Are You Jealous Because I’m Generous? – Matthew 20.1-16 & Exodus 16.2-15

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.

* * *
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.

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Grace Beyond Imagining – Matthew 18.21-35

September 14, 2014 – 14th Sunday after Pentecost

Introduction: If you were here last week, you heard the first part of this morning’s Gospel reading. Lest we think the early church was some ideal, pristine, everyone-singing-in-harmony-around-the-campfire kind of community, we read in Matthew chapter 18 about how the community is to live together when relationships become broken. That’s what sin is: broken relationships between us and between us and God.

READ Matthew 18.21-35

Last week in Matthew 18.15-20 you heard the directions on how members of a community are to approach each other when relationships are broken. I imagine Peter–hearing Jesus talk about how brothers and sisters are to seek reconciliation with each other–I imagine Peter thinking about the disciple who gets on his last nerve again and again (the one Peter wishes had not responded to Jesus’s call “follow me”) and, thinking of that member of the community, seeks clarification from Jesus.

“Okay, I’ve forgiven him again and again and still he irritates the stew out me. He never changes. I mean, really, Jesus, how many times do I have to forgive him before it’s over? How many times do I forgive before I can say, ‘I’m finished with you’? Is seven times enough?” Peter wants to know what his legal and religious obligation is.

Wouldn’t you love it if Jesus had said, “Forgive him five times and then you kick him out.” That would make our lives so much easier.

What does Jesus say? Forgive seven times? Nope. Seventy-seven times or maybe it’s seventy times seven which would be 490 times. (The Greek isn’t clear on the number.1) The point is, if you’re counting, you’ve missed the point.

A food writer once wrote, “Are we going to measure or are we going to cook?” I think Jesus is asking Peter, “Are you going to count or are you going to forgive?” One commentator reflecting on this passage wrote, “Whoever counts has not forgiven at all, but is only biding his or her time. The kind of forgiveness called for is beyond all calculation.”2

And then Jesus tells a parable about what the kingdom of heaven is like. And it’s all about the extravagant forgiveness of a debt owed. A debt so big it could never have been repaid in a lifetime. That’s what the realm of heaven is like.

The writer of Matthew’s gospel uses the language of “the kingdom of heaven” more than any of the other New Testament writers. 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.3 And so the community of God’s people is called to live in a way that reveals the kingdom of heaven. We can also use the phrase “the realm of God”–God’s people are called to live in a way that reveals the realm of God. (It is likely that the writer of Matthew’s gospel used the language of “heaven” rather than “God” to avoid pronouncing the sacred name of God which is part of the Jewish tradition–to not pronounce the sacred name.4)

So part of what the realm of God is like is a community where debt is forgiven. A servant owes a king 10,000 talents. A talent is about 15 years worth of a laborer’s wages. 10,000 of them is 150,000 years of wages. It’s the kind of number that’s beyond calculation. Consider that the annual tax income for all of Herod the Great’s territories around the time of Jesus was about 900 talents per year. And let me assure you: Herod was not giving anyone a tax discount. So really what this story is about is a debt that is so large it is completely unpayable.5 Even if you won the powerball you couldn’t pay it back.

The indebted servant’s situation is hopeless–and threatens not only him but also his family–so he throws himself on the mercy of the king. And, quite unexpectedly, the king forgives his debt. Grace is extended and he is free.

I can imagine the servant staggering out of the king’s quarters hardly able to imagine his new circumstances. And the story could end right there. That’s what the realm of God is like–unearned, unexpected, unimaginable grace.

But our story does not end. Now the man, newly freed from his crippling and unrelenting indebtedness, runs into a man who owes him some money; about a day’s wage. The newly freed man grabs him by the throat and demands he pay his debt. This debtor does the same thing the newly freed man did: throws himself on the man’s mercy.

Now you might think that seeing the same action and hearing the same words that he himself just said to the king might trigger something in his brain. Might cause him to muster up some compassion and forgiveness. But no. Instead of any grace, the newly freed man throws his debtor in prison.

