STUDY TWENTY: A CHALLENGE TO A RADICAL HOPE [Matthew 18:10-14; 20:1-16; 25:1-13; 13:47-52]

© Rosemary Bardsley 2012

The Christian message is a message of hope. Christians are people of hope. This Christian hope is not the wishy-washy uncertain longing inferred by current usage of the word ‘hope’. It is, on the contrary, a certain and confident expectation based on and generated by the character and word of the God who can be trusted. 

 

A. THE PARABLE OF THE LOST SHEEP [Matthew 18:10-14]

RADICAL HOPE #1: OUR SHEPHERD IS PERSISTENT AND PERSONAL

The Parable of the Lost Sheep reveals the heart of our Lord Jesus Christ. He seeks and saves the lost. Not in an abstract way. Not in a generalized way but in a personal, individual way. He goes out seeking the individual. He cares about the individual. That means you. That means me. Not only does he care about us each as individuals – he is also persistent in his care, persistent in his seeking. This parable about the lost sheep is a parable about the heart of the Shepherd towards each one of us individually. It is a parable that should fill us, even in our straying, with an immense and overwhelming confident hope.

 

Read and discuss these passages. What do they teach us about our good Shepherd, Jesus Christ? How do they generate confident hope?

Passage

The Shepherd

Hope

Matthew

18:10-14

  

 

 

John 10:2-18, 27-28

  

 

 

Now read these Old Testament scriptures. From them identify the persistent and personal qualities of the Shepherd, and the hope generated by the Shepherd

Isaiah 40:10-11

 

 

 

 

Ezekiel

34:11-16

 

 

 

 

With this picture of our Shepherd before us, we have a sure and certain hope; we do not say as the world says ‘I hope so’; we say ‘I hope so’ with the confidence of ‘I know’.
 

B. THE PARABLE OF THE WORKERS IN THE VINEYARD [Matthew 20:1-16]

RADICAL HOPE #2: SALVATION IS EQUAL FOR ALL BECAUSE IT IS NOT BASED ON PERFORMANCE

Of all the parables this one is perhaps the most radical, the most contrary to human thought and human values. It presents a preposterous concept: that those who work for only one hour get a full day’s wages, and those who worked all day get nothing more than the others. Despite the fact that the farmer kept his legal arrangement with the first workers and paid them what he had contracted to pay, it seems so incredibly unfair and inequitable. Applied to the religious sphere of life it cuts right across all the religions of man; indeed it cuts right across the natural bent of our own hearts.

Here again, as in the previous section, we are confronted with the concept of grace. There grace gave us the hope of forgiveness and sonship; here grace gives us the confidence that, irrespective of how late or how early we enter the kingdom of Christ, salvation is the same for everyone. We will not miss out on anything because we were ‘late starters’.

Leon Morris comments:
‘God acts towards us in sheer grace. There is no question of salvation being an arithmetical process, adding up the good deeds and the bad ones and coming out with salvation or loss according to whether the balance is on the credit or debit side. That is not the way to understand the dealings of a gracious God.’ [p499, ibid]

‘… the parable … (puts) emphasis on the truth that God acts in grace toward us all. There is a tendency in the human race to think of salvation in legal terms. There is no heresy as widespread as the one we can put simply as “If I live a good life, I will go to heaven when I die.” It is natural for us to think that we can earn our salvation. But the consistent teaching of Scripture is that we are sinners; we all fall short of the standard we ought to have attained, and thus we have no claim on salvation. But as in this parable the workers who came late had no claim on a full day’s wage though they got it, so sinners have no claim on salvation. Salvation is always a work of grace. That God does not treat us on the basis of justice is a fact for which sinners must be truly grateful.’ [p504-505, ibid]

But we read this parable with the same mindset of the first workers: in terms of work and wages. Our minds, locked into the performance mentality, think only of what we are doing, how hard we are working, how diligent we have been, how appreciative the boss must be, and how we are really earning our wages. When we see the late-starters getting paid, we start reckoning up how much we will get paid – if that’s what he is giving them how much more is he going to give us who have been struggling and striving in his vineyard all through the day?

And we miss the point altogether: that to be in the Master’s vineyard is both gift and grace, that we are here in the vineyard, in the Kingdom, at his invitation, by his choice, by his decision. What matters to us is not the amount of time we spend in the vineyard, or the amount of work we do in the vineyard, but that we are in the vineyard.

