God’s generosity, and ours
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Sept. 21, Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20):
To listen to earlier homilies click here
Draft text of the homily—please do not cite without permission
It’s pretty obvious what this parable is about.
It’s about generosity, right?
The last will be first and the first will be last.
God is the landowner.
The money is the grace that is handed out to everyone regardless of merit.
The workers who come early and complain are…
who ever happens to be complaining at the time—
the ones who feel the most entitled…
could be you at those times you felt you deserved more than you got;
I know it’s been me.
The workers who come late and don’t complain are…
We’re not sure because they don’t really have a voice.
But the point is that grace is a pure gift.
The point is that the most important thing is to respond to the call to work in the vineyard.
That’s WAY more important than any kind of payment that we might receive.
That’s good news, isn’t it?
You bet it is.
It’s good news that grace is not earned.
It’s good news that we can’t rack up grace points by doing good deeds.
It’s also good news that God’s justice is not the same as our justice.
We’re the ones who get fixated on pay-back—on retribution—on what someone “deserves”.
God’s justice is always about reconciliation—always restorative—always about bringing relationships back to health.
I am occasionally aware of how far away I am from living a life that is truly just—
of how far away I am from loving God with all my heart and soul and mind,
and how little I really do love my neighbor as myself,
OK, I’m daily aware of that…
given that sobering reality…
it’s GREAT news that God’s justice is not like our justice.
If it’s so obvious what the good news of this parable is.
Then why do I find it so disturbing?
Parables are subversive because they work on many levels.
An allegorical reading—God is the landowner, grace is the coin—is one reading.
But it’s not the only one.
Jesus announces his ministry in Matthew by saying,
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
And he spends the rest of his ministry encouraging people to do just that.
Pay attention to what is really going on in the world and choose to live differently—in community, in relationship…
So I wonder, is this parable only about God’s generosity and us learning to accept the unfair justice of grace?
Or is this parable also trying to help us see a different injustice, the dark, perpetual, and systemic injustices of the world?
The lectionary leaves this out, but this parable is told in response to a conversation Jesus just had with a rich young man who wants to know what he has to do—how he can earn—eternal life.
Remember what Jesus tells him. “Sell your possession and give the money to the poor, then come and follow me.”
And he goes away sad because he had many possessions.
And then he tells this parable full of the haves and the have-nots, the rich and the poor, the first and the last, and in the parable world, Jesus brings the very top of the social hierarchy and the very bottom together in a way they rarely are in reality.
A CEO of a multinational corporation went out one morning to hire workers for one of the factories.
Already we’re in this bizarro world, because a CEO would never do that. The CEO would send a regional manager—who would send the assistant to the regional manager—who would get someone from HR—in our world, the haves are very much separated from the have-nots.
But not in God’s realm.
So surprisingly this CEO goes out looking for the lowest priced labor there is.
The CEO goes Mexico, or China, or Bangladesh, somewhere where the going rate for day labor is—let’s be generous and say $2 a day.
The CEO contracts with a group of workers for “the usual daily wage” $2, and sends them into the factory.
These are day laborers.
You’ve seen them.
I certainly have.
When I lived in China I saw street corners filled with people (usually men) looking for work, some holding the only tool they brought from the country side, or maybe the only tool they owned, or maybe the only one they had any skill with.
The CEO goes out several more times during the day.
And on these subsequent trips the contract gets changed to a promise: Go. Work. I’ll pay you “what’s right.”
These day laborers are likely people who have migrated a long way for work, they are cut off, and vulnerable.
They may or may not understand the culture and the language of the city they are working in.
They might or might not understand what being paid “whatever is right” really means.
They are utterly dependent on the CEO, to this point we’ve gotten no hint of any generosity.
Just a portrait of a large power imbalance.
At the end the CEO makes no promises at all, simply instructs them to go into the vineyard.
The workers are in no position to negotiate or advocate for themselves—everything hangs on the trustworthiness of the CEO.
When evening comes the CEO tells the HR person to go and line them up to get paid.
With the last ones first.
Well, in the parable world it’s really the only way to ensure the confrontation between the early workers and the CEO.
But in another sense it could be seen as deeply shaming.
The early workers get to watch as the CEO demonstrates that their labor (the only thing they have that’s of any value at all), is valued just as much—or just as little—as the labor of the ones who worked an hour.
In other words, not much at all.
It’s telling that the early workers aren’t upset that the late comers got paid a day’s wage—
they’re upset because they “expect more.”
Because “you have made them equal to us.”
Then in a very clear demonstration of who really holds the power here—
the CEO picks out the ringleader of the early workers and humiliates him in front of the others,
“Friend, I’m doing you no wrong,” he says.
And what if this is not a chummy “friend”?
What if this is a very pointed “friend” dripping with condescension.
Then the CEO uncharitably tosses the ringleader out.
It’s my money; I hold all the power. I make all the rules.
Take it and go.
Is this what the kingdom of heaven is like?
Talk about subversive.
Here is a parable that in a few short verses captures vividly some realities of the world’s economic system and slams it right up against the divine economy of grace in God’s kingdom.
The generosity of God is laid next to—or on top of—this questionably generous landowner.
Generosity is required with this kind of imbalance of power in our world, while God’s reign insists that even those we think are less than us are in fact equal with us.
Those of us who come forward to take communion on a regular basis get to practice receiving this kind of unfair grace.
We each get bread and wine, in the same kind and in essentially the same amount as everyone else.
There’s no favoritism or works righteousness at the altar rail.
At the altar, we get to experience the blessed unfairness of God’s grace.
But we still have to live in the other world of the parable as well.
Are we only supposed to stop grumbling about how much or little grace we get?
Or are we supposed to actually be transformed?
Change our lives?
Are we supposed to realize that the equal amounts of bread and wine we receive each week up here, have secular equivalents…
of actual bread, and clean water,
and by extension some basic provisions of health, education, and welfare—
of life, liberty, and some small modicum of happiness that we also profess everyone at our common table should expect as simply their daily wage?
Does that make you uncomfortable too, or is it just me?
Maybe discomfort is the point.
It’s a parable after all and not a blueprint.
We live in a world where we rely on those workers to put food on our tables, make our clothes— sustain our standard of living; and where there are both generous and unscrupulous landowners.
The parable reveals some pretty uncomfortable things about how generous, or accepting, or even put upon we all believe ourselves to be.
If I take the multiple messages of the parable seriously at all, I have to ask, how generous am I really?
How generous am I if I’m taking my completely undeserved but roughly equal share of communion bread, and then taking and expecting more than my fair share of every other kind of food?
How can I receive the free, and unearned gift of grace through bread and wine, and not see all the rest of creation as a free, and utterly undeserved gift as well?
Not something that I’m entitled to, but something that I’ve been entrusted with?
So yes, it’s obvious what this parable is about.
It’s about generosity.
But it’s not only about God’s generosity
—it’s also about ours.