the famous chapter, 1 Corinthians 13. Love … keeps no record of wrongs.” (13:5, NIV)

Forgiveness is powerful. It’s not a cop out, nor a helpless acceptance of what happened to us.

In his book, The Art of Forgiving, Lewis Smedes outlines the process of forgiveness. It has four steps, if you’re counting:

Acknowledge the hurt.

Blame the person who has hurt you; something has happened that makes it impossible to carry on relationship as if nothing has happened. “Forgiveness is not saying, ‘What you did I understand and it’s all right with me…Forgiving is going to a person and saying, ‘I don’t understand. I’ll never understand. And it wasn’t OK, and it isn’t OK. But I forgive.”

Decide you are going to live with the scales of justice unbalanced. It means not engaging in the cycle of revenge. It means that you choose to live the prayer that you daily pray: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” You also choose to live in obedience to God’s Word through Paul: “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”

Begin to revise your feelings toward the person who has wronged you. The person who hurt you gradually rejoins the human race. God has dealt with both your sin, and the sin of the person who has hurt you through the cross of Jesus. You stand on the same ground.

Forgiveness is not delayed retribution. It’s not a strategy to bide our time. It’s bringing our rightful hurt and pain into God’s heart, and seeking the healing that He wants to bring, to us and for the person who has wronged us. Forgiveness is the oil that lubricates the wheel of Christian community. Forgiveness is a human need, but a divine endowment. In Him (Jesus) we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace. (Ephesians 1:7, NIV84) And in our forgiving, “we set a prisoner free.  We discover that the prisoner we set free is ourselves.” Free as God intended us to be in Christ.


Father, give us the power to do what You have done for us, so that we might live in harmony with one another, and at peace with You and ourselves. Amen.


Imagine your clasic sofa

The Text: Matthew 18:15-20

Imagine in your minds a picture of your classic sofa. Now I am interested to know from you, what things come into your mind when you imagine it? What things do you associate with the classic sofa? Obviously, there are very many things we use the sofa for such as watching TV, gaming, iPads, and phones, reading, lounging on, sleeping on when tired, eating on it, talking, sharing with a loved one. It has all the associations with comfort doesn’t it? But it also has another very useful function which can be both good and bad, depending on what you are going through. Young people might really love the sofa for some other interesting reasons especially when Mum or Dad ask you to do some chores; like the dishes, or dishwasher, tidying your room and all those things.

It’s other very important function is escape! It is the place where we want to stay when we don’t wish to go somewhere else. It is the place of comfort to get away from everything, we don’t like. It is the classic place to go to if we’ve had an argument with a loved one, coupled with the famous TV remote to truly hide ourselves away from our problems. It also curiously has that mesmerising effect on both adults and children where you just cannot seem to get up from it when someone asked you to do something, to which we cry: ‘Oh, do I have to?!  And of course, for men and especially older men, the sofa is can also be the classic ‘grandpa snoring’ chair. Once he’s sat down, he‘s fast asleep in no time.

Now friends, if the sofa has some strong associations with the need for ‘escape’ or withdrawing ourselves away for things we don’t like, then today’s Gospel reading in Matthew 18 is going to be quite a challenge to that. Today’s reading is Jesus’ instructions on how to reconcile and make peace with people who’ve wronged us, or we have wronged.

You see, the sofa or comfy chair is a symbolic place we tend to lounge around on, when there is a long-term problem with someone else. So when we have had a bad argument with a friend, spouse, family member or loved one, to comfort ourselves we try and find an emotional sofa for comfort and protection from all the pain of the fall out that we’ve suffered. Now that is okay at the start to find forms of comfort and strength to cope with something traumatic, but you know sometimes we can stay just a little too long on our emotional sofas, feeling the initial comfort and protection but then choosing not to get up from them. We may know people who have stayed put on their sofa’s for over thirty years, holding a grudge, always feeling like the poor victim who needs special treatment. They distract themselves with all sorts of comforts and treats, but they never feel the need to get off the chair to go and speak to someone they love deep down, but who they just can’t forgive.

