Homily for Pentecost 19
Exodus 16:2-15 The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Then the LORD said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your complaining against the LORD. For what are we, that you complain against us?” And Moses said, “When the LORD gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the LORD has heard the complaining that you utter against him–what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the LORD.” Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the LORD, for he has heard your complaining.'” And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud. The LORD spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.'” In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat.
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 O give thanks to the LORD, call on his name, make known his deeds among the peoples. Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wonderful works. Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice. Seek the LORD and his strength; seek his presence continually. Remember the wonderful works he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he uttered, O offspring of his servant Abraham, children of Jacob, his chosen ones. Then he brought Israel out with silver and gold, and there was no one among their tribes who stumbled. Egypt was glad when they departed, for dread of them had fallen upon it. He spread a cloud for a covering, and fire to give light by night. They asked, and he brought quails, and gave them food from heaven in abundance. He opened the rock, and water gushed out; it flowed through the desert like a river. For he remembered his holy promise, and Abraham, his servant. So he brought his people out with joy, his chosen ones with singing. He gave them the lands of the nations, and they took possession of the wealth of the peoples, that they might keep his statutes and observe his laws. Praise the LORD!
Philippians 1:21-30 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again. Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well — since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
Matthew 20:1-16 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage. Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
“Hey, I was here first!” “That jerk cut me off!” “That’s mine!”
We can identify with statements like these. They bring to mind particular situations in which we felt threatened or taken advantage of, and we all know the accompanying feelings of indignation, resentment, hostility, anger and anxiety.
To look at today’s Gospel, at first glance it makes no sense. But a parable is always about something else – something that is not so obvious. It’s obvious that people who don’t show up for work, or who are brand new in a position are not going to be valued or paid as much as someone who has more experience or worked longer. That’s a no-brainer. But Jesus began this little story by saying “The kingdom of God is like . . .” So the first step would be to recognize that Jesus is not making a comment about 1st century labour practices – it’s about how people choose to relate to each other, it’s about the kingdom, and ultimately, it’s about the nature and character of God.
First, it’s about how people choose to relate to each other:
Jesus’ stories resonate with the depth of his awareness of human nature. So the story points out that if people are in competition with each other, and jealous of each other, they behave exactly like those in the parable: resentful of those who seem to be doing less; jealous of those getting more; selfish and unsupportive of each other. They are not glad to see that everyone is being blessed, but are thinking in terms of deserving more than someone, or having more, which is simply a function of the ego run wild. So many people think life is not fair, because they are so obsessed with comparing themselves with someone else – “Mommy, she’s getting more than me!”
On another human level, the parable names the conflict between Jews and Gentiles, with the implied question: can outsiders have a place in the scope of God’s mercy? Jewish people considered themselves God’s chosen – the favoured ones. They may have wanted or expected the pat on the head for being good, for obeying God’s law, and they expected to hear affirmations that confirmed they were better than others – they wanted to hear their rabbis telling them: “Yes, God love you more than the Gentiles – you deserve more than they do.” Jesus’ parable doesn’t do that, which probably made the Jews in Jesus’ original audience very angry, once they got the message.
In a more general way, people established in a job or a country or a church or a family are sometimes deeply resentful of those coming in later, thinking they should have more rights and entitlements because they’ve been there longer , fearful that their place is going to be taken or undermined. The difficulty in a family is obvious enough – sibling rivalries can be destructive. But if you create no space for newcomers and new ways, in a church for instance, the church can’t grow or evolve and adapt, and it tends to stagnate. As a clergy friend of mine said, “We are ideally positioned if 1953 ever comes around again.” On the other hand, if you don’t respect those who were there first, you lose touch with history and tradition; you lose the opportunity to enrich your own story by combining it with a bigger story; you can end up destroying a legacy and heritage that might have been of great value. Think of what happened when newcomers poured into North America and the native people, those who were here first, were bumped almost entirely out of the picture.
Jesus isn’t saying that one group or the other is automatically right or wrong – newcomer or old-timer – he is pointing out the need for sensitivity and grace as people with different needs and backgrounds encounter each other and interact. Such encounters always create a new reality and you have to be ready to deal with that.
