Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Have you ever been hurt—had a boo-boo or injury? I want you to close your eyes and pretend that something has hurt you. Think about what part of your body is hurt and what the injury is. Is it a broken bone or a hurt feeling or a scratch or a headache?…
Now, I’m going to let you each tell me what you imagined got hurt, and I’ll do my best to help each of you out.
Each student gets the same bandaid on the back of the same hand—perhaps run out of bandaids with the last person.
You each told me what hurt you, and I treated you each exactly the same—except for the one who didn’t get a bandaid at all. Did my bandaid help your injury? If you had a twisted ankle, did a bandaid on the back of the hand help? If you had headache? If you are feeling sad today? What kind of injury would a bandaid on the back of the hand help? Yes, a scratch on the back of your hand.
I treated each of you equally, didn’t I? Everyone got exactly the same thing. But not everyone needed the same thing. You each had different needs and different hurts. There is a word that sounds a little like ‘equality’ but it means something very different. That word is ‘equity.’ Equality means that you each get treated the same, no matter what. Equity means that you each get treated differently so that everyone has, hopefully, the same outcome—in this case, being well again.
Today, we heard Jesus tell a story that may not sound very fair. But hopefully, if you keep listening, you’ll hear why this is good news for us.
Let’s pray. God, thank you for making each one of us different and unique. Help us to listen to what others need and respond with your love and care. Amen.
This week, we celebrate 13 years of our prison ministry here at Our Saviour’s. For those of you who are newer to us, this is what we call the FEAST ministry. FEAST stands for Friends Eating And Sharing Together. Each week, we have the privilege of worshiping with 30-40 men and women who reside at the Community Correctional Center of Lincoln. They are individuals who have met the requirements to work in the community. There are another 40 or more individuals at the center waiting for an opportunity to worship with us.
After worship, our FEAST partners (as we call these individuals) gather for a lunch provided by groups from Our Saviour’s and other local congregations. Then, they sing and pray together, share their highs and lows together, and learn together. Sometimes their families also join them for worship and lunch—which is an amazingly important ministry in and of itself. Some partners even join the congregation when they are released. It is not only a ministry to individuals—it is a ministry to their families and to our whole community. The recidivism rate for people connected to a community such as ours is significantly less than the rest of the prison population.
Of course, such a ministry is not without opposition. Some of our members are concerned about safety. Others, perhaps, feel that such a population doesn’t deserve to be treated so well. And, as with any ministry as important as this one, emotions and passions are personal and deeply established.
Which is why I had to smile as I began preparing for this weekend, reading the assigned lectionary passages. I can only imagine the irritation and anger that must have boiled up in Jesus’ audience when he had the audacity to say that the tax collectors and prostitutes would enter the kingdom of God ahead of them. That’s certainly not what proper, God-fearing, pious people want to hear. It’s not what we expect to hear. And it certainly doesn’t give us those warm fuzzy feelings we hope to get from our dear friend, Jesus.
Then again, Jesus had already set off some religious alarms. At the beginning of this chapter in Matthew, Jesus enters Jerusalem. He does it sort of sarcastically—riding on a donkey to fulfill the Scriptures. But most people expected him to come nt riding on a horse with an army following behind. If he was going to fulfill the role of Messiah, he was going to need more than a beast of burden and a ragtag group of disciples. And yet, the people praised his name, cried to him for salvation, and raised the alarm in the circles of leaders who were quite satisfied with the status quo.
He then entered the Temple, upending booths and quoting Scripture, criticizing the authorities for their injustice regarding sales of sacrificial animals. That, too, didn’t go over well with the Roman and Temple authorities. So the chief priests and elders were sent to him to find out what was going on and whether they could stop him.
The chief priests were those put in place by the Roman government to keep the peace in Jerusalem. The elders were put in place by the more powerful Jewish families in order to keep them in the loop and on the good side of Rome. Neither group was in a position that would welcome opposition or change. So, they begin their questioning by asking about Jesus’ authority. The chief priests and elders are well aware of where their authority comes from—but what about Jesus? Who put him up to this?