Jesus knows our human nature very well and indeed the hurt we can inflict on others as well as the hurt we receive. He knows our tendency to sweep sin under the carpet, so we don’t have to face anything too difficult. Which is why he gives in today’s text a helpful step-by-step process for reconciliation.

The good news is that it starts small and simple but has potential for stumbles along the way. Jesus first says: ‘If your brother (or sister) sins against you, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you’. In other words, keep it private, in person and it is recommended to do it quickly. I strongly recommend not to write an email or send a text message. In most cases they can backfire and cause more hurt. In the isolation of our own private world we can too easily become fixated upon our own thoughts and prejudices and fail to see the neighbour for whom Christ was crucified to save.

No one can see your face when you write, and so your words, although carefully worded, can still get misunderstood and taken the wrong way. So go to the unreconciled brother or sister in person, rather than ‘stewing’  or mulling over it from the comfy sofa.

Now if the one-to-one experience goes wrong, and nothing you say seems to be taken the right way, then get one or two others to help mediate your discussion. Third parties can hear and see things that the heat of argument blinds you from seeing, and often it can be very helpful and make both hurt parties to feel safer to discuss things. 

Each of these steps so far has the potential for forgiveness and the matter to be over with, but occasionally you’ll argue with people who always have to be right about everything, who can’t tolerate any form of negative feedback. These types of people need Jesus’ third step; the church or the ‘ekklesia’ or wider gathering of believers to help sort the problem. In this setting the stubbornness to resolve things in someone who does not even listen to his pastor or his/her church elders, is now verging on something much bigger and more problematic. For if the person despises the counsel and advice of elders and pastors of the faith who have spiritual authority and giftings to discipline and reconcile people who become so bitter and enraged, then the person needs ‘time out’. Jesus says: 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

The translation here isn’t the clearest in English because Jesus is definitely not saying to intentionally be unkind, reject or persecute someone just like a pagan or Gentile, but he is using the analogy to say that sometimes we need to put people in ‘time out’ (put someone outside our social circles) so that we cannot not be continually hurt by someone trapped in bitterness. Also, it is done this way, so the other person has space to come to their senses and repent. In these situations, the door is always open for an angry brother or sister to come back, as the church is certainly not in the business of excluding people unless a person is a distinct threat to themselves or others. But in these times too it gives the wider church time and focus to pray for the person and break the power of the enemy.

The procedure in Matthew 18 is wonderfully helpful and truly healing when we wish to abide by it. We have a spiritual tool to sort out our problems as they arise, but the power of the emotional sofa of avoidance can stifle the process from its very beginning. It can make something, that could have been solved in a matter of hours, to sadly last all of one’s lifetime. And sadly too, many people die without resolving issues with their friends and loved ones, and these will be some key matters that Jesus will address with them when they meet him at the end of time face to face. 

But the comfort through all of this is that we do have access to God’s help! It’s not a situation of sinful human beings trying to find their own way through it all, but often a case of a spiritual battle taking place too. The benefit of having others involved in reconciliation is that the matter can attract powerful prayer. Jesus says this in verse 19:  “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Some powerful things can happen when people agree on something in prayer. The original word here is ‘symphoneo’ meaning to resound together in agreement or ‘singing the same tune together’.  So when there is a serious argument between two people our prayers can resound with the song of healing and repair, and we pray for the hurt parties to pick up the tune and pray too for their bitterness to fade away. In these moments of prayer and repair, Jesus says he is there among them.

Finally friends, we remember also, that Jesus did not offer himself the comfy chair or sofa to cope with us as human beings. He took on our horrible treatment of turning against him head on. He sacrificed himself on the cross to reconcile the world, even though the world was not willing to reconcile with him. As it says in Romans 5:8: ‘Whilst we were still sinners, Christ died for us’. Christ died for us even though we as human beings were sitting there bitter on our sofas scoffing at him and hating him.

