A few years ago my friend Nathan was going through law school and needed a witness for his mock trial and asked if I would play the role. I was kind of excited about it. It wasn’t anything dramatic, just a car accident in a parking lot, but I studied the materials he gave me and was ready to answer any question the prosecutor might ask. Well, apparently I’ve watched too many movies with court scenes in them. The day of the mock trial I dressed appropriately to look like a respectful witness and I went over my notes again, since I was going to have to pretend I had actually witnessed what happened. When I was called up by the Judge I walked confidently up to the witness stand, took a seat, and 20 seconds later I was dismayed at being dismissed after one question from the prosecutor. I was so disappointed! He only asked me one question! I was so ready to prove that the person Nate was defending was, in fact, telling the truth. But that wasn’t my job. My job was just to bear witness- to tell what I saw— not what my opinion was of what I saw.
Last month I had the privilege, along with several of you, to hear Julia Dinsmore share through her stories, poems and songs, her personal experience of living in poverty. Growing up in a large Catholic working-class family in Minneapolis, Julia Dinsmore put a face on poverty through her internationally-acclaimed poem entitled “My Name is Child of God…Not ‘Those People.” I was challenged by her powerful, outspoken presentation as she laid open both her personal pain and struggles and the failings of our nation’s social, economic, and political systems that undermine the lives of so many individuals and families today in our nation.
As I began to prepare last week for today’s message and was reflecting on the ministry of John the Baptist, I was reminded of Julia Dinsmore and realized that like John, Julia serves as a prophet, a voice of one crying in the wilderness. Both of these prophets confront us with important truths that address the gap between our inner hopes and dreams and what we actually experience. This gap is especially felt during the holiday season as on the outside we are smiling and cheery at holiday greetings and gatherings while on the inside we may be acutely aware of the loneliness and pain within ourselves and within the hearts of those we know and love. We feel this gap even further when we are confronted with media images of happy families preparing for the perfect Christmas and celebrating all their extravagant abundance versus the hard realities of an increasing number of people struggling to pay their bills and trying to keep their families intact.
The context for today’s gospel comes out of a larger conversation between Jesus and his disciples. Jesus and his disciples are exiting the temple in Jerusalem after Jesus had just spent hours teaching. Upon their exit, one of the disciples says, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” I get the sense that the disciples 1 are proudly showing Jesus these structures to impress him. I get the sense that in their doing so they are displaying comfort and security and even a complacency for the way things were. My four-year-old does this all the time when the Lego’s are out. “Mom, Dad!! Look at my huge tower!” Our typical response is to smile and praise him for his creation but then to quickly warn him or impose on him the reality that it will not stand forever as there is also a two-year-old in the house. Jesus doesn’t warn of destruction but sets the scene that what the disciples hold so dear might not or more specifically
will not be there forever.
I think it’s only fitting that we end our series on “If Grace is True” with this parable about the Landowner and the Laborers of the Vineyard. This parable that Jesus tells tends to get under people’s skin, perhaps in much the same way as the book did for many of us. We have a sense that justice is being snubbed in this story because the people who only worked the last hour get paid the same those who worked all day. We want things to be fair and just. Even though, growing up, my Father always said, “Life isn’t fair.” I never wanted to believe him. We want things to be fair, especially when it comes to God. We want God to be fair and just— to recognize our accomplishments, our heart, our intentions. And so this parable pokes at our sense of justice. So often when we read the parables of Jesus there’s a lot of explaining to do so that we understand what he was trying to say; but not in this parable. This one is a bit too blunt. We often want to water it down a bit. We feel tricked, in the same way that Jesus’ hearers would’ve felt tricked. In fact, I think we probably feel even more resentment than they would have.