What changed my life? How was my soul saved? When did Christianity start to click? Here’s my story: I wasn’t on drugs, broke, and homeless. I didn’t stumble into an AA meeting. Nor did I walk by a man holding a sign reading “Hellfire or Jesus” and feel compelled by my own fear of death to repent on a downtown sidewalk. I’m not discounting dramatic conversions. It wasn’t what I knew. Dramatic conversions get more attention in church. However, my experience tells me they are the minority. It’s the gradual, under the radar, one step at a time, journeys toward a deeper faith, which are more common.
I attended church whenever the doors were open. I joined the youth group. In the most general way, these activities made sense. I went on mission trips. We visited to the homeless shelter to serve meals. I played the piano in church. All the Christian dots were in place yet none of them really connected. That connection came later. The weekly religious repetition bred familiarity. In my case, the familiarity didn’t bring contempt. If anything, I was bored.
The things we did were good. We talked about issues that seemed holy and historic. Yet nothing connected my faith to the wider world. How was what I learned in church supposed to shape my life beyond the church? I didn’t feel that link was made. These stories Jesus told, what did they mean for Christians today? I thought I understood the Good Samaritan story but there were countless other parables I didn’t grasp. Even in the Samaritan story, there seemed to be more happening beneath the surface. Then Jesus kept speaking about the “kingdom of God”, what was this kingdom? The kingdom looked nothing at all like the world I knew or wanted to join. Jesus’ vision of reality and my idea of right and wrong were not the same. Here’s where the first test came. Would I try to find a way to make Jesus’ teachings fit my conceptions of what I had been taught it meant to be a Christian? Or, would I allow Jesus to reshape my understanding of what it means to be his disciple, from scratch? If that meant I was called a Methodist or Marxist, I didn’t care. I wanted, most importantly, to be an authentic follower of Jesus Christ.
To let Jesus work on me, I needed to meet Jesus again for the first time. There is no better place to encounter Jesus than in his stories. In scripture, these are the records of Jesus’ encounters with crowds both large and small. In his parables, Jesus describes his ideal conception of reality. He called it “the kingdom of God”. The kingdom is here, embodied in Christ’s mission and ministry. In another way, it’s still on the way, an unrealized expectation for the future. Jesus’ stories describe, by way of parabolic illustration, what’s important to Jesus and how his priorities must become ours. It’s in listening and then acting on what we hear that the kingdom of God becomes a three dimensional reality.
These stories aren’t Jesus’ suggestions for better living. They are handbooks for a way forward. For too long, I heard them preached (and saw people treat them) as morality tales. “Oh wouldn’t be nice if we could all live this way,” I’d hear someone say after church. “Too bad Jesus doesn’t live in the real world.”
Eventually I realized a couple of important ideas. Jesus does live in the real world and his words carry weight and value. Many of the United Methodists I knew were willing to write Jesus off as a Christian version Aesop but took parts of the Old Testament literally. While Jesus could be easily ignored, they were willing to consider Moses’ word as law. I saw an even greater disconnect between how the church sees Jesus, God, the role of scripture, and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
There’s one parable running perpendicular across the grain of American society. This story, Matthew 20:1-6, stands in stark opposition to the Protestant work ethic, free market economics, Capitalism, and good old fashioned American ideas about hard work. If we’re not uncomfortable with the telling of this story, we’re not listening. It makes me squirm and I credit it with bringing me to salvation. Jesus is reordering the world and redefining our sense of fairness. Equality will no longer be measured by the terms we’ve grown accustomed.
This is the parable that saved my soul.
The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who wanted to hire some help for the day. So early in the morning, he went to that spot, you know the one, where everybody who wants to be a day laborer hangs out, and picks up some guys. He says, “I’ll pay one denarii for working in my vineyard for the day.” They agree. Into the vineyard they go.
A few hours later, he goes back to the market place and sees more people who need work. He offers them an opportunity to go into the vineyard but doesn’t agree on a price. He only says, “I’ll pay you whatever is right.”
The vineyard owner does this two more times. At lunch and then around mid-afternoon, he goes back into town and hires more workers for the vineyard. Each time, they agree to go into the vineyard. On these subsequent occasions a wage is never discussed. The landowner only questions the men as to why they were never hired earlier in the day. “Nobody hired us,” they say. These men were unemployed or unemployable. This landowner hires everybody. In the kingdom of heaven, Jesus is sending a powerful message about full employment.
When the end of the day came, he called his foreman to pay the workers. He began with the last ones hired. Those who showed up at five received one denarii. The same thing happened with the people who came at three, twelve, and nine. The morning crowd was certain they’d be paid more since they worked all day. It didn’t happen. Everyone was paid one denarii. The guys who’d worked since dawn were angry. How could he do this? Didn’t he know they’d worked in the hot sun all day and the guys who came last did nothing? What was this, some kind of socialist plot? You can’t pay everyone the same thing. Where’s your motivation for getting ahead, incentives, and advancement?
I realized something: Jesus doesn’t have the same bottom line as Wal-Mart, Walt Disney, or the United States of America. His priorities are rooted in meeting long term needs. Short term visions of equality are not consistent with God’s vision of fairness.
The landowner explains, “I paid you what I agreed. It’s my call to pay what I like and to whom.” In Jesus’ kingdom, as the landowner explains, the least and last are as important as the first and those guaranteed to be well-paid.
If you didn’t know Jesus said these things, removed this story from the Bible, and heard an aggrieved worker call a radio talk show with this story, what would the response be? The decline of America, socialism infecting small town America, and the workers would probably be immigrants taking American jobs. You know I’m right.
This is why this story saved my soul. This parable is everything Jesus wants us to be and still we refuse to listen. Jesus is hiding in plain sight. He’s telling this parable right now. My thoughts about healthcare and immigration are viewed through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection not because I read Leviticus 19 nor had a great mission trip experience as a young adult. My salvation became real when I read Matthew 20:1-16. Jesus talked about life as it is lived. I began to take Jesus seriously, at face value, and at his word. I think Jesus cares about economics and our souls. This parable proves it. Jesus meddles in politics and religion in ways that many Americans would despise. I think that’s great. We’ve taken him for granted for far too long. He’s not our American Idol. He’s our Savior. There is a difference we’d do well to remember.
Richard Lowell Bryant