Saturday, September 19, 2020

Pentecost 16A

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. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, "You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. 6And 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?' 7They said to him, "Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, "You also go into the vineyard.' 8When 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.'

9When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, "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.' 13But he replied to one of them, "Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last."

Psalm 145:1-8

1I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever.
2Every day I will bless you, and praise your name forever and ever.
3Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; God's greatness is unsearchable.
4One generation shall laud your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts.
5On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
6The might of your awesome deeds shall be proclaimed, and I will declare your greatness.
7They shall celebrate the fame of your abundant goodness, and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.
8The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

Biblical Parables

As we've observed, Jesus' parables aren't earthly stories with a heavenly meaning. They are comparisons or analogies, originally named for "one idea thrown alongside another." With parables and in other ways, Jesus took time and care showing his followers what a grace-filled world would look like and feel like. Jesus was passionate about everyone having enough to meet their basic needs independent of their abilities or actions. Jesus consistently demonstrated how the Reign of Heaven / Kingdom of God's style and substance would be ordered if God truly was the one in control, meaning if people kept covenant with God, with one another, and with all creation.


There are several possible interpretations of this parable that's unique to Matthew's gospel. Jesus starts with, "the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner (literally a household steward or manager, although later on verse 8 tells us "the lord of the vineyard said to his manager," so roles are somewhat conflated) and then fills out the story with a cast of characters and their attitudes. Jesus tells us the kingdom of heaven is like; he doesn't say "God is like."

Yes, God's way or the Kingdom of Heaven is about unearned, unmerited grace and not about measurable transactions. We've mentioned "exchanging gifts" is a contradiction.

Yes again, humanity and all creation cannot survive – let alone thrive – without a full measure of the material and social resources they need to be healthy and whole. Every year for the month of September through the first Sunday in October the church has an option to observe the Season of Creation instead of or in tandem with the other assigned lectionary readings. This year's overall focus is Justice for the Earth; for this Sunday 20 September the theme is "There is enough for our need – not our greed."

Jesus lived out, talked about, and called us out to social and economic justice as God and the commandments envision them. There is enough for our need – not our greed. How many times have you seen statistics based on that fact?

We find the ten words or commandments of the Sinai Covenant in Deuteronomy (and in the book of Exodus). The Torah (Pentateuch, Five Books of Moses) and especially the book of Deuteronomy articulate a way that provides for a community taking mutual care of one another. Ideally that would happen almost by default as they farmed the land, harvested its agricultural bounty, and distributed it to feed and nourish everyone. Again the best case scenario would be each household caring for its own plot that (ideally!) would be free from paying tribute to overlords or imperial rulers, and would have no need to hire outside labor.

Where we Live / COVID-19

In some ways Jesus lived in a social and economic world very different from our twenty-first century one. We've seen tenant farmers, artisans (Jesus followed in Joseph's path as a tekton, a kind of carpenter), and fishermen in the gospels. We know taxes from the occupying imperial Roman government were excessive and extreme. Food insecurity was rampant, with resulting chronic illnesses that resulted in an inability to work and bring in any income. It was moment by moment subsistence for most of the people; even Rome's minions weren't necessarily as well off as they appeared because of the high taxes and tribute they owed.

In some ways Jesus lived in a different world from ours, yet there are thousands of mostly immigrant day laborers working in fields all around us. Especially with the current pandemic, many families in this city and county are food insecure. You've probably seen news segments of school districts, restaurants, and other entities helping provide basic family meals? Many many younger children and youth had depended on getting breakfast and lunch at school for their total daily nutrition. The city of Los Angeles has a notorious number of food deserts, defined as no healthy food options such as supermarkets or farmer's markets within a radius of about one mile.

On the other side of the world, individuals literally captive to the need to feed and house their families have became indentured as field, mine, and factory workers. I've seen interviews where children happily report they get to enjoy a meal "almost every other day." There is enough for our need, but not enough for our greed.

In today's narrative, the guy doing the hiring met his own agreement to pay the workers the "usual daily wage." He did nothing unfair or unjust. There is enough for our need – not our greed. He well may have distributed his own wealth evenly in order to benefit the greater good of the broader community to which everyone belonged. We don't know; Jesus doesn't interpret this parable.


We humans tend to compare ourselves with other people, to compare where we are now with where we were then or hope to be in the future. We instinctively label pay and circumstances fair or unfair. Verse 15b, literally reads "is your eye evil because I am good?" The green eye of envy appears if it perceives someone else getting what we want or think we've earned. If we were meeting in person I'd ask if anyone knew the origins of that phrase, but now I need to look it up myself.


• Do you place yourself anywhere in today's story? As someone who worked hard all day? As someone who started working at the last hour and got the same pay as the others? As the person who needed to harvest their grapes at their peak of perfection? As someone else? Or not at all? Why?
• Most contemporary scholars don't make the landowner / hiring boss a cipher or stand-in for God, and the role does have some discontinuities. But if he doesn't symbolize God, how about identifying him with one of God's people who try to distribute scarce assets in ways that benefit everyone? Or is that a possible scenario for Jesus' time, but not for where and how we live today?
• How would you define "grace"?
• How do we live in ways that are covenantal / relational rather than transactional?
• But aren't exchanges such as labor for dollars, cash for groceries necessary? I'll mow your grass if you gift me your (heirloom) tomatoes and melons.
• Do you still sometimes compare yourself to other people?
• What's your spin on the last shall be first and the first shall be last?
• When there aren't enough living wage jobs for everyone and/or not enough workers with needed skills to fill available jobs, what is the role of industry? Of non-profits? Of local, regional, national governments? Of the church—both national church bodies and local congregations?

All of these are made up of individuals, some of whom are members of the Abrahamic faith traditions along with others who yearn for justice and a common wealth, and they can be powerful together.

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