Now it’s interesting that this action is reported back to the king. Other servants of the king see what the newly freed man did and are greatly distressed about it. If it happened today they would be filming it on their phones and uploading to youtube and emailing it to the king. Kind of like we’re seeing all over these days when the police arrive to arrest someone or to respond to a reported incident.

I really appreciate this part of the story–the response of the community. The story is not just about the relationship between the king and the servant and it’s not just about the relationship between the servant and another servant. It’s also about the relationship of the whole community–and the wholeness of the community. Others in this community are distressed by the servants actions and they say something about it.

Which says to me this parable is not just about the graciousness of God. What the realm of God is like is not only about the forgiveness and grace of God. It is also about what that forgiveness and graciousness does in us.

The cost to receive God’s grace and forgiveness is a change in our lives. The preacher and teacher Fred Craddock has said, “The final work of God’s grace is to make us gracious.”6 The final work of God’s grace is to make us gracious. The experience of God is something that transforms our lives so that we become gracious, even to be as gracious as God is. That’s what the realm of God is like. Grace beyond imagining from God and grace transforming our lives in ways we could not imagine so that we too have grace beyond imagining to share with others.

When Jesus teaches us to pray he leads us saying, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”7 Having been forgiven, we can forgive others. Having received grace, we can be gracious.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a 20th century theologian and pastor, perhaps best known for his resistance to Hitler and the Nazi regime, wrote about cheap grace and costly grace in his book The Cost of Discipleship. Cheap grace he wrote, says, “Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolations of forgiveness.”8 Costly grace, he says, “confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus.”9 And we know from the stories of the bible that if you are a follower of Jesus, your life is going to change. You can’t stay the same.

Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor, challenged the Lutheran doctrine of grace alone being all one needs for salvation. Luther’s “followers took up that doctrine [of grace alone can save] and repeated it word for word. But” said Bonhoeffer, “they left out its invariable corollary, the obligation of discipleship.”10 It is not enough he wrote to “leave the world for an hour or so on a Sunday morning and go to church to be assured that my sins are all forgiven.”11

The final work of God’s grace is to make us gracious. Not just in the one hour of worship a week. But also in the other 167 hours of our week.

I have lived much of my life trying to be a perfectionist. It may be a hazard of being the oldest child or simply my given form of dysfunction. As I look back on my life, I notice that it was when I felt the greatest weight of being perfect that I was the most critical of others and what I perceived as their failings.

About a decade ago I had a transforming experience of God’s grace and love–grace and love that had nothing to do with my accomplishments, achievements or credentials. In that experience my life changed and in the intervening years, I have discovered more grace and love for others.

But it’s not a magic formula: experience grace and become more gracious. Be forgiven and become more forgiving. Be the recipient of generosity and become more generous. I think those traits of discipleship are like muscles to be practiced and exercised and just like a muscle, if you don’t use them regularly, they atrophy.

So we have to practice and exercise to build the muscles of grace and forgiveness, love and generosity. That’s part of being a disciple. That’s how we let the graciousness, the love, the forgiveness, the generosity of God change us.

And where best to practice and exercise those muscles? In a community–with others–even those who will get on your last nerve. But it is in a community where we get to practice forgiveness and grace and love and generosity. And in that practice, we begin to embody more of the realm of God so that it might not be something far off and future but here and now, among us and in the world.

* * *
1 Lewis R. Donelson, “Matthew 18.21-35 – Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word Year A Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 69.
2 M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 380.
3 Ibid., 291.
4 Ibid., 289.
5 Ibid., 382.
6 I don’t know where I first heard this but I’ve long remembered it. Google turns up a variation of it in The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock in a sermon on Luke 10.1-11 on page 164.
7 Matthew 6.12
8 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, revised edition, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1963), 51.
9 Ibid., 48.
10 Ibid., 53.
11 Ibid., 54.