Sunday, February 10, 2008

Lessons from the Three Year Olds...

This month in Sunday School we are studying parables. A very difficult concept for three year olds! Try to explain how the kingdom of God is like yeast… Try to explain yeast! Generally the more abstract concepts prove the most difficult, but last week it was a very basic concept that threw them off.

We were studying Matthew 20:1-16. It is the parable in which the landowner goes out early in the morning to hire workers. He offers to pay them a fair wage and they agree. Later in the day, the landowner goes out to recruit more workers… and offers them the same amount of money even though they are only working part of the day. At the last hour, the landowner goes out to recruit a final group of workers and again pays them the same amount as those recruited early in the morning. Generally this is an easy parable to explain. We are acutely aware of the injustice inherent in the parable. How could the landowner not see that it was unfair to pay so much to those who had worked so little! Those recruited early in the morning had worked hard! They deserved to be paid more! Isn’t that how our society works? If you work hard you will be rewarded? There are no free handouts in our society.

The three year olds, unfortunately, do not have this same concept of fairness. They do not understand working hard and being rewarded. Imagine us trying to convince them how unfair the parable was! Especially when they immediately grasped what Jesus was trying to teach. For these little ones, fair was each one receiving an equal share. They understood receiving and wanted all to receive. Now, I am not arguing that three year olds are perfect or are not selfish. They want things just as much as the rest of us. But they are able to receive freely. Actually, they often have no other choice. Everything they have has been freely received.

When do we forget that? The fact that everything we have has also been freely received. Everything we have has been graciously given to us by God. We did not earn it. We did not do anything to deserve it. Yet we do deserve it… we deserve it because we are beloved children of God. We all deserve it. We all deserve the grace of God. Those who worked hard from early in the morning and those who received grace late in the day. This is not an excuse to reward yourself. It is not an excuse to justify over-consumption arguing that all we have is free gift of God. It is not a call to those who do not have to live patiently waiting for God to provide. Rather, it is a call to fight against the jealousy that can so easily entangle us. The desire to have what all those around us have.

This parable becomes even more difficult for us to grasp when we fall into the trap of believing the all-American myth that if you work hard you will be rewarded. You will be rewarded if you do the things that are valued by our society… and from what I have observed, we value athletes, movies stars, pop musicians, and wealthy people. The reality is that those who have often are able to gain more much more easily than those who do not have. You can work hard all of your life and never make it. That is not to say that the American dream does not come true at times for some. And it is more likely to come true in this country than it is in many other places in the world. But we all know people who work extremely hard and are not paid nearly enough… school teachers, janitors, social workers, secretaries, housecleaners.

But, back to the parable. Back to the lesson from those little three year olds. God offers us a gracious gift. The same gift is offered to all. God offers us the kingdom. God offers us the chance to become children of God, to stand side by side as equals before the Lord. Perhaps this is what it means to become like little children.