No longer do we remain isolated from each other in sin, or isolated from God in his judgement against our mistreatment of our neighbour. The Good News is that Christ has come to mend broken relationships and put back together again our messed-up lives. Through the church, his body of baptised believers, he comes to us in his absolving word which declares to the broken-hearted and the sorrowful that you are forgiven, you are free. For those locked up in their sin, not desiring forgiveness, they remain bound to their sin because they refuse the victory that Jesus has won for them. If we distant ourselves from God and his love it is not God’s fault but our own.

Jesus knows those here today or those you know who have a humble and forgiving heart who are still receiving the hurts, isolation, rejection of someone unwilling to get off their sofas and make peace with you.

The only thing you feel able to do is pray. Prayer is the thing to do to make doors open, and even if it takes a long time for someone’s heart to soften, we pray too for patience for that to happen.

We pray for our amazing and Holy God to encourage anyone of us be reconciled with that brother or sister we have hurt or who has caused hurt. For we not only have a God who helps us and gives us his power to heal and repair we have a Holy God who will help us to give unconditional love even if we don’t receive it in return. 

Jesus says, ‘love one another as I have loved you’ (John 13:34).


What is the price of life?

The text: Matthew 16:21–28

Well, I suppose that might depend on the context of the question.

If you were asked by a life insurance salesman what the price of life is, he would usually value it as the sum of your financial commitments and the price of setting your loved ones up without those commitments; therefore, the price of life will vary by age.

For example, if you were 10 years old, you wouldn’t have any financial commitments, so, therefore, you wouldn’t need very much life insurance cover, if any at all.

But if you were 40 years old, with a mortgage and car loan, and have a spouse and two children, then your life insurance cover should be for at least these commitments, plus a very generous amount so that your family could live comfortably without any need to take out any other loans etc.

Yet if you were 70 years old, and no longer have any financial commitments or family to support, then your need for life insurance reduces again.

So, what is the price of life according to a life insurance salesman? It is the calculated cost of liabilities and perceived needs to cover any loss of life.

But what if a mother dies in an accident? What is the price of life then? How is it measured?

Well, the family may receive a payment from a life insurance company, but no matter how much money they receive, it never makes up for the life of a wife and mother. The same could be said for the loss of a father or the loss of a child. The price of life in this case can’t be calculated financially. Money, property or anything else is almost useless and empty of comfort and meaning.

The Beatles sang that ‘money can’t buy me love’, but it also can’t buy or replace life. It’s strange that at the time of death, the value of life suddenly crystallises: family is important, relationships are important, people are important. A lifetime chasing after money, property, fame or other worldly attractions is suddenly put into perspective. None of these things are important when a life is lost. Any time spent chasing after these things is seen as time wasted.

What if a death was the result of an accident or a murder?

Then the price of life will often change, and it becomes possible to calculate the price of life again. The price of life is justice or revenge. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and a life for a life!

If someone hurts us, then we want to hurt them back with interest. If someone takes away a loved one, then we want them to receive the same punishment, or worse, if possible!

But even if we were to have someone receive every punishment we wished them to receive, would that really make things better? Would revenge bring our loved one back? Would we ever be truly happy with the payment? Would the price of revenge or justice be payment enough for our loved one’s life? We often discover that even with revenge, the price of life still remains immeasurable.

So, even though the cost of life for insurance is often calculated financially, and the cost of life when someone has taken away a loved one is often justice or revenge, the price of life often can’t be calculated.

Knowing the price of your life can’t be estimated or valued by any earthly measurements, how much would your eternal life be worth? If you struggle to name a large enough price for the life of your loved ones who you have known for only a few years, then how on earth do you calculate the price for their eternal life, or even your own eternal life? If, at the time of death, you suddenly realise all things on earth are almost worthless when compared with the life of loved ones, then how much are you willing to pay or give up to ensure you will receive that eternal life with Jesus and your loved ones in faith?

