September 21, 2014 – 15th Sunday after Pentecost
This is the second of a series of parables we hear this month and into October. Parables that Jesus tells about the kingdom of heaven.
I mentioned last week and I want to say again, the kingdom of heaven in Matthew’s gospel is not a geographical or secular kingdom. It’s a theological claim that God is Creator and Sovereign over all. The current condition of the world does not reflect the will of its Creator. However, the will of God is not hidden but has been entrusted by God to the community of God’s people.1 And so one of the things the community of God’s people is called to do is live in a way that reveals the kingdom of heaven–or we could say the realm of God. And so Jesus tells us a story about what the kingdom of heaven–the realm of God–is like.
READ Matthew 20.1-16
Parables are funny things. They’re not allegories–you can’t say “this means this and this means that.” You have to hold them a little bit more lightly. Parables, as we say in the Godly Play class, are ancient presents and parables are sometimes hard to unlock–but don’t be discouraged, keep coming back to the parable and one day it will open for you.
I’m going to read this parable one more time. Listen for who you identify with in the parable and notice what feelings or reactions this parable evokes in you.
READ Matthew 20.1-16
This is not a parable the stereotypical, middle- to upper-class Presbyterians like to hear. The only other time I have preached this text was 22 years ago when I began pastoral ministry and afterwards, I was called a communist by someone in my congregation.
Many of us identify with the workers who were hired at the beginning of the day, who worked hard, did what they were supposed to do, were responsible and then got the same reward as people who started work one hour before quitting time. That doesn’t sit well with many of us. Most of us have been reared in a culture that says: “Work hard and you will be rewarded.” That’s not really what happens for a lot of people in our culture but it’s the story–the mythology–we tell ourselves. It’s the American Dream. Follow the rules, work hard, do your part and you’ll get the reward. A lot of us grew up and have established our values based around that cultural story.
But Jesus is not telling us about the American Dream. Jesus is telling us a parable–a complicated story that is both gift and challenge–about what the realm of God is like. Not what heaven is like in some other time and space. But what the community of God’s people–the community ruled by the One who established the world in love–what this community is supposed to look like–and truly, what God’s intentions and desires are for all the world.
And not everyone in the parable is happy about that.
Now I think the landowner could have avoided some of this conflict if he had just paid the first workers first and the last workers last. He could have still paid them all the same, but the first workers would have picked up their pay envelopes and be long gone on their way home before the people who only worked for one hour got their pay envelopes.
However, because this parable is about what the realm of God is like–and because the realm of God is often a challenge to the commonly accepted norms of The Way Things Are–the landowner needed to make explicit The Way Things Are Intended in the Realm of God.
So chances are, if you are in the first group of workers, you are peeved to know you were paid the same amount as the people who only worked one hour. Originally, you thought it was a fine wage, but at the end of the day, in comparison with the people who worked so much less than you, you think your wage and theirs is entirely unfair.
Now, if you didn’t identify with the first hired workers in the parable, I wonder what it’s like to imagine that experience?
If you are in the last group of workers hired, you may feel elated to receive a whole day’s wage. Who knows what kind of grace this is for whatever kind of day you have already had? Perhaps you had no idea how you would put food on your table or pay your electric bill or your restitution. Maybe you feel there’s been a mistake because you know you only worked one hour of the day. But the manager says there is no mistake. And that is amazing to you.
If you didn’t identify with the last hired workers, I wonder what it’s like to imagine that experience?
And at the end of the day, what does the landowner appeal to? He appeals to his generosity. He says to the workers who came first, “Are you envious because I am generous?” Other translations say, “Are you jealous because I am generous?”
The Exodus story tells us about the Hebrew people, freed from Egyptian oppression but now scared and anxious in the middle of the desert. And their fear makes them romanticize what life in Egypt was like. “We were enslaved but at least we had enough to eat” they cry to Moses and Aaron (which probably wasn’t true). “We want to go back to Egypt.” And God hears their cry and gives them what they need in the wilderness. Gives them their daily bread. Bread in the morning and meat at night. Enough for each day. Not enough to store up and hoard but what they needed for each day.
“Give us this day our daily bread” we pray together each Sunday. We pray it for ourselves and we pray it for one another. “Give us this day our daily bread.” Some of us pray that prayer every day from a place of plenty–praying that we will be content with enough. Some of us pray that prayer every day from a place of want–praying that we will have enough.
Did you see the article in today’s paper about Kentucky State University President Raymond Burse who cut his salary by $90,000 to help out low-wage workers at KSU?2 I don’t know anything about his religious life, but I wonder if he prays “give us this day our daily bread”?
It is easy to be jealous and envious and resentful and covet what other people have. It’s easy when we don’t have much. And it’s still easy when we have a lot.
And so we listen to this parable of what the realm of God is like. And we hear the landowner say again, “Are you jealous because I am generous?” And we pray again, “Give us this day our daily bread.” We pray it for ourselves and we pray it for one another.
Phillip told me about a scene from an episode of the tv program Louie. Louie is the comedian Louie C. K. In the show he plays a single father with two young daughters. Louie has rewarded his older daughter, Lilly, with a mango popsicle for doing her homework. His younger daughter, Jane, who is around 7 years old wants one too. But, there was only one mango pop to be had and it has been eaten by Lilly. “It’s not fair! It’s not fair! It’s so not fair!” Even if there are no more mango pops, “I should get something yummy, too” Jane cries to her dad. Louie stumbles around trying to talk to a seven-year old about what’s at the heart of fairness. Finally, he cobbles his thoughts together and says to her, “The only time you look in your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure they have enough. You don’t look in your neighbor’s bowl to make sure you have as much as them, you want to make sure they have enough in their bowl.”3
That’s what the realm of God is like.
Whether we started work early in the morning, at noon, or at five, as we learn to welcome God’s generosity lavished on others, we are, in turn, opening ourselves to being formed and transformed by that same generous spirit.4
That’s what the realm of God is like too.
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1 M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 291.
2 Front page story, http://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/education/2014/09/18/ksu-president-taking-pay-cut-message/15833243/
3 For the purpose of the sermon, this is a condensation of several lines of dialogue from the show. http://jezebel.com/5815172/a-little-girls-lesson-in-fairness-courtesy-of-louis-ck, accessed 17 September 2014.
4 George R. Hunsberger, “Matthew 20.1-16” – Theological Perspective Perspective,” Feasting on the Gospels, Matthew, Vol. 2, eds. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 126.