Jesus' Counterintuitive Teaching - 2

In these articles we are considering Jesus’ teaching that might be considered “counterintuitive.”  As noted previously, what seems “sensible” to us is the result of cultural standards, parental nurture, Bible study, our own observations on life, etc. all bearing on our thinking.  From our viewpoint, the way things are or ought to be are not always reflected in what Jesus says.  This should produce caution in us, realizing that our judgments and conclusions may conflict with God’s on any number of counts.  Jesus’ words are often stunning, not only to His own hearers and associates, but to us as well.

3. “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Lk 13:3).  In this episode someone has come to Jesus with the news about a group of Galileans “whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” (13:1).  Nothing else is known of this incident, but Josephus and other ancient histories tell of the cruelty and malfeasance of Pilate – not to mention his miscarriage of justice regarding Jesus.  What seems clear by Jesus’ response is that this event has been related to Him to emphasize some extraordinary sinfulness in the Galileans who were executed by Pilate in the midst of offering sacrifice in the temple.

Jesus, however, does not support this conclusion (13:2-5):  “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things?  I tell you, no …” (13:2-3a).  He then adds a secondary anecdote:  “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men …?  I tell you, no” (13:4). 

It seems to be “human nature”; i.e., our own unguided sensibility, to think that heinous acts are soon recompensed by some form of retribution:  disturbance, disease or disaster.  Perhaps such tribulations as the murder of the Galileans, the Siloam victims, or 9/11 or the occasional earthquake, tornado or hurricane unsettle us and make us feel that we might be the next victims.  To assuage this anxiety some may then attribute disaster to the sinfulness of others, that somehow they are getting “payback” for their badness (i.e., fate, karma).  Of course, we aren’t as bad as they, and it comforts us to think that the other guy got what was coming to him because he was bad.  Or, the reverse:  when some misfortune befalls us, we automatically assume that God is punishing us for some wrongdoing (cf. 1 Kgs 17: 18; 18:9).  Job struggled with the notion that he was being punished by God but insisted that he had done nothing to deserve such punishment (Job 10:6-7; 16:17; 23:8-12; 29: 1-31:40).  In this he was correct.

The flip side of this coin is that God has punished and does punish sin in a temporal context when it reaches a certain level of His intolerance (the decimation of Egypt; the destructions of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. and A.D. 70; the judgment on Herod Agrippa I [Ac 12:22-23]; etc.).  The problem is that, lacking modern day inspired revelation, we do not know when God acts retributively or when the natural course of events brings calamity. 

Jesus is warning us not to think that suffering only comes to the really bad:  “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (13:3; repeated for emphasis in 13:5).  Jesus seems to be speaking on a spiritual plane, for the antidote to perishing is repentance.  Those guilty of sin are heading for a worse fate than physical death, and we must not give ourselves a pass by assuming that we’re not as bad off as the other bloke.  No, Jesus says, we all must come to recognize our sinfulness and seek reconciliation with God.  If we will do that – and He has made it possible – then in the bigger scheme of things it doesn’t really matter if we suffer some natural or manmade disaster.  Our relationship with God will remain intact, and we can seek comfort in the relationship we have with Him when misfortune befalls.  Jesus, Himself, is the ultimate example of the innocent suffering yet remaining connected to God.

4. “And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius.  But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius” (Mt 20:9-10).  Wait, what?!  The people who worked for one hour received the same pay as those who had worked all day?  What kind of a business model is that?  In the parable the all-day workers “murmured against the landowner, saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day’” (20:12).  Seems like a reasonable complaint.

Jesus, however, wasn’t talking about business practices.  He began the parable by saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like …” (20:1).  The land-owner is likened to God in that he unilaterally has the right to admit anyone into his employ on the terms he chooses:  “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things?” (20:15).  In our relation to God, He holds all the cards.  Our sinfulness strips us of all rights and claims based on merit; we are in the hands of Almighty God to do with us as He wills. 

Fortunately, God – as in the case of the landowner – is willing to accept us on generous terms indeed.  He “hires us on” to work for Him according to the conditions He has set.  He finds us “idle in the marketplace” and extends opportunity of profitable labor in His vineyard.  We can each accept this grace whatever stage of life we happen to be in – young, old or somewhere in between – for the inheritance of eternal life which He offers to us.  God be thanked for such grace and mercy!

But there is inequity in the world which makes for inequities in the kingdom.  Some may come to Christ in a country historically Communist or Muslim, and their lot will be harder than someone who lives where faith can be exercised freely.  Some may come to Christ while imprisoned for having committed crimes; others may be shunned by their families for their newly-adopted convictions.  Still others may come in their sunset years when they have little energy and resource left to devote to the Lord. 

Shall we, like the all-day workers, complain that others have had an easier row to hoe?  Listen again to the landowner:  “Or is your eye evil because I am good?” (20:15b).  The kingdom is not based on merit but grace, and none of us – no matter how long we’ve been a Christian or how hard we’ve worked – have “earned our denarius.”  Let us rejoice in God’s goodness and welcome all into the kingdom whom He receives.