Sermon; 16 Pentecost/Proper 20A; Ex. 16:2-15, Matt. 20:1-16
Several years ago the Episcopal Church adopted the Revised Common Lectionary as its standard Sunday lectionary. What this means, if you don't know, is that in Ordinary Time, the Sundays after Pentecost, there is a two-track system for the Hebrew scriptures. Track 1 of Year A, which we are currently in, focuses on the major stories from Genesis and Exodus. In short, we start with Noah and simply move through the Hebrew scriptures in a somewhat (semi) continuous fashion.
I mention this because most of the time those first lessons don't match up with the gospel reading – they were never meant to. But every so often one of those stories does align with the gospel reading, and today is one of those days. I'll start with the passage from Matthew and then come back to Exodus.
Today we get the kingdom parable of the landowner looking for people to work in his vineyard. Like in a lot of agricultural areas even today, he picks up day laborers in the morning, agreeing to pay them the daily wage. This was probably about 6 am. As the story goes, he then goes out gathering up other laborers at 9, noon, 3, and 5, agreeing to pay them whatever is right. And that is the key to this story: the landowner will pay them whatever is right.
At the end of the day the laborers line up to get their pay, beginning with the last hired on down to the first hired. Those hired last received the usual daily wage. It's about this time that those hired first, and us if we're being honest, begin to do a little math. If one hour of work resulted in a full day's pay, then what would 12 hours of work yield? At best, those hired first would be paid 12-days wages; at worst, 2-days wages.
But when they arrive to claim their pay, they discover they've been seriously shorted. Instead of receiving what they, and we, anticipated, they receive the exact same amount as those who had only worked one hour. This seems to be an outrage, and it is clearly not fair.
There are a few things going on in this parable that we need to look at.
First, the all-day laborers grumble against the landowner for shorting them what they believed to be a fair wage incurred for working all day, as opposed to those who only worked for one hour. But, as the landowner pointed out, they received exactly what they contracted for: one day's pay for one day's work.
The reality, though, is that the laborers weren't upset with the landowner for their rate of pay, they were upset with the other laborers for receiving the same pay that they themselves received. What this leads into is issues of justice, not fairness; because fairness is subjective. To the 12-hour laborers, this was obviously not fair, since they had worked all day. But as someone once said, God doesn't care about fairness, God cares about justice. God cares about justice and doing what is right.
The agreed upon wage was a daily wage. In today's terms, we would call this a living wage. In God's system, everybody earns the amount that is right. In God's system, everybody earns a wage that allows for daily living. This is a kingdom parable, so this is a parable about God's justice. And we need to pay attention to the reaction of the all-day laborers and ask ourselves if we are them. The all-dayers were upset that people who weren't them received the same wage – a daily living wage. We need to ask ourselves if or why we are opposed to all people earning a daily living wage.
A second aspect of this parable is privilege. It may not seem like it at first, but privilege does come into play here. The all-day laborers were privileged to work all day. It could be they were hired because they were in the right place at the right time. It could be they were hired because of their reputation. Both of these carry a sense of privilege. So when those they viewed as less-than-equal received the same wages, they were offended to be treated the same as those who they thought were less deserving.
But again, God doesn't care about who is deserving of anything. God cares about justice and seeing that everyone receives what is needed. Someone once pointed out that those who are privileged often see equality as oppression. We need to come to terms with the fact that God is trying to rework what we think of as fair. We need to understand that kingdom justice isn't necessarily fair, but it is right. If you're feeling oppressed because those you consider less worthy are being treated equally, maybe you should ask yourselves why equality bothers you.
The final thing I want to look at is fear and the focus on scarcity.
In today's first lesson, we hear the Israelites grumble/complain against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Lectionary, while giving us a good overview, doesn't always give us the overall context (something I've said before, if you'll recall).
Remember, the Israelites had just escaped Egypt. The ten plagues were a very recent memory. And the Passover, that time the Lord passed over the land of Egypt killing all firstborn, was the last straw for Pharaoh as he told the Israelites to leave. They escaped through the Red Sea while Pharaoh's army drowned as the waters crashed over them, finally freeing the Israelites from their bondage. All of this just happened – like within days – and it is now that the Israelites complain that they have no food and will starve to death. All they see is scarcity and that generates fear.
Question: When the Israelites fled, what did they take with them?
Answer: Besides clothing, silver, and gold, they also took “livestock in great numbers, both flocks and herds.” In other words, they were not in danger of starving because they had brought plenty to eat with them.
But the Israelites were in a new situation. First and foremost, they were no longer slaves. They were in a new land. They were being led by God with nothing but opportunity ahead of them. And they had livestock in great numbers, both flocks and herds, so that they would be self-sufficient.
And yet . . . . And yet they could not look forward. They could only look back to the past – back to the way it used to be. Instead of seeing opportunity, they only saw problems. Instead of seeing their abundance, they saw only scarcity.
I heard someone recently say that, although having the abundant resources of flocks and herds in their midst, the Israelites didn't want to eat through their endowment.
And this is where these two stories intersect and align. Throughout history humans have been obsessed with having more. We want more house, more land, more money. The Israelites had plenty of food in their midst, but all they could see was what they didn't have and how they would starve. The all-day laborers received the fair and agreed upon wage, but could only see that they were short-changed by not receiving more.
When we focus only on getting more, it means that some people aren't getting enough. When we focus on what we don't have, it means we miss seeing the resources we do have.
Today's parable is a kingdom parable because Jesus is telling us what the kingdom of God is like: that in the kingdom of God everyone has enough. Today's Old Testament lesson is reminding us to not focus on what we don't have, but to open our eyes to the resources we do have.
I could be wrong, but as we continue to deal with the fallout from COVID – loss of jobs, loss of homes, loss of life – and witness the pains of change in society, we, as the Church and followers of Christ, will be called upon to use the resources in our midst and help ensure all people have enough. These are things we need to start planning for now. Because whether I'm right or whether I'm wrong, we will at least have lived into the mandate to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly, and respect the dignity of every human being.
And in doing that, we will have given people a glimpse of what the kingdom of God actually looks like.