The parable is really about the kingdom:
Again, Jesus begins this parable by saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like …” In a way Jesus is re-telling the Adam and Eve story, about our tendency to want ownership of something that really can’t be owned – only shared – and it loses its meaning if it is not enjoyed together – in relationship. The ancient myth reveals that paradise is always lost when we grasp the way Adam and Eve tend to do. You can’t buy a bigger piece of heaven. You don’t get a bigger mansion than someone else – there’s room for ALL in the kingdom, yet it’s always hard to resist taking advantage or to believe someone else is not going to get there ahead of or instead of us. Jesus doesn’t pass judgement on it – he merely makes people aware of what that looks like.
For those who are tempted to say “Hey, we’re doing all the work!” it’s not about work at all, ironically, even though this story is supposedly about labourers. The lesson is that you can’t work or earn your way into the kingdom or into a place of favour with God – you can only receive it as a gift. The parable reveals how difficult and even damaging it is to apply human analogies, assumptions and expectations to what God is about.
It’s a painful message for those who believe they deserve more for certain ways of behaving or believing. It’s a summons to let go of the need to control or regulate the kingdom, because it doesn’t operate by the same rules we normally work by, and to trust that there is a bigger picture than we see, and God knows what he/she is doing. “There’s a reason we say OUR Father, not MY Father” — you can’t have God to yourself.
Finally, the parable is about God:
The vineyard is life – it’s the kingdom. God invites people into life – into relationship – and makes them realize they are valued and have a purpose. We are meant to realize it’s a privilege to be here at all. The owner of the vineyard (God) asks the complaining labourers: “Are you envious because I am generous?” In another translation it says: “Is your eye evil because I am good?” The issue is their perceptions of things – the expectations and assumptions and beliefs they operate by. Through the prophet, God says, “My ways are not your ways.” Connecting with God’s purposes means embracing a new vision, and letting go of a model based on fear, competition, and individualized salvation.
The parable is about the universal love of God – it is about God’s justice — and suggests we can’t truly experience God or the kingdom until we are prepared to accept it on its own terms – its own rules – rather than striving to impose our own. As Jesus said, “Be merciful, as God is merciful.” As followers of God we are meant to take on a certain resemblance.
The good news of Jesus’ parable is that we’re all loved – God cares about everyone – we all have a place in God’s kingdom. But we can ruin it by wanting more, by thinking we deserve it somehow, or by demanding that someone be kicked out. That’s like asking a parent to say which child she/he loves more. Jesus encouraged people to see God as a loving parent – as Father/Mother. When a child is struggling or misbehaving or under-achieving, a loving parent doesn’t love the child less, doesn’t suddenly abandon the child or remove the child from the family. But in the larger human family, we do that with each other all the time – we create arbitrary lines in the sand which divide and exclude. The parable says that God doesn’t do that. God is good, so there is no limit to God’s love.
When you speak of the kingdom in earthly terms, people tend to react like you’ve been watching too much Disney, or you’ve been smoking something strange. Jesus always tells his stories in very human settings, so we are obliged to imagine what the kingdom might look like in real life. It’s no less a threat for us than it was for the Pharisees and others who first heard it. Reality, or the world, is what you choose to make it, and it doesn’t have to be the way it is. Christians are meant to know there is another way, other possibilities.
Parables are like ticking time bombs. They go off later, as people begin to realize that the superficial meaning is not the real meaning – I think Jesus had just enough time to get out of town before people began to say, “Hey, he’s talking about us!” And it’s important to realize that Jesus’ parables really blew people away, and turned the world they knew upside down. Given that parables are time bombs, what are the questions and challenges that explode out of this parable in our time?
Hasn’t it been the craving, not just for more, but for “more than . . .” that has so devastated the planet? – caused so many wars etc? Is God’s way really so ridiculous?
Are there places in my life where I am being called to let go, or become less controlling and anxious about the outcomes – less possessive — and in need of a deeper faith in God’s generous ways?
Are there situations in which my presence, my voice, my contributions are not being heard and valued? How am I feeling about that?
Am I familiar with what it feels like to be an excluded as a threat, an outcast, or as Christian?
How can this parish of St. John the Apostle be more of a reflection of a kingdom in which everyone is welcome and everyone’s contributions truly valued?
I invite you to ponder and wrestle with the challenges this scripture raises for you, and for us as a parish. As St. Paul said, “Think about these things.”