I love the little mental circus Jesus creates with them. Instead of answering them, he backs them into a corner. Did the baptism of John come from heaven or humans? The two groups argue between themselves. If they admit the baptism came from heaven, then it undermines the chief priests’ authority. If they admit it was from human origin, then it challenges the elders’ authority. And so, because neither group likes the consequences of answering, they say they don’t know.
The truth is, they didn’t even discus the answer. They only cared about the consequences of the answer. And Jesus, making the most of putting them off balance, knocks them clean over with his parable of the two sons. One son starts off disobeying, but he changes his mind and obeys. The other intends to obey, but never gets around to it. And Jesus, then, compares the first son to those identified as ‘sinners’ and the second to those identified as ‘pious.’ And he says that the sinners will enter the kingdom of God before the pious.
Personally, I’m a bit ambivalent about this passage. My theological mind loves what Jesus does here—challenging authority, upsetting the status quo, absolutely upending all those self-righteous and indulgent churchy people. But the churchy people part of me is not a fan. Because I’m one of ‘those’ people. I grew up in the Church, learning all the right answers to the questions. I followed all of the rules. In fact, I’m completely terrified of getting into trouble.
Good grades came easy for me. I followed the right track of cultural expectations—graduate from High School, then college, then get a job. I exceeded those expectations with two master’s degrees. I am a professional—I have a white-collar job (literally!) that still comes with a little extra respect. I married an honorable man. We have a well-behaved and intelligent child. We do all the right things with our money—mostly. We tithe—10% to God first. So, why then would anyone who doesn’t follow the rules, who doesn’t obey God, who doesn’t keep their promises, who don’t treat others with kindness, who didn’t go to church all these years—why should they enter the kingdom ahead of me? That’s not fair.
Oh, if we never learn anything from the gospels, let it be this: God’s not fair. Never has been. Never will be.
That is the good news, my friends. In the Greek, the phrase translated as ‘going ahead of’ literally means ‘leading.’ The identified sinners will lead the identified pious into the kingdom of God. You see, all those things I listed—my grades, my religious activity, my decisions, my life—they make it easy to let myself believe that I am in charge of my life and that I got it right. And when things are going well, it’s also easy to say that I trust God. If all that was taken away—like the story of Job—I can’t say that I’d be quite so faithful or pious. My trust in God, my love for God, my faith in God are pretty contingent on the ease of my life. And they are anything but transformative—because I have it all figured out.
On the other hand, those whose lives have not been so easy; those who have not always made good decisions or whose decisions have had enormous consequences; those who did not start out as far forward as I have—when their lives are transformed, they know grace in a way I can only imagine. They know trust in God in a way I’ve never experienced. Those whose lives have been turned upside down by God are the ones in the position to lead me in learning about things like forgiveness and compassion. It is left to those who have come to terms with their own sinfulness to lead those of us who deny ours into the kingdom of God.
So no, God is not fair. God is good. God is not nice. God is kind. God is not a God of equality but of equity—not giving us all the same but bringing us all to the same place: the foot of the cross. And it has nothing to do with good decisions or bad decisions. It has nothing to do with our various sins or how many people we’ve hurt. It has nothing to do with our piety or theology. It has everything to do with what grace does to us.
At times, grace will tear apart our ideologies and false identities in order to clear a path to truth—and that is going to be painful, but necessary. And at times, grace will build us up, fill us in, and create in us something that was missing—and that is going to be glorious.
I am so grateful to have the opportunity to worship alongside all of you. Whether you’ve led easy lives or challenging ones; whether things have fallen into place for you or you’ve had to grapple for everything; whether your sin has gone unnoticed or is brandished on your face like a tattoo—every one of you teaches me something new about grace, about love, about forgiveness, about God. It is in the differences of our needs and brokenness that the heart of Christ is revealed and we are no longer bound in sin but bound to each other as the Body of Christ.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church