Peter Misselbrook's Blog
Jan 30 2013 - Matthew 20:1-28 – The unfairness of God

Many of Jesus' parables, as told in Matthew's gospel, begin with the phrase, "The kingdom of heaven is like..." The one in our reading this morning tells the story of a landowner who hired workers for his vineyard. Some are hired early in the morning and work through the scorching heat of the day. Others are hired later in the day, some as late as the final hour of the working day. Yet when it comes to the time for them to be paid, they all receive the same amount.

How might this parable have been heard by those to whom Jesus first told it? Perhaps it was told against the background of the resentment of the Jewish leaders against the "sinners" and tax collectors who were so attracted by Jesus and his teaching and whom he seemed so ready to welcome.

How might this parable have been heard by those for whom Matthew included it in his gospel? Maybe it was written against the background of tension over the expansion of the church among the Gentiles; why should these latecomers enjoy the same blessings as those who had laboured so long and suffered so much for the God of Abraham?

How do we hear this parable?

The parable is all about the generosity of the landowner. The parable is about the grace of God. The dying thief is welcomed into the kingdom equally alongside the apostles who have devoted their lives to labouring for their Lord. The kingdom of God is a kingdom of grace.

The disciples found this very difficult to grasp. The mother of James and John asked Jesus for one of her sons to sit at his right hand in the kingdom and the other on the left. She felt that those who had spent so much time in Jesus' company and had laboured with him for these three years deserved the chief places in the kingdom. That's not the way my kingdom works, Jesus says, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:25-28).

Our labour in the vineyard is as nothing compared with that of the Lord Jesus. He, the Son of God, came to give his life as a ransom for many. He paid the penalty for our sins so that we might enter freely into the blessings of his labour. He worked through the scorching heat of the day. We are all latecomers to the kingdom. Praise God that he does not treat us as our sins deserve but embraces us in his love – the love that moved him to give his Son for us.

How does this truth shape our attitude towards others who have come to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ? Do we have a hierarchical view of the kingdom in which we try to fit ourselves and others into some sort of pecking order? The grace of God is a great leveller.

Lord, teach me what it means to follow you. Teach me what it means to live a life of glad service of the servant king. Keep me from the deceit of looking for status in your kingdom because of the many things I imagine I have done for you. Teach me to revel in the glorious unfairness of your grace – that you continually lavish blessings upon me that I do not deserve.

Jan 30 2019 - Genesis 38 – Judah and Tamar

What an extraordinary chapter of Scripture this is. Again we might ask what this chapter with all its unseemly details is doing in our Bibles, and particularly why it is located here, interrupting the flow of the story of Joseph. I suspect that most sermon series focussing on the history of Joseph would skip over it. Have you ever heard anyone preach from this passage?

Judah was the fourth of Jacob's sons, coming after Reuben, Simeon and Levi, all of whom were born to Leah. He had been the ringleader in persuading his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery; he appeared to have little compassion for his brother. This chapter recounts the humbling of Judah. Its graphic picture of immorality provides a dark background against which the honesty and integrity of Joseph, described in the chapters which follow, shines out more brightly.

The chapter begins by telling us that Judah left home and went to stay with a man of called Hirah. Might Judah have found the grief of father Jacob and the secret of Joseph's sale to the Midianites just too much to bear? We don't know, but for some reason he chose to leave the rest of his brothers and to live among the Canaanites. There he was attracted by a Canaanite woman called Shua. He married her and in due course she bore him three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah.

Many years pass by with Joseph all but forgotten. When Er reaches marriageable age, Judah finds him a Canaanite wife called Tamar. We are then told, "Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death" (38:7). We do not know what he did to merit such swift judgment but it may have been that he adopted some of the pagan practices of the Canaanites, practices that were an abomination to the Lord.

Judah then gave his second son, Onan, to Tamar. This chapter provides us with the first mention of "Levirite marriage" which was later to incorporated into the Mosaic law. According to this custom, if a married man died without his wife bearing him an heir, his younger brother should then marry the woman. The first son she bore would be considered as the heir of her first husband (see Deuteronomy 25:5-6). Onan was not happy with this arrangement and so refused to get Tamar pregnant. He also was struck dead by the Lord.

Judah's promised remaining son, Shelah, to Tamar when he was old enough for marriage. But he failed to keep his promise and so Tamar tricked Judah into having sex with her and, when Judah threatened to have his pregnant daughter-in-law put to death she declared, with proofs, that Judah himself was the father of her twin children.

The chapter is full of hatred, strife, jealousy, immorality and revenge. God hates all of this, but he uses these very events to bring his own Son into the world. In Matthew's genealogy, or family tree, of the Lord Jesus only four women, other than Mary, get a mention. The four are Tamar who tricked Judah into fathering her child, Rahab the prostitute, Ruth the Moabite and Bathsheba the wife of Uriah the Hittite whom David seduced before having her husband killed. These are the people through whom God was at work to bring Jesus into the world.

Once again we see that human sin and folly cannot derail the purposes of God that will be unfolded through the story of Joseph and the rest of the Bible. Rather it is precisely such human acts of wilfulness, immorality and evil which move the living God to act for our redemption. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus secures forgiveness and cleansing for such a world as this.

Father God, thank you that your grace in the Lord Jesus Christ is more than able to cover all our sins. We cannot excuse our sins, nor can we hide them from you; we readily confess them and plead your forgiveness. Humble us, Lord, that we may always remember that our hope rests not in our own schemes but in your grace and goodness that have been made known to us in Christ.

Peter Misselbrook