September 24, 2017
Matthew 20:1-16, Exodus 16:2-15
“Late to Work”
A monk joined a monastic order that practiced silence. Every ten years each monk would be allowed to say two words. After the first ten years, the monk met with the abbot and said, “Bed hard.” Ten years later they met again and he said, “Food cold.” After thirty years, the monk’s two words were, “I quit.” “Well, I’m not surprised,” replied the abbot. “You’ve done nothing but complain since you got here!”
Do you think that it is written into the human DNA that we will complain? It seems to go back to the beginning of humanity. The reading from Exodus is the story of slaves who have been set free and now they are hungry. They complain and God feeds them. It’s important to note some things in that story.
1. God responds to their hunger. God listens and feeds them.
2. God gives them enough manna for each day. The story goes on to say that God tells them to eat it and not store it for later, but they don’t listen. The manna that they try and save for later goes bad and cannot be eaten. And so, they are taught that
3. God will take care of their needs. It is not up to them. They can trust God’s generosity.
Hold that thought as we look at the gospel lesson. A group of workers stand around hoping someone will hire them for the day. They are hungry. Their families are hungry and they are desperate for work. When the first group is hired, and told they will get a day’s wage, they must feel like they have hit the jackpot! Such a relief! They will have enough to feed their family this evening. And so, they work anticipating that day’s wage. Listen to the rest of the story again.
A few hours later, the landowner hires a group of workers and promises to pay them “what is right.” Thank God! They have found work and they know not to take it for granted. The same thing happens again at noon and at three o’clock. They are also told they will be paid “what is right.” At five o’clock, the landowner found workers who had waited all day to be hired. He asked why they were not working and they told him that no one had hired them. He sent them to the vineyard. What must they have felt after standing around all day? They didn’t give up. They waited and they got to work for an hour.
At the end of the day, the landowner calls the ones who came last and pays them the day’s wage that the first workers were promised. The first workers see that and think that they must be getting a HUGE amount if the last workers got a full day’s pay for an hour of work! They get their wage only to find out it is exactly what they were promised. That day’s wage that looked great this morning, but now it looks like they have been cheated.
The landowners’ reply to the disgruntled workers gets me every time: “Are you envious because I am generous?” Ouch. Why do we spend so much energy comparing ourselves to others? Why do we worry about what others are getting? Just as I was preparing to write this sermon, a woman in Costco almost pushed her cart ahead of me and I WAS FIRST!!! How sad that I spent a few minutes mad that she ALMOST cut in line. Yes, I seriously got worked up about a shopping cart going in front of me when it was MY TURN! That is how petty we can be and all the while Jesus is calling us back and saying, “God loves you. It is more than enough. You don’t need to worry about how much God loves someone else. Stop wasting your energy on what others deserve. Let me be clear in every way I know how to say it, GOD IS NOT FAIR!” How many times do we hear Jesus say, “the last shall be first?” Even though others try and help Jesus understand that people should get what they deserve, he continues to disregard that way of thinking. And still, we look around to see who is getting what. And we complain. Did I mention the woman who ALMOST cut in front of me in the line at Costco??
A company chartered a ship for its top sales people. These sales people swarmed aboard and headed for their cabins. Minutes later one of them was on the deck demanding to see the captain. One of the officers asked if he could help. “My friend has a much better cabin!” the sales man said. “I did as good a job as he did and I want a cabin just like his.”
“Sir,” the officer replied, “The cabins are identical.”
“Yeah,” said the man, “but his cabin looks out on the ocean and my cabin looks out on the old dock.”
What view will this man have when the ship leaves the dock and they are on the ocean? Why is it that we are content with what we have until we see what someone else has?
God tries to say to us over and over “I am not fair. I don’t care what you deserve. I am generous no matter what.”
Each week we pray “Give US this day our daily bread.” Note that we are not praying, “Give me this day MY daily bread.” Today, when we pray that prayer, let’s stop and let those words sink in. We really are praying for daily bread for all, not just some. We are praying for those who deserve it and for those who don’t.
Here is another piece of irony in this story. Why do we assume that we are the ones who have worked all day? Why doesn’t it occur to us that we could be the ones who worked the last hour and got the same pay?
That could be the place where we turn our thinking around. If we could see ourselves as the ones who waited all day to be given the privilege of work and then were given the opportunity to work for an hour. If we could see ourselves encountering God who pays us as if we had worked all day, would it change things? This is a story about the grace of God. It is a story about getting what we don’t deserve.
Perhaps it is time to retire the words “fair” and “deserve” from our vocabulary. They don’t seem to exist in God’s vocabulary. We make ourselves miserable when we spend energy comparing our lives, our stuff, our experience with others. And yet we can’t seem to stop.
In text study, I asked more than once, “What do we do with this generous God?” We struggled with it and talked some more about what is fair. But that question won’t leave me alone. What do we do with this generous God?
It is hard to complain when we are overwhelmed with God’s goodness. Perhaps that is where we need to place ourselves – in the center of God’s generosity because that is where we reside. We simply need to note that we didn’t get here on our own. We didn’t get here because we deserve to be here. We are here because God is too generous to be fair.