Your eternal life is beyond price. Even if you were to give up your whole life and everything you have, it wouldn’t be enough. Nothing you say, think or do will pay for or measure the cost of your eternal life. Even if you gave up everything you have, it still wouldn’t be enough. The price for your life, especially for your eternal life, is too high … at least for you.

But the price of your life, even your eternal life, has been measured. Your price is the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is how much your life is worth. It’s a price you can’t pay; yet Jesus has willingly paid the full price. The suffering and death of God’s own beloved Son is your price for life. It was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem, to suffer many things, to die and rise again so that your relationship with God would be restored. It was necessary he did these things, because this is the price of your lives and the price for God’s justice.

Yet what many people misunderstand is that even though Jesus has paid the full price for their lives, there is a cost involved for us. The cost is your obedience, yet don’t think that the price you pay in your obedience actually contributes or makes up for the suffering and death of Jesus, or that what you do actually earns you ‘brownie’ points before God.

Jesus has paid the full price for your eternal life. There is nothing more to pay. Your obedience doesn’t pay for your lives or the lives of others in any way, shape or form, but there is a danger you can exchange this undeserving gift for other fleeting worldly things through your disobedience.

For example, if you try to deny Jesus and what he has done for you by living according to the world’s thinking, then you will forfeit your eternal life. You can’t gain eternal life by your obedience, but you can lose it by your disobedience, because your disobedience shows your rejection of Christ and the life-price he paid for you. You can live as if worldly things are more important and more valuable, or you can live as if your eternal life is more important and more valuable. There is no in-between.

If you lose your life for Jesus’ sake, dedicate yourselves to following him, deny the deceptive advice of this world, follow God’s guiding word, and obey his instructions for life, then you will enjoy the blessings of eternal life in heaven.

Since the payment for your life involved sacrifice on the cross, your own life of following Jesus also involves a cross. The crosses you bear as you follow Jesus are the crosses of sacrifice and suffering on account of your following Jesus.

Paul’s letter to the Romans gives us an example of what this means. He says hate what is evil; hold onto what is good; be patient in your troubles; pray at all times; share your belongings with needy believers; open your homes to strangers; bless those who persecute you; weep with those who weep; don’t be proud but accept humble duties; don’t pay back wrong for wrong; don’t take revenge; and so on.

Following Jesus into eternal life is not easy and glorious. It often means living in a way that is different from others around you. It means being obedient to God’s word, even if you don’t fully understand the reasons for his instructions. It means giving up precious time on earth to listen to Jesus speak to you. It means giving up your need to satisfy yourselves with money, possessions, fame and other wants. It means giving up living the way you want to for your own pleasure, and trying to live Jesus’ way of service and sacrifice.

Following Jesus also means you will be persecuted and insulted for living according to Jesus’ way and not the world’s. You will not always ‘fit in’. The world will try to set the agenda as to what is acceptable and right, but this will not be the same as what Jesus says. The people of this world will continue to gain a name or a profit for themselves, but you will live unselfishly and in humbleness as you follow Jesus. You must obey God and not the world; after all, the things of the world will not last and will actually lead you away from Jesus and the life he has gained for you.

Therefore, let us heed the words of hymn 336 in the Lutheran Hymnal, which says:

Then let us follow Christ, our Lord,

Bearing the cross appointed,

And, firmly clinging to His Word,

In suffering be undaunted.

Who will not bear the battle’s strain

The crown of life shall ne’er obtain.

What is the price of life? The suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The price for your life has been measured and paid in full. Even though you do not measure up, Jesus willingly allowed himself to suffer and die for you. Jesus paid the price of your disobedience by his obedience. He remained sinless to save those who are sinful. In other words, he suffered and died for your life.

Your own journey as you follow Jesus will also involve suffering and a dying to your own selfish desires, but it will also lead to eternal life with Jesus and all others who follow in faith.

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.