by Mike Bowling
What we deserve is not always what we receive. More honor, more prestige and more money often do go to those who work harder and longer, but not always. Some are born with advantages and privileges that others don’t receive. Throughout life, we all receive assistance of various kinds and levels. Sometimes opportunities for our benefit appear, seemingly out of nowhere. Given all the factors involved, who really can say what they deserve? The beginning verses of Matthew 20 may signal the dispelling of the illusion that we deserve anything. Jesus tells a parable which suggests God’s grace toward the “undeserving” should not be questioned, and generosity should not be envied. Like so many times, Jesus is describing a kingdom or a world turning traditional expectations upside-down.
Everything we learn about Jesus in Matthew’s telling of the story suggests Jesus is headed for a big welcome, and most folks would say he deserves all the accolades due him. But once again, Jesus announces something different: He deserves a Rose Bowl worthy parade (which for the time and place, he mostly receives), but instead he forecasts an arrest, condemnation, humiliation, torture and cruel execution (vv.18-19). The “raised up on the third day” part of his message must have been meaningless to his followers. No one gets exactly what they deserve, not even Jesus, it would seem.
Next in the story comes the mother of the sons of Zebedee. She believes her boys deserve to be high up on the kingdom of God organizational chart. They were on the ground floor of the Jesus team; they have recognizable leadership qualities, and anyone could see they would make great executives. Jesus deflects her request by letting her know it was not within his authority to grant. Instead, he challenged their willingness to make needed sacrifices. Apparently, the conversation took place within earshot of the other disciples; they were indignant with the two ambitious brothers.
Jesus interrupts the dispute with a teaching the Church throughout history has either ignored or rationalized away. It is a teaching we will visit again when we consider Matthew 23:1-12. Jesus knew the thirst to exercise authority started as far back as the Garden of Eden. The serpent seduced Eve with the idea “knowledge is power.” God alone had the authority to declare good and evil; the opportunity to share such authority was a temptation too powerful to resist. The consequences of Adam and Eve’s disobedience led to destruction which continues to deepen and spread. Please don’t miss the point! The desire to share God’s authority resulted in the mess we continue to see and experience. Only God can fix the mess, and God acted in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus did not deserve an agonizing and humiliating death. He was the ultimate and only “righteous one” who died on behalf of unrighteous humanity. Someone had to be an example of God’s intent for humanity, and someone had to show ultimate sacrifice as God’s way forward in the reconciliation of all things.
The reconciliation of all things, the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, the summing up of all things or the restoration of all things will require repenting of the nations’ (Gentiles) practice of lording over one another or exercising authority over one another. The Kingdom comes when we adopt a posture of service, which might require giving up our personal rights (voluntary slavery). His final words recorded in the passage are the most extreme: “give His life as a ransom for many.” The trail Jesus maps out for his disciples looks as bizarre in our world, as it most likely did in Jesus’ day: voluntary servant, slave and ransom.
Hierarchical structures are deeply embedded in our world. Attempts to rid ourselves of these structures have proven to be difficult to say the least. Promises by revolutionaries have been too often nothing more than a veiled exchange of one hierarchical structure for another. The way forward should follow Jesus’ counsel found in Matthew 13:24-43. The wisdom of the Parable of the Wheat and Tares advises waiting until the harvest time for separating the two. Let me suggest the Church be a demonstration community of shared decision making and shared sacrifice; we should live out the shared benefits of servant, slave and ransom. Harvests take place when crops have fully matured; the Church at Englewood still has a lot of maturing to go!