'you have made them equal to us!' Matthew 20.12
I think that the exclamation mark is needed :-)
God looks at people equally! God considers people to be of equal value! People are not rated in terms of what they can contribute but rated equally because all need the basic wherewithal to live.
In 1955, C. S. Lewis wrote the book: 'Surprised by Joy' but the characters in this parable are surprised not by joy, but by the egalitarian nature of God and some were far from joyful. There were ones who were pleasantly surprised, those who had worked less than the full day, and there were others who were less than happy about this, those who had worked the full day.
The hearers of the parable were no doubt surprised too, for the Jewish faith then, as well as the church ever since, has consistently taught that God doesn't look at people equally. We have been taught that people who believe the right thing are treated better than those who believe differently to us. To quote again those famous words of Jesus: 'No one comes to the Father but by me' implies (it seems) that people are not treated equally.
If God treats everyone equally as this parable suggests, then clearly God is not interested in how often we attend worship, on the amount of praise we offer God, the particular word we use to name God, the language we use, the culture we come from, or the style of worship. God does not prefer christians because of what God might gain from the church. God does not bless christians in preference to others.
So the concept of one church or denomination being the 'one true church' or the correct denomination is entirely fallacious.
Recently I had a conversation about theological education, and I commented that where I came from in Adelaide there were seven theological colleges: the Adelaide College of Divinity (a consortium of the Anglican, Catholic and Uniting Church Colleges http://www.acd.edu.au/), the Lutheran Seminary, (http://www.alc.edu.au/ which serviced all of Australasia), the Bible College of South Australia (http://www.biblecollege.sa.edu.au/), Tabor (http://www.taboradelaide.edu.au/), Adelaide College of Ministry (http://www.acm.sa.edu.au/) and New Creation Ministries (http://www.newcreation.org.au/). Of course there are numerous more offering online courses. All these are, supposedly, teaching the gospel, yet none of them can agree on what it is – otherwise why have seven? Lying behind this division is the assumption that God doesn't treat people equally. All are so convinced that they are right, and that others need to be right like them, lest God treat them less than charitably. They don't have to listen to what anyone else says. Every one of them knows that to survive the church has to change, and every one of them knows that it is others who have to do the changing! For all these teachers of the faith, for all their intellect, study and devotion, there seems some logical disconnect here. So if we find parishes operating as if they are the sole repository of truth they are only faithfully reflecting what they have been taught. If the teachers are blinkered, what else can we expect of those they have taught?
The vineyard of the Lord is the place where we have to get our hands dirty, and where through our efforts, wine is produced to gladden the hearts of others as well as ourselves. God is already glad – God has pronounced the creation and humanity as very good. It is the creation that needs to get on with one another, to be glad to be here and to be glad in the company of others.
This is God’s vineyard, so God's purpose is to gladden the hearts of all, but for all God’s efforts in producing a fabulous landscape (to take but one aspect of creation), if humanity is fighting over who owns it, humanity is failing to appreciate the very creation we are given.
Jesus came to change things. If Jesus hadn't challenged the perceptions of the religious people then they would not have had him killed.
Many of the presuppositions in the Old Testament were about the favoured status of the ancient people of God. The story of the Exodus and the Conquest of the Holy Land is steeped in this theology. However there are counter theologies to explain why the dream of an autonomous state, 'sufficient unto itself' was the exception rather than the rule. And we as 'christians' can take over the theologies of personal success and quietly disregard other significant swathes of scripture – including the book of the prophet Jonah – which some will be using as the OT reading for today.
We need to hear the surprise of the workers that they were all to be treated equally, we need to hear the surprise in the hearers, and if we think that God treats people unequally, then we too will be surprised. Jesus may be challenging our perceptions.
Time and again I say that Jesus was killed because he associated with the tax collectors, the prostitutes and the sinners. He lived his life treating all people equally, and the devout and the orthodox were scandalised! The fact that the church is not scandalised by these words probably means that we actually don't believe the gospel, we don't believe in the incarnation, and we don't believe the very scripture we consider sacred. We quote those famous words of Jesus: 'No one comes to the Father but by me' as if Jesus was incarnated only into those who are part of my holy huddle and the rest can go to hell!
Now if Jesus associated with the tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners, these are all people for whom religion is irrelevant. For us to make the intricacies of a particular teaching determinative for eternal salvation, I suggest shows how far we have moved from what Jesus actually taught. That was what those who had Jesus killed did all the time, proscribing the intricacies of a particular teaching determinative for entry into their holy huddle and thence into eternal salvation.
If our membership of the church, of whatever flavour or denomination is about us being preferred over others, then it is likely that we will find this parable scandalises us.
Each and every person needs dignity and it is the church, following the example of Jesus that is called to give each and every person dignity. If this is not our task and our calling then we are terrorists, certainly not as heinous as those who committed the atrocities in America in 2001, but wannabe terrorists none the less. While we do not acknowledge every other person's God given 'right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' we blind ourselves to the needs of others and the implications of the gospel.
The dignity that we are called to acknowledge and confer is the wine, the fruit of the vineyard that brings joy to others. This is the wherewithal that all need for life, life for individuals, as well as our corporate life together.