Helmut Thielicke explains it this way:
‘The whole parable gains meaning on only one condition. And that is that we let it tell us that this is work which takes place in the vineyard, and that therefore it should be service for the Lord, and for this very reason cannot be viewed as something earned or merited. On the contrary, it says that this work is itself a gift and carries its reward in itself; for it brings the workers near to their fatherly Lord and his care. We shall understand this parable only if we see that Jesus is here speaking against legalistic religion, against all religion of the kind that dwells in our hearts by nature. It is a good thing to realize very clearly how men have toiled, and still toil, in the sphere of religion to earn heaven; they pile high the altars with sacrifices, they tell their beads, they do good works … solely in order to gain merits for heaven. We must realize once and for all that these people are not doing all this as children who live and move about freely and happily in the Father’s house, but that they are doing it as slaves, doing it out of fear, that all this comes not so much from the heart but is for them a means of making themselves worthy of heaven. If these people were right – if fellowship with Jesus were a business transaction with a definite quid pro quo, with accounts of earnings which we could present to God and receipts entitling us to entrance into heaven – then it would be shamefully unjust if the person who entered the Lord’s service at the evening of life were to receive the same as did all those who had toiled and sweated and come home at evening with all their bones aching…

‘When we do something for our Lord, when we really take seriously the matter of honouring him in the poorest of our brethren, when we pray to him, when we surrender to him our life with its joys and sorrows, its passions and despondencies, this is not a means to an end – to the end, namely, of securing a claim on eternal salvation … - but rather this is an end in itself, it is itself “salvation”.

‘Why is this so? The person who knows that he has been given the grace to love God … this is in itself a joy, an undreamed-of fulfilment of life. For him, everything he does for God is in itself a happy service and therefore the very opposite of a hard drudgery that must then be rewarded with salvation.’ [p117,118, ibid]

So, as those who are in his Kingdom, Jesus challenges us to this radical hope, a hope that knows that God does not relate to us, or to our fellow Christian worker, on the basis of our performance, but on the basis of an unheard of and unthought of grace that transcends the petty calculations, comparisons and jealousies of our little earth-bound, self-focused hearts. With this hope he sets us free from our fears and our small-mindedness, to be wholly for him and to embrace and revel in his generosity.

 

Reflection: These texts also teach the equalizing impact of grace. Discuss their significance for hope.

Romans 3:22-24

 

 

 

Romans 3:27-30

 

 

 

Galatians 3:26-29

 

 

 

 

B.1 Comparison with contemporary ‘hope’ in the religious world
The ‘hope’ of both traditional and contemporary religion falls very much into the mentality of the first workers. ‘Hope’ is co-relative with performance. Acceptance with God is hoped for on the basis of what one has done for him. Blessings are expected to be comparable with effort. In this context ‘hope’ can only be that vague and uncertain ‘I hope so’ and always with a conditional ‘if I ….’ And with all of this, there is also division and segregation among people: those who have ‘made it’ and those who have not; those who are perceived to have ‘done enough’ and those who have not. The key player is not God and his gracious gift, but the man who can keep the right rules or perform the right rituals. And we are left with our calculations, our envy and jealousy, and our despair.

 

Reflection: Compare the hope taught in this parable with the ‘hope’ found in:

Contemporary society

World religions

 

 

 

 

Nominal Christianity

False cults

 

 

  

 

 

C. THE PARABLE OF THE TEN VIRGINS [Matthew 25:1-13]
RADICAL HOPE #3: JESUS IS COMING BACK

As Christians we are familiar with this hope of Christ’s return. It does not seem strange or extreme to us. We know who he is. We know that he is the eternal Lord, the great I AM. We know that death could not hold him, that he broke through to resurrection life. But to the watching world, this hope of ours is radical in the extreme. A fool’s dream. An empty, meaningless hope for which we are wasting our lives.

But the Scriptures are clear:

Reflection: What do these texts teach about the return of Jesus Christ

Matthew 16:27

  

 

Matthew 24:27, 30-35, 36-44

  

 

Matthew 25:31-32

  

 

Luke 17:22-24

  

 

Luke 21:27-28

  

 

John 14:1-4

 

 

Acts 1:11

  

 

1Corinthians 15:23-24

 

 

1Thessalonians

4:15-5:2

 

2Thessalonians 2:1-3

 

 

2Peter 3:4-10

 

 

This hope of Christ’s return is a motivation for constant readiness, alertness and godly living:

Reflection and response: Discuss the implications of the hope of Christ’s return for the life of the disciple.

