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Proper 20 2014

What happens in Matthew’s Gospel before Jesus tells the parable of the workers in the vineyard?

Pop quizzes are fun for the teacher, not often for students.

Just prior to the parable of the workers in the vineyard, Peter asked what reward he and the other disciples might expect for having given up everything to follow Jesus. The mother of James and John ask Jesus to give her sons special places in his kingdom. Polite but firm, Jesus told her she had no idea what she was asking….he could see the cross in his future…she saw only recognition and privilege. In response, Jesus tells the parable about the workers who worked different hours but received the same wage.

We all know about working hard in a job, putting in extra unpaid hours, doing the best we can and hoping someone will notice our effort with something more than complaint or criticism. When the owner paid the laborers who worked least the same as those who worked most, they cried, unfair…even though they were paid what they agreed to receive. The owner’s reply is very much like God’s reply to Jonah: “Do you begrudge my generosity?”

Alas, life is not fair and apparently God is not fair.

Every student in Economics 101 knows that the story of the landowner who hired laborers for his vineyard early in the day, at midday, and toward the end of the day and paid them all a daily wage is bad for business. In our world, time plus effort equals production and productivity equals pay. Those who are in the most demand earn the most money. Yet, we also know that the baseball star makes more money than a teacher. The physician makes more than a research scientist: the title doctor is not equivalent. 

Poverty is often measured on some minimal threshold: x $ per person per year. Studies of late have turned attention to the gap between the rich and poor and the consequence of that inequality. A study on income equality in the world compared to the US using the so called Palma ratio: a measurement of the gap between rich and poor within a nation, rather than the average income / person as a measure of wealth and poverty. The results were interesting. Countries with greater income equality (smaller gap between rich and poor) may be high income or low but the gap is small. Examples of such countries include Egypt, France, Germany, Pakistan, Mali, and Japan. Countries with the greatest gap include Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Chile, S. Africa, Kenya, China, and Russia. One thing the study reveals is that income equality is not synonymous with a healthy economy. Some countries are economically equal because everyone is well-off e.g. Denmark, and some are because almost everyone is equally poor. The US is the most unequal of any developed country: it ranked 44th out of 86 countries.

Inequality is not just an economic and political issue: it is a spiritual issue too.

If we consult Scripture, in the Old Testament we find that wealth is a reward for hard work; but the books of Torah suggest poverty should not happen and prescribes practices e.g. gleaning the edge of a crop, Jubilee of forgiving debts and redistributing wealth. The prophets teach that poverty is a result of injustice. Jesus is consistent with the prophets, advocating for the poor in the beatitudes: blessed are the poor. He teaches disciples to be on guard against greed, how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom. Zacchaeus meets Jesus and knows the depth of love and compassion offered is nothing he can buy and so being a rich tax collector, he gives half of this wealth to the poor.

The parable today is about generosity of God: it is not an economic blueprint. It is not about equity or proper disbursement of wages but about undeserved grace to all…even those we do not think deserve it. God’s generosity may violate our sense of right and wrong, our sense of how things would be if we ran the world. If we are unable to celebrate another’s good fortune, is it because we have not really understood how loved we are, how forgiven we are?

God is not fair. WE may never understand why, but God loves indiscriminately, unconditionally, when we are good and when we are not. We may think God should love some of us more than others, because that is how we think the world works, but that is a long way from what God is.

There are times when we don’t go where we are sent like Jonah. There are times when we don’t put all we can into the work of the vineyard. There are times when we come late and work little. WE have our priorities, our family demands, our friends, and social status to consider. God knows.

So if we are honest, there are times when we are near the back of the line unwilling, reluctant, angry or resentful about someone or something, but even here God notices us. We get more than we deserve not because of who we are but because of who God is.

Consider the benefits of God’s grace. The reward for faith is forgiveness, hope and love. We either have it or we don’t. Once we have it, we have all of it. After the confession of sin, the priest does not say, God forgive you 10% of your sin today and maybe another percent next week….but if you are late, God may deduct 1% …. That is ridiculous, right?

The parable invites us to look at ourselves as God sees us. God is a bad bookkeeper and invites us to transform our pride and envy into joy by admiring and celebrating God’s radical generosity.

In baptism, we proclaim the generosity of God’s grace, so abundant no one can earn it in the classical sense, but we receive it sacramentally, thankfully, fully aware it is God’s joy to claim us his beloved son or daughter. We baptize in the presence of the community so that we can all join in the welcoming words: “We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.” With that statement we say: God’s grace is for the first and the last without distinction.  Kindness, love, generosity, justice, equality are kingdom values that are beyond measure, beyond limit, and beyond boundaries. We do well to seek to live as children of light, members of faith, sharing one baptism, one hope, a community formed by the living spirit of the living God.

Grace is poured out abundantly. In receiving it we risk being changed, able to see that those on the margins no one else wants are dear to God. We risk welcoming the stranger and recognizing that everyone who comes early or late are laborers who God includes in his economy of abundance. We risk working hard and long in the vineyard and we remember what Jesus taught: one plants, another waters, but God gives the growth.

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