words of my mouth

Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Matthew 20:1-16

Many years ago I attended a church, St. Clement’s, in New York City. It was unique in that it doubled, and still doubles, as an off-off Broadway theater. In fact, it was St. Clement’s that presented me for ordination. The congregation was filled with people from all walks of life, but a majority of them were struggling young actors. To be an actor you need not only talent, but real determination and drive, and the ability to deal well with rejection.

When Mike finally landed an ongoing part on a daytime soap opera, we were delighted. When Ann got both a print ad and a TV commercial, we rejoiced. Then there was Bob. Bob never seemed to quite “get into the spirit” of the acting profession. He would show up late for casting calls, or, when he did arrive on time, he’d be improperly prepared. But somehow it didn’t matter. Bob always had work.

The theater community is by nature both close knit and cutthroat. When actors are just starting out, they bunch together to support each other. Combined with being members of the same parish community, the folks at St. C’s were a tight group, but Bob often made people tear their hair. “Why,” someone would ask, “how did he get that job? was up for that part myself.” 

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." 

Today we continue to follow the events in the lives of the Children of Israel who have chosen to leave behind them their slavery in Egypt and to follow Moses. Even without abuse, being a slave is a terrible thing. Nothing a slave has is their own. Whatever work they do, they do for someone else. Whatever they accomplish, they accomplish for someone else. Their very lives do not belong to them, so no matter how well they’re treated, freedom sounds appealing.

To a slave, freedom means regaining their identity, their self-worth, their lives, and so when the Children of Israel are offered freedom, they jump at the chance. What they haven’t taken into consideration is that slavery can have positive aspects. While they were in bondage in Egypt they were fed, clothed, housed, and in most cases, well cared for. They didn’t go dirty or hungry, and they had a roof over their head, and beds to sleep on.

Freedom to them meant something extra, something beyond and on top of what they had. They hadn’t reckoned -- with the freedom to be cold, and wet, and without proper housing, the freedom to starve in the wilderness.

Here is an entire race of people, brought from Egypt to regain their personal, cultural and spiritual identity and to seek a new homeland, discovering for the first time what freedom can entail. They probably had envisioned a quick journey to that land flowing with milk and honey, and a life filled with comfort and riches. This type of freedom, wandering in the wilderness, isn’t what they expected, and they let it be known they don’t like it. They go right to the top, to Moses and Aaron, and tell them what they think.

But Moses and Aaron aren’t accepting the blame – though they aren’t passing the buck either. They have to remind the Israelites, What are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the LORD."

It’s amazing how quickly people can forget who it is who is ultimately in charge, and that God actually does have a plan for everything. Even when the quails come and then the manna falls from heaven, 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."

But despite the food, the Children of Israel go right on complaining. Having compared their old life to their new one, they aren’t happy, and given their situation, we can understand why. When the comforts of life change to discomforts, when things become more than we can bear, we complain loudly to authorities, to each other and to God. This is not right, we say. This is not fair! Do something about it!!

"For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” 

Jesus begins His parable with a setting familiar to his listeners. The image was common for the time, and those gathered to hear what Jesus had to say would have recognized the metaphor of the landowner and vineyard representing God and God’s kingdom. However, after that, there’s nothing contemporary about the story. The landowner himself would never had gone to the marketplace to hire day labourers, his manager would have done that for him, and it’s unlikely there would have been a return trip to hire on more workers later in the day. Jesus’ listeners had to know something unexpected was coming next.

We’ve all heard this parable many times, and of course we’re struck by the obvious. The way the landowner reckons up the days wages at the end of the day just isn’t right. In our society we have laws that would prevent such an injustice. The workers who had labored the longest and the hardest would be first in line and would get paid far more than the come-lately workers. But that isn’t how the parable turns out. How can God be so unfair?

As is always the case with His parables, Jesus has chosen an image that will leap out at His listeners and slap us awake. We are meant to think about the circumstances. Why are the first workers so angry? Why do they think they are not being treated fairly? They agreed to a certain wage, and they have received it. Then we realize, their outrage only erupts when they discover that the other workers, who haven’t spent the whole day, as they have, toiling in the vineyard, are getting the same pay.