Matthew 24:45-51

 

 

Matthew 25:1-13

 

 

Luke 16:26

 

 

Luke 21:34-36

 

 

1Thessalonians 5:4-8

 

 

1Peter 4:7ff

 

 

2Peter 3:1,11-14

 

 

C.1 Comparison with the contemporary mindset
In many ways the life choices of contemporary society are an honest expression of its worldview. Starting with the perception that there is no such thing as an absolute ’God’, and moving from that to the absence of absolute ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, and the non-existence of ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ or any real concept of life beyond death or judgment, there is nothing left but this present life, a life in which there are no boundaries, no meaning and no purpose..  The book of Ecclesiastes reveals that God knows all about this hopeless mindset of the human being who stands alone in his own meaningless world.

Reflection and response: From your knowledge of Ecclesiastes identify the hopelessness of the godless mindset. Discuss the contrast with the sure and certain Christian hope of the return of Jesus Christ. In what ways has this hopeless mindset infiltrated the church?

 

 

 

 

D. THE PARABLE OF THE NET [Matthew 13:47-52]

RADICAL HOPE #4: THERE IS A JUDGMENT DAY

To most the concept of a ‘judgment day’ is a threat, not a hope. But to the Christian believer it must never be a threat, because the Christian, as we have seen in so many of Christ’s parables, has been rescued from the realm of sin and judgment and placed in the kingdom of Christ where grace reigns. The Christian is already a member of the eternal Kingdom of Christ that will be established in its final and ultimate form with the coming of the Day of the Lord. To the believer this day of judgment, the great Day of the Lord, is a day of hope. In that day all that is opposed to the Lord and to his Kingdom will be removed; in that day the great enemy of God and of his people will be banished forever, never again to rebel against God and never again to tempt and deceive God’s people, never again to destroy. In that day all pain and tears and suffering will be forever ended. In that day Christ, the Lord, will be seen in all his glory; in that day, when we see him as he really is, we will reflect his perfect glory; from that day forward we will be forever with the Lord.

It is this hope that calls the Christian on, that encourages the Christian to persevere in the midst of unheard of suffering. This day for which we hope is only the beginning, a beginning beyond which there is a life and a dimension which at this present time-and-space-bound moment we can barely even imagine.

As CS Lewis wrote in his children’s allegory The Last Battle: ‘It is far bigger inside than it was outside. .. The farther up and the farther in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside… like an onion: except that as you go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.’

A few pages later, Lewis, depicting the King speaking after the last battle, and after the judgment is over, wrote in the words of the story:

‘Your father and mother and all of you are – as you used to call it in the Shadowlands – dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.’

‘And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.’ [p165, The Last Battle].

Many of the parables have judgment in focus:

the parable of the weeds,
the parable of the sheep and the goats,
the parable of the unforgiving servant,
the parable of the workers in the vineyard,
the parable of the tenants
the parable of the talents
the parable of the ten minas.

All of these, and probably others, have the concept of ‘judgment’ lurking somewhere in the background. In some of these parables the presence of the Judgment Day is to warn people to repent and believe; in others it is not this terrible judgment that falls on unbelievers that is in focus, but the judgment of believers at which ‘rewards’ are distributed. [This is the focus of a later study.] We must be careful not to confuse these two different judgments.

Our two parables in this section speak of a clear separation and distinction that happens on the Day of Judgment, the Day of Christ’s final return.

 

Reflection and response: Look at the Scriptures below. Distinguish between the hope and joy of believers on that day and the terrible threat that hangs over unbelievers.

Scripture

The hope of believers

The threat to unbelievers

Matthew 13:47-52

 

 

 

Matthew 25:1-13

 

 

 

Joel 2:31-32

 

 

 

Amos 5:18-20

 

 

 

Luke 10:12,14

 

 

 

Romans 2:5-10

 

 

 

1Peter 4:5

 

 

 

1John 4:16-18

 

 

 

Jude 14,15

 

 

 

Revelation 6:9-11

 

 

 

Revelation

20:11-21:5

 

 

 

Reflection and response: Discuss and compare/contrast the Christian hope of the judgment day with the materialism and secularism of contemporary secular society, and with the views of some sections of contemporary Christianity

 

 

 


E. PERSONAL CHALLENGE

The parables of Christ have challenged us to a certain and radical hope in several areas:

Hope grounded on a Shepherd who is persistent and personal
Hope in a God who in great compassion forgives our sin and welcomes us as his children
Hope in a salvation that is equal for all, because it is based on grace
Hope that is fixed in God, not in our religious résumé 
Hope that Jesus is coming back
Hope that there is a judgment day

In what ways have you been challenged by the confident and certain hope to which Jesus calls us?