Monday, December 5, 2011

On the Cost and Nature of Discipleship

In my last post, I shared some of the sadness and the wrestling I occasionally experience because of my desire to be a member in full standing in the Church.

Today I read a text in the Gospel of Matthew that seemed to speak directly to this experience.

Matthew 20 begins with the parable of the day laborers, one of my favorite of Jesus' parables. In it, the master of a vineyard goes out in search of day laborers at various shifts throughout the day. He starts early in the morning and hires some laborers for "a penny." Then he comes back at "the third hour" (what we'd call 9:00 A.M.), then again at noon, and at 3:00 p.m. Finally, he returns nearly at the end of the work day... At "the eleventh hour" (our 5:00 p.m.). He finds laborers standing there idle, and he asks them: "Why stand ye here all the day idle?"

Their response: "Because no man hath hired us."

The master's response? To immediately hire them and put them to work.

The story gets really interesting when, at the end of the work day (which ordinarily would have been less than an hour later), the master pays up. Everybody gets the same pay -- a penny. Those who had labored through the heat of the day get a bit worked up... How come these guys, who showed up at the eleventh hour are getting the same pay as everybody else? The master puts them in their place. This, he says in essence, is how I choose to pay you. I'm honoring my agreement with you... You have nothing to say to these others. Are you upset because I choose to be generous?

Of course, what particularly struck me today is that perhaps this strikes the Lord as fair because it is not the fault of the day laborers that no one had hired them. They were there, waiting in the market all the day long, waiting for someone to hire them. They wanted work. (Does this sound familiar in today's economy?) Had someone hired them earlier, they would gladly have gone. When the master finally hired them, off they went.

Depending on how literally we want to read this parable as a metaphor of the Kingdom of God, we could look at the "day" as the period of history spanning the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ, and the Second Coming, the final harvest. And maybe this is the Lord acknowledging that even in the eleventh hour of the Kingdom, not everyone who is willing and able to participate in its building will have been hired... Some of us won't be hired till the final minutes of the work day. Is that our fault? God forbid... When the Master sees fit, he will hire us, and our reward will be no less than others'.

But it makes sense to cross reference these verses in Matthew with the numerous revelations in the Doctrine & Covenants that boldly invite: "Therefore, if ye have desires to serve God ye are called to the work" (e.g., D&C 4: 3). I have always found these verses deeply comforting. If I'm willing to "thrust in my sickle," to live my life in faith, hope and charity, and bear my testimony, I'm laboring in the vineyard! There's no invitation I need from anybody, no labor contract needed, to do that kind of work in the Kingdom.

Later in the same chapter, Jesus reminds the disciples again of his impending imprisonment, torture, death and resurrection (vs. 17-19). While an earlier, similar declaration elicited denial from Peter, who couldn't seem to see past the bad part of this prophecy, this declaration elicited from the mother of James and John a request that, when he returns in glory, James and John be permitted to sit on his right and left hands. This was sort of the opposite error of the error Peter committed, and James, John and their mother are also rebuked. They were eager for the glory and the reward, but had somehow forgotten about the cost of discipleship. While Peter failed to see the resurrection at the end of the pain and death, James and John sort of missed the pain and death that stood between them and future glory:

Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?

They (perhaps arrogantly) answered in the affirmative, and Jesus' response was, "Ye shall indeed drink of my cup..." But he then proceeded to a lesson about the nature of discipleship. To walk that road is not about claiming a glorious spot on the right or the left hand of the Son of Man. It's not about striving for preeminence of place or the satisfactions of power ("as the princes of the Gentiles," v. 25). It is about being the servant of all (v. 27). The Greek word here rendered as servant could just as easily be rendered "slave." If you would be great in the kingdom, in other words, get used to no rank whatsoever, get used to doing the shit jobs. If you think about exactly the work that Jesus did for us (dying the ignominious death of a convicted criminal on a Roman cross), he's asking of us no more than he did himself.

If our status is something like that in relation to the Church, perhaps we should count ourselves blessed.


Matthew said...

I have had this post in my thoughts for the last few weeks - I really liked what you said here, John.

I think that the parable of the workers is incredibly deep and far more significant than we give it credit. The thing that strikes me is the absolute equality with which the workers are rewarded, despite their differing amount of work. We criticize the reaction of the other workers, who were offended that others received a like reward, and then turn around and claim that the Celestial Kingdom is a select club, and only certain types of people can get in.

Really, though, the pathway in is simply discipleship - a willingness to follow. We just have to want to work - even those workers who were hired at the 11th hour received their reward. The willingness to work is all that is required, not a certain amount of, or success of work.

And when we look at what that work is, in light of Matthew 22:37-40, we see that we must simply love each other. Forgive each other, and repent (or change) so as to become more able to do these things.

The vineyard is large, and everyone who sets to will be rewarded, it seems clear to me.

J G-W said...

Thanks, Matthew...!

I just stumbled across a fantastic quote from the Bhagavad Gita: "It is better to do your own duty badly, that to perfectly do another's" This expresses the truth that each of us has a unique journey through life, and we are judged against ourselves (and God's calling to us only). I think this was part of the sin of the offended workers -- wanting to compare themselves and their calling to others. Christ taught us not to do that! (See, for example, John 21:22.)

Also, my scripture study this morning was in Luke 3, which describes the ministry of John the Baptist. John used imagery very reminiscent of a number of vineyard parables (including this one!), when he warned, "Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance... And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire" (vss. 8-9).

When the people asked him what they were supposed to do, his response was simple, simple, simple. Compassion pure and simple. This is the fruit we need to bring forth, if we wish to be productive. "He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise" (Luke 3: 11).