Despite being told that we must not covet, it’s what we do all the time. It’s human! We complain loudly if we think someone has fared better than we, and we spend a lot of our time in life making just such comparisons. That’s why there are so many laws regulating fairness, making sure that there is equal pay for equal work, and that employers offer regulated hourly wages. We look with worldly eyes at what is going on around us, and we measure and judge by worldly standards. Then Jesus tells us this parable, and the really hard thing for us to swallow is that by worldly standards God isn’t “fair” at all.

The workers in today’s parable are invited into the kingdom of God at different times, but each has been offered a certain wage, and each has accepted the offer. Once in the vineyard, the workers are all expected to work with the same energy and vigour, which they do. We who are Christians have been invited to work in God’s vineyard, and we too want our reward, but what do we expect to receive? Obviously the vineyard workers in today’s Gospel expected a fair hourly wage, and if we’re honest, that’s pretty much what we expect too.

In the Church, in life in general, it’s not unusual for the old timers’ to be hurt if a newcomer’s ideas are valued over theirs. Why? Because the old timers have been around longer. With worldly logic, we reason that age, experience, long standing church membership or job experience, not to mention tradition, ought to count for more than whatever the younger or newer folks may have to offer. If we’re the older folks, we feel our opinions should be those most highly valued and respected, because we believe this is our due. So what is Jesus telling us?

He is saying that for work in God’s vineyard we reap the gift that He, Jesus, has promised us. That gift is forgiveness of our sins, which clears the way for us to gain the final reward of life everlasting. Oh! We say we understand, but then, we still continue to fall back on our worldly ways, often privately allowing ourselves the indulgence of self-righteous indignation. Sure, I want my sins to be forgiven, but I’m not so certain you deserve to have yours forgiven too.

Jesus wants us to understand that God is love, joy, happiness, peace, and forgiveness. Just because you have given your time, your energy, your financial support, even your entire life to work in God’s vineyard, you may not be at the head of the line when payment is handed out. Saints and martyrs may come into the kingdom before you, or not. Someone you viewed as an evildoer, may still be forgiven. Only God can make such choices and decisions.

We like to compare and judge for ourselves. We like to covet. The Israelite’s compare the flesh pots of Egypt to the famine they are experiencing, and in their estimation God comes up short. The all-day workers in the vineyard compare their long toilsome day with that of the late comers, and the owner of the vineyard, God, again comes up short. We want to say there’s something “wrong”, it isn’t “fair”, but “fair” is only an illusion in our worldly, sin-filled minds.

Back at St. C’s, which I mentioned earlier, the group of young actors struggled with their mixed feelings toward Bob. Finally one day, he showed up with the news that he had been hired for a small but decent part in the chorus of a major Broadway show. People began to laugh and to clap Bob on the back. We laughed because we were happy for Bob, because we no longer felt angry or jealous, because realization had dawned.

In the theater, how hard you study, the long hours you practice, the number of casting calls you attend, make you think that you’ve earned the part you get. But if you press any actor for details, they’ll finally admit that, in the end, it’s what the producer is looking for that counts.

The Good News is, with God it doesn’t matter how well prepared you are, or when you show up. We haven’t earned any of the blessings God give us, nothing we have done has made us worthy of forgiveness and eternal life. We need to be able, every now and then, to shake our heads and laugh at ourselves, at our peculiar notions, and our self-righteousness. We want to believe that in some way we merit God’s good favour, generosity, and salvation. The truth is, our works aren’t going to get us into the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus is! All God asks of us is that we show up, work hard, and be interested. That we forgive. That we love. He has already done everything else that’s needed.

Next time you start grumbling that something isn’t fair, that someone else got a better deal than you did, stop and think. God loves each of us equally. He “chooses to give to the last the same as He gives to you.”  And what He gives should make us smile, for each one of us has been given all joy, eternal salvation and the Kingdom of Heaven.

Let us pray:

Almighty and everliving God, ruler of all things in heaven and earth, hear our prayers, and help us to be ever open to Your love. Strengthen the faithful, arouse the careless, and restore the penitent. Grant us all those things necessary for our common life, particularly among them a sense of humour, and bring us all to be of one heart and mind within your holy Church; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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