Monday, March 19, 2018

The first will be last; the last will be first

Next weekend I am looking forward to attending a Conference on Science and Christianity.
I have been asked to give three short talks/reflections during some worship times. For balance I have picked from the Bible three passages: a Psalm, a parable of Jesus, and a New Testament Epistle:
Psalm 19, Matthew 20:1-16, and Philippians 2:1-11.
Humility is a common theme.

The first talk will be similar to this one.
Below is a draft outline of a draft for the second talk.
I will post the third talk later.

What is the Kingdom of God like?
The first will be last and the last will be first.

The parable of the workers in the vineyard
Matthew 20:1-16

We all come to any subject in life with pre-conceptions about what is true, what is just, what is important, and what is the  actual nature of things.
We can come to science with such preconceptions.
We can come to theology (talk about God) with such preconceptions.
We all have preconceptions about how science and theology are related or not related.
But are my pre-conceptions justified? Are your pre-conceptions justified?
What will it take for you to change your views?

Jesus challenged the pre-conceptions of everyone, especially the religious people of his time. He challenged preconceptions about a wide range of topics: the character of God, how people should live, the role of the law, how people could be saved, who were God’s people,…
Today Jesus continues to challenge people’s preconceptions.

This parable is just one example of Jesus profoundly challenging peoples preconceptions. It should also challenge us.

It is useful to look at any Bible passage in the context of what comes before and what comes after.

In Matthew 19 the disciples try to stop children coming to Jesus. Jesus responds, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

Then Jesus encounters a rich young man. He wants to get eternal life. He claims he has kept all of God’s commands. Jesus tells the young man to sell all of his possessions and give to the poor. He won’t do that. Jesus warns that it is hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.
He says to the disciples that “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”

Jesus, then tells the parable to show what the kingdom of heaven is like.
Again, he concludes with “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

After telling the parable Jesus predicts his death and resurrection.
Then a mother requests that her two sons sit in power with Jesus in his kingdom.
Jesus then contrasts kingdom leadership to the that of worldly leaders who lord it over their subjects. Whoever wants to be great must be a servant, even a slave.
Jesus came to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Jesus is promoting an upside down kingdom. The least will be greatest. The greatest will be humbled. The first will be last and the last will be first.

This 17th century depiction of the parable is by Jacob Willemszoon de Wet.

What is the content of the parable?
The owner of a vineyard hires some workers. They all get paid the same amount. Yet, some of them worked fewer hours than others. This is not modern day economics or labour practice!
It isn’t fair! The hard workers complain, just like we would.
The landowner responds that he is not unfair. He has kept his promise. He challenges the grumblers, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

What is the meaning of the parable?
God is like the landowner. We are the workers.
God is generous. He is full of grace, i.e. he treats people better than they deserve. Some of us may live more virtuous lives than others. But this is irrelevant in God’s economy.
God offers us a free gift of forgiveness and eternal life, through Jesus death and resurrection. We don’t earn this gift.
God has the right to be generous as he pleases. It is not for us to question God. God is God. We don't have the right to tell God what is right and fair.

We may bridle at God’s generosity. We can be self-righteous like the rich young man and think we keep God’s commands and so deserve salvation.
But the last will be first. The first will be last. The tax collectors and prostitutes who repent will enter Jesus' kingdom before the rich and powerful, particularly the self-righteous religious leaders.
The kingdom belongs to those with the humility of little children.

This parable should rattle our pre-conceptions of how God operates, of what is fair, and what is true.
It should lead to humility and repentance and gratefulness for the mercy of God.
The kingdom of God is an upside down kingdom.
Paradox and dialectic are integral to theology.

How is this related to science?
Christians believe that God made the universe. He wrote the laws of nature.
What are some of the most striking things we have learnt in science in the past hundred years?

Sir Arthur Eddington was the most influential astronomer in the early twentieth century. J.B.S.Haldane was an influential geneticist and evolutionary biologist. Both are credited with saying that,
“the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose”.
Yet it is striking to me that this statement was made so long ago. The universe is indeed even stranger than what Haldane and Eddington knew 60 years ago. This was before we had to grapple with the most bizarre properties of quantum physics or the finding that 96% of the universe may be composed of dark matter and dark energy, completely unlike the matter and energy of which we are made and encounter in our daily lives.

Bill Bryson says the four most remarkable things he knows are
1. You exist.
2. Life does not happen anywhere else in the universe.
3. We live in a planet that we don't really know.
4. All life comes from a single moment of creation.

Science challenges our pre-conceptions of what is true, what makes sense, and how the world should be. Given the universe is made by the God of the upside-down kingdom, perhaps we
should not be surprised it goes against some of our prejudices and intuitions.

How does this apply to our discussions of the relationship between science and theology?
Perhaps we may need to be humbler and be open to new ways of thinking.
Do my pre-conceptions need to be challenged?

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