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Pentecost 14 Proper 20 September 18, 2011

Pentecost 14 Proper 20A RCL  September 18, 2011

Exodus 16: 2-15
Psalm 105: 1-6, 37-45
Philippians 1: 21-30
Matthew 20: 1-16

In this morning’s reading from Exodus, God’s people are complaining against Moses and Aaron. “Why have you brought us out here to kill us,” they whine. Back in Egypt we had plenty of bread and things were great. Of course, they are omitting the fact that they were slaves.

God provides manna for the people and even quails for them to eat.

God is so generous and caring.

Paul is writing to the Philippians from prison. If he should be killed, he says it would be gain for him. But he realizes that he has started all of these communities surrounding the Mediterranean Sea and he wants to support them so that they continue strong in Christ. He looks forward to the time when he will visit them and see that they are “standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.”

Today’s gospel is shocking. Jesus is telling us that the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who goes out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. He hires a group of workers, agrees with them for the usual wage, and sends them into the vineyard. He goes to the marketplace again about nine o’clock , sees more workers standing idle, and hires them, saying that he will pay whatever is right. He goes out again at noon and three o’clock, finds more workers, and hires them on the same terms. At five o’clock he goes out and finds other workers standing idle. He asks them why they aren’t working and they say that no one has hired them. He tells them to go and work in the vineyard and doesn’t even mention wages. But they go anyway.

At the end of the day, the owner tells his manager to call the workers in and pay them. But there is a twist. He is to begin with the workers who started at five o’clock and pays them the same amount that he pays the ones who have worked all day.

It must have been pretty hard for those who had worked all day long to watch the manager pay all the latecomers the fair wage for a full day’s work. Maybe they began to think that, since the manager was paying those people a day’s wage, maybe he would pay them a week’s wage. But no such luck. They protest that this is unfair, but the landowner compassionately explains that he is doing them no wrong, he is paying them the agreed-upon fair wage. He is being fair; it’s just that he is being extraordinarily compassionate, too.

Some people find this parable upsetting. What in the world is Jesus saying here, anyway? This is no way to run a business. But this is not a parable about business practices.

Part of the unsettling nature of this parable has to do with the question: with whom do we identify? If I am thinking that I worked hard in the sun all day, and now these people who worked just a part of the day are getting the same pay, I am probably going to be upset.

But, if I identify with one of the people hired at noon or three, people who had not been hired earlier, then the parable can seem quite different. Especially in a time when so many people are unemployed or underemployed. I was there looking for work, I filled out the resumes, pounded the pavement, but no body hired me. If I am one of the people hired at five o’clock, I didn’t even ask what wages I was going to get, I just went out into the vineyard and worked. I have a family at home who are depending on me, and, at the end of the day, I get a full day’s pay, enough to feed the family for that day.

No, this parable is not about business practices. It is about God’s shalom, God’s kingdom. God is compassionate. God is generous. God is also fair. The folks who worked the full day got their fair wage. But God goes beyond fairness.

The first shall be last and the last shall be first. God’s shalom is not business as usual. It is not about getting to be first in line or being at the top of the ladder, which is what the conventional wisdom has taught us. It’s really not about us at all. It is about the nature of God.

God is a God of abundance. God is a God of grace. And grace has nothing to do with merit, or earning. Grace just flows out from God.

If we have ever had a time when we have looked for a job for a long time and not found one in spite of our best efforts; if we have ever had a time when we have tried and tried and given our best and still have not reached the goal, we may be able to understand the nature of God revealed in this parable. God’s heart goes out to those who try and try and get nowhere in the world’s terms. God especially loves those at the margins.

We are quite privileged, especially if we look at the human family on this planet. But each of us has probably known, in some way, on some level, how it feels to be vulnerable, weak, ill, insecure, to have tried our level best and failed at something, and tried and tried and tried and finally gotten hired toward the end of the day. And then the manager says to go to the head of the line, and he pays us the full wage!

That is the nature of God, and that is the nature of grace. God is not unfair, God is just amazingly generous.

 Amen.

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