Proper 20a, September 24, 2017

September 25, 2017

The Bread of Life

Matthew 20:1-16

1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”


I don’t guess we’ll ever figure out how to create the perfect order for our society. Hopefully the political pendulum will continue to swing back and forth in a civil manner. This parable doesn’t resolve the issue of how our economy should operate, but Jesus sure wanted us to wrestle with the issue. I think he wanted us to do some rethinking about the way things operate and to consider how we might better operate. He told this parable to disrupt the economic expectations of his day, and I suspect he wants us to do the same.


Now there are theologians who argue that this parable has nothing to do with money, and everything to do with the conflict between the Israelites and the Christians. Between those who were the original children of God (represented by those who were hired early in the day) and those who were newly invited to feast at the table of God (represented by those who were hired at the end of the day).


Of course whether this parable represents a theological or an economic conflict, the real issue is how we deal with the conflict between grace and justice. And there’s some serious tension between these two pillars of our faith. As people of faith we embrace the importance of fairness and justice, but we also recognize the value of unearned love and acceptance. The bread of heaven comes in a variety of forms, and we need to value all of the ways in which it arrives.


On a theological level, I think we Christians are pretty happy with the idea of newcomers being equally welcomed to the table of the Lord, so I don’t think it’s as helpful for us to think of this parable as being an allegory of the gentile/Jew debate. We gentiles who were invited late in the day aren’t very threatened by that kind of reading of the parable, and if it’s not threatening to our worldview that’s probably not how Jesus wants us to read it. Jesus told parables in order to challenge short-sightedness, and if the story doesn’t cause us some discomfort we probably aren’t reading it right.


If, however, you are currently feeling the full weight of life’s difficulty, I welcome you to identify with those who only worked an hour and were provided full pay for the day. Jesus always had good news for those who were the most troubled. Unlike the scribes and Pharisees of his day who heaped additional burdens on those who were the most troubled, Jesus had the most compassion for those who were having the hardest time.


This work/compensation issue is a sensitive one. It evokes passion in some powerful ways. This is one of those issues that just doesn’t come up in polite conversation. People don’t generally talk about how much they get paid for the work they do. Sometimes people don’t want others to know how little they make. Sometimes people don’t want others to know how much they make. This is a sensitive issue, and there probably aren’t too many people who feel like they are getting exactly what they deserve. I’m guessing this has always been a delicate issue, and Jesus stepped right into the middle of it.


How money is distributed has been the source of a lot of bad behavior over the planet for as long as people can remember. You might say the conflict between Cain and Able was over the distribution of wealth. God valued Abel’s sacrifice more than Cain’s, and the implication of the story is that Cain killed Abel out of envy or jealousy. It’s an abbreviated story and not easy to fully interpret, but clearly there was some conflict over who had what. Jesus knew how reactive we humans are about our financial situations, but that didn’t deter him from bringing it up. Jesus wasn’t interested in promoting propriety – he wanted us to understand the things that get in the way of our communion with God.


Once again, we are presented with some funny math from Jesus. Last week we were told to forgive our offenders an unfathomable number of times. This week we are presented with the story of a really wacky compensation system. We have here the story of a landowner who paid the same wage to people who spent wildly different amounts of time in the field, but the scoundrel in the story is not the landowner. The way Jesus told the story, the scandalous behavior came from the men who worked all day and complained that it wasn’t fair, but their complaints were dismissed by the landowner as having no merit.


It’s not hard for any of us to see how those who had been working all day were coming from, but once again, Jesus was wanting us to see that the Kingdom of God functions with a different set of values.  This story is designed to blurr our understanding of who is most deserving in the eyes of God. I think it serves to challenge our insistence on fairness when we think we are the most deserving, and it highlights God’s desire for all of us to get what we need.


