Exodus 16:2-15; Matthew 20:1-16
Ordinary 25A; Proper 20
Are you envious because I am generous?
That’s the final question of this parable about laborers and wages. Here is my final answer to that final question: Yes. Yes, I am.
As my youngest likes to say, “If I am being honest … .” If I am being honest, I am envious because God is generous. Even though I have been given everything I have been promised, much of which I do not deserve, I am envious when I perceive that someone else is getting what could (should?) have been mine. What’s most dangerous in this scenario is how much I think should be mine. I easily justify what I deserve and just as readily calculate how undeserving others are.
Too often I have read this parable and assumed that those who are still idle late in the day are idle by choice, not circumstance. Our individualistic, self-made man/woman culture tells that story often. There is work for those who want it. People need to try harder, apply themselves, make better choices. Maybe so, some of the time. Mostly, I find this kind of thinking analogous to the helpful medical professional who says something along these lines: “This is preventable, reversible. You just need to change your diet, eat less and exercise.” Well, problem solved! If only you had told me this sooner! Consider it done. Would that it were so simple.
Would that there weren’t homeless people standing idle with cardboard signs on the corner. Would that working 40 hours a week meant you had health insurance, a living wage and access to affordable housing. Would that top-notch childcare was readily available and accessible. Would that public transportation traveled the needed routes at the right times. Would that mental health care was abundant – and treatment for addiction, too. This problem of idleness is preventable, reversible, just go to work. Well, if only we’d been told this truth sooner. Consider it done!
But here is the thing: This parable isn’t about idleness. It really is not about the laborers, the ones who go to work early or the ones who go at the end of the day. We often make it about those things because those are the things about which we obsess. We care deeply about fairness. More accurately, we care deeply about perceived fairness toward us. We spend an inordinate amount of time sizing up whether or not people are deserving, worthy and appropriately appreciative. We devote lots of time and energy into assessing measurable results and the impact of our “generosity.” When we hear this story, most of us assume we’re the ones at the front of the line – the ones who went to fields early, worked diligently all day and got our agreed upon wage and then felt stiffed when those idle ones came late and got the same payment we did.
But what if we imagined that we were the ones who got there last and got paid first? What response does that flipped script elicit? Imagine you were among the last people chosen to go to the field. Imagine you’d been looking for work, but no one had hired you. Imagine food was getting low at home and the rent was coming due and prospects of work were few. You are desperate, really, and that desperation has been exploited in the past. You don’t know this guy with the truck, but he says he has work and you need the money. You line up to get paid at the end of the day realizing you’d not even talked about the wage. (The last ones in don’t even get told by the boss, “I will pay you what is right.”) You have no idea what’s been promised the others in the field, but you get an envelope. And maybe you don’t even want to look inside because you’ve been disappointed before, exploited with no recourse. But you take a peek, because you need to know what you’ve got (or more likely what you don’t have), and you see way more than you expected. A windfall. Manna from heaven. Enough to get groceries and pay the rent – just in the nick of time, too. Thanks be to God!
Now, I ask you the final question: Are you envious of the landowner’s generosity … or are you grateful for it?
No matter how you interpret this parable, if I am being honest, we are the ones who get way more than we deserve. More than was promised. We get not what is right, but what is amazingly good. Even if we want to imagine that we got to the fields first (a tough case for Gentiles to make), we still are recipients of God’s astounding generosity, because while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Do we get what is fair? No, we are gifted with grace and grace by definition isn’t about fairness or our worthiness, but solely about God’s loving kindness.
Every time, every time, we are tempted to size up who is idle and who should be on the receiving end of generosity (God’s or ours or others), we need to consider this parable and remember, truth be told, we’ve gotten not what we deserve, but what God has generously given: mercy, grace, forgiveness, salvation.
I recently heard a renowned Civil War historian say something plainly that needs to be said often to those of us who imagine we are harder working or more deserving or somehow better than. He said (and I am paraphrasing): “Imagine stripping away everything your family had acquired for 250 years. Property. Education. Social capital. Financial inheritances. And try and make a life out of nothing. That’s the reality of slavery in this country.” Imagine. Who deserves to get paid which wage when we consider that truth? How do we talk about fairness or equality or equity or generosity when we recognize such realities? Where we find ourselves in line isn’t as simple as we’d like to make it out to be, is it?
Jesus isn’t talking about idleness, nor is he lifting up fairness. Jesus is teaching us about God’s generosity. And our right response to God’s grace, God’s justice and God’s unrelenting goodness should not be envy, but gratitude. If we are honest about where we are in line and why, it will be.
- When you read this parable, where do you put yourself and why?
- How would you answer the last two questions of the parable? (If you are being honest!)
- Is there a difference between equality, equity and generosity? Which of those things should we be working toward in our relationships? In the world?
- Look at the other places in Scripture where the final verse of this Matthew text is found: “So the last will be first, and the fist will be last.” How do those other passages inform your understanding of this parable?
- Look up Leviticus 19:13 and Deuteronomy 24:14. How do they relate to the Matthew text for this week?
- Do a Google image search of “parable of the laborers in the vineyard” and pick one or two and meditate on those images.
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