I think this parable sort of parallels the debate we’re currently having over the issue of healthcare in our nation. I’m not claiming I know how to fix our national healthcare system, but I regret the way in which this debate has turned in to a battle between political parties, and in that sense the issues get buried under the amount of debris each party can dump on the other. Of course apart from the political conflict this issue has fostered, I think it highlights the same conflict that we see illustrated in this parable. The issue is, who is going to pay for something that some people need more than others? Should our system operate in a manner that’s fair or gracious?


Of course the miracle would be to find a system that’s both fair and gracious, but that’s an illusive concept right now. Adequate healthcare for all people seems to mean that healthy people pay for more than they need in order for those who can’t afford to cover the costs of their conditions. I think we all generally get that notion, but there are a lot of different ways to carve this problem up, and it’s hard not to get invested in the plan that’s the most fair to where you’re standing.


We don’t live in a world that’s fair. We all know that good fortune is a fickle friend and hard times are distributed in an equally unpredictable manner. We all contribute to our good or bad fortune in some significant ways, but we don’t get to pick our parents, our bodies, our brain-function, our place of origin or many other things that significantly define the course of our lives. We don’t all get a fair shake in life, and that’s unfortunate, but the unfairness that we encounter in life will only prevent us from abiding in the Kingdom of God if we are more focused on fairness than grace.


I believe Jesus told this parable to illustrate the fundamental element of grace that enables any of us to live in relationship with God. None of us have earned God’s favor. The Kingdom of God doesn’t function like a pickup game on the playground. You don’t get picked to be on God’s team because of your extraordinary ability to hurl a fast ball at evil. And I don’t think he wanted us to operate under the illusion that any of us do work that is so much more valuable than the work that others have been called to do.


This is a hard thing for us to get our minds around. We live in a world that sort of worships the work of some people and disregards the work of others. As a person who works in a position that’s relatively well compensated I can testify that we don’t live in a world that’s fair. I can get a little self-righteous about my modest compensation when I compare myself with the Joel Osteens of the world or even some of my United Methodist peers who have larger numbers by their names on the salary sheet, but I’m humbled by my knowledge of the the sacrifice of others I know who are doing God’s work in very private and even uncompensated ways.


Jesus didn’t want us to get confused about who is the most important in the Kingdom of God. This parable points to the fact that there isn’t a place for privilege in the Kingdom of God. None of us are invited into relationship with God because of our gifts, graces, or heroic efforts. Our place in the community of God is rooted in the gracious initiatives of God. The church needs us all to do what we can, but it doesn’t hinge upon any of us.


There is no shortage of jobs available for those of us who choose to follow Jesus, and the rewards are wildly abundant, but we don’t need to mistake our positions in society with our standing in God’s Kingdom. It’s easy to get these things confused, but today’s parable helps me to see pretty clearly how Jesus sorts us out, and it’s nothing like the way the marketplace generally operates.


I’m not entirely comforted by this passage. In some ways I identify more with the worker who went out first thing in the morning. It’s not that I feel like I’ve been at work longer than others, but those of us who’ve been given a fair shake at life are sort of like those men who were hired early. Those who were hired early in the day didn’t spend most of the day wondering where their daily bread was going to come from. A sense of security can create a sense of expectation, and maybe even a sense of entitlement – which is an attitude that quenches an appetite for the unexpected grace of God.


This is a challenging passage of scripture for those of us who have been dealt a fair hand, but I also know it’s the best news any of us will ever get. Because what Jesus wanted us all to know is that the bread of life will never run out. Fairness is going to fail us all at some point. The time will come for all of us when aren’t going to get what we expect or even what we may deserve, and that’s when God’s going to provide what we need. It may not be much in the eyes of the world, but God knows what to deliver when there’s nothing else to count on.


The Kingdom of God is ordered in a far different manner than the society in which we live, and this is a good thing. May we have the eyes to see and the hearts to understand how God chooses to distribute the true bread that comes from heaven. And may we feast on that bread now and forevermore!


Thanks be to God.



One Response to “Proper 20a, September 24, 2017”

  1. Michael F Wilson Says:

    again – good thoughts as I recuperate from a total hip replacement – keep them coming Thompson!

    Sent from my iPhone

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