September 24, 2017

Pentecost 16  September 24, 2017   (Ps 133, Exodus 16:4, 13-18,  Philippians 1:21-30)    Matthew 20:1-16   One wage

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What kind of employer is this landowner anyway?

What kind of boss would insist on paying those hired last, who’ve worked just an hour – the same wage as those who’ve worked hard all day? Isn’t this very unfair? Whatever happened to more pay for more work, and less pay for less work? What about fairness for the workers who come on time and do a good job? And what’s with paying the last first, and making all those who showed up first wait in line to be paid? Isn’t that like rubbing salt in the wound of unfairness?

Bet that landowner had a lot of workers show up late next day, hoping to be last hired and first paid. Probably other workers walked off the job ticked off at the injustice. (Maybe singing “take this job and shove it…”)

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Though now, I guess, I’m making big assumptions.

Perhaps only a few of those hired first and paid last were grumbling. Perhaps most of the first hired, while not exactly happy about their employer’s strange hiring habits, still might think at the end of the day, “well, thank God, at least I’ve got a job, and my family can eat…” And…

Perhaps those hired last were waiting to be hired early also but just didn’t get hired till later. Back when we were just out of high school, bumming around in California for a few months, my friend John and I would go to a day labor agency called  Manpower, and they’d send us off to a day job. Since we were young and looked like we could work all day, we were sent out right away. Someone who looked a bit more tired, a bit less able or enthusiastic might not get sent off so soon to a job site. We were put to work packing radios or stereos, and we could stay and work as many days as they needed or we wanted. We stayed a week as I recall, but could have stayed longer. Day labor was an adventure for us, but with minimum wage the norm, day labor is a very difficult way to make a living for anyone with a family. And nobody with a family can live on just a few hours worth of wages. So yes, this landowner is generous to those hired last…

How we hear the story depends on where we see ourselves in the story. I grew up in the Boston suburbs in the sixties. Even for teenagers there was plenty of work to be had. But my parents grew up during the depression. They remembered people begging for work, they knew the song, “Buddy, can you spare a dime?” They remembered Christmases when the only presents were socks and underwear,  an orange, maybe a couple pieces of candy in a stocking.          My parents never forgot the leaner times. As children we were taught the work ethic. We always had chores to do. By high school, I had after-school jobs, and by then working was something I usually wanted to do, even if mostly just to have money for gas, etc. I was fortunate to not have to work more hours than I did.

I’m also the adult child of an artist who taught us to work, and also to appreciate beauty. Mom grew up in a working class home in Montana. Her dad was a printer at the Billings newspaper, her mother a legal secretary. My mother was encouraged by her mother to work but also to read books, draw and paint, and understand we need to work…but work isn’t just about making money. Work is also supposed to be about helping others and making life more beautiful. The kind of work we can love and feel good about doesn’t usually come to us easily. But good things happen more often, my mother would tell us, when our attitude is properly adjusted… (Not saying I was ever close to an A student at this…but…)

This story only makes any sense if we remember – Jesus isn’t exactly teaching classical capitalist economic theory. Jesus is teaching us a whole different kind of economics… When he tells us the kingdom of heaven is like this landowner. Who starts hiring laborers early and keeps hiring and hiring all through the day… Behavior that makes no sense whatsoever according to conventional economic standards…

But then again, almost nothing Jesus does and teaches makes much sense according to worldly standards. The last shall be first and the first shall be last could almost be Jesus’ theme song.

Just a chapter before today’s reading, we overhear his disciples telling people not to bother Jesus by bringing their children to him; then we hear Jesus correcting his disciples, telling them “let the children come to me, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Next a rich young man comes to Jesus asking what he must do to have eternal life, and Jesus counsels him to sell all, give to the poor, come follow me. None of which the rich man will do. When his own disciples can’t believe what Jesus says to the rich man, he tells them “it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.” And when disciples protest, Jesus says “anyone who leaves their old life to follow me will have a hundred times more in this life than what they leave behind. And eternal life.”

And understanding quite well our frequent difficulty with what he says, Jesus also says, “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” Then he tells today’s parable…Concluding with his theme again – “the last will be first and the first will be last.”

Jesus is a bit easier to understand if we remember he builds on the foundations of the law and prophets of Israel. Jesus reminds us the economy of the kingdom is an extension of the manna economy of Exodus – where the people of Israel gathered free bread every morning – and those who gathered a little got enough – while those who gathered a lot didn’t get too much. When we read on in Exodus, we notice – any surplus manna rots. And Jesus says those who gather more for themselves than needed while ignoring the needs of those who go without are at very high risk of disaster. What you do for the least of my brothers and sisters you do for me, Jesus says. What you don’t do for others you fail to do for me, Jesus also says.

What we hear in the story depends on where we see ourselves in the story.

When Israel lived on manna, forty years in the wilderness, it was good news for those who remembered what slavery in Egypt was really like. But among those with selective memories, there was grumbling over having to eat the same menu of manna every day. All manner of whining and crying about missing all the allegedly great food of Egypt. Melons and cucumbers and meat! We ate well, supposedly, in the land of slavery.

In reality of course we were working day and night trying to make ever- more-bricks with ever-less-straw to build ever-wider-and-higher buildings for the favored few of Egypt. But we remember selectively.

What we hear in the story depends on what we bring to the story. If we’re very heavily invested in this world as it is this story is going to hurt. But if we know we can make do with less of the world, and if we know we need more – much more – than what the world can ever offer us – then we can hear this story as the excellent good news it truly is.

And again – who is this landowner? – who doesn’t seem to care much about productivity… But sure seems a bit obsessive-compulsive about employing every possible helper in the work of the harvest…

Who is this guy? – So very intent on getting everyone involved in his vineyard? Remembering vineyard is a familiar nickname for Israel in the bible… and harvest a familiar metaphor for last things…

And the last words of Jesus to all of us in Matthew’s gospel are all about going and making followers for him from all nations… Teaching them to do everything he has commanded us to do… Meeting together, being church together, making decisions together in the name of Christ. Interceding for others in the name of Jesus. Making the kingdom of heaven known on earth in Jesus’ name…

As the great Methodist evangelist E. Stanley Jones liked to say – Jesus doesn’t ask us to make the world better. Jesus tells us to make a new world with him. And when Jones asked his friend Mahatma Gandhi how Christians could reach more people, Gandhi said, “Don’t water down the message of Jesus. People are hungry and thirsty for the real Jesus. They don’t want a diluted version of the gospel. Make love central. Share the actual words of Jesus. That’s what people need to hear most.”

Sharing this message of the radical love of God in Jesus Christ, sisters and brothers, is the harvest labor Jesus calls us into –  all of us, every day. Paying us in reverse order, still, to make sure everyone of us sticks around till pay day to see everyone get exactly the same wage… To see and to bear witness to how totally committed our God is – to including everybody, first, last and in-between – as equally beloved, equals in partnership with Jesus in all the work of his kingdom…

And if we understand, even a little, how the kingdom of heaven works….and if we’re willing to work for kingdom wages in the vineyard of the Lord….

Probably we already know… How to be happy, how to be thankful… for the usual daily wage of all kingdom workers…

Because now we know – no better nor higher wage can ever exist, anywhere on earth or in heaven… Than life forever with God and Jesus…

in God’s new heavens… in God’s beautiful new world…

And the good news is –

the Lord of the harvest, the owner of the vineyard…

Is still hiring… at the same usual wage for one and all.

All are still invited.

Let’s pray: Dear and holy God, we thank you so much for your extreme generosity, as you call and invite us to help with your harvest of grace. Bless us to be truly willing workers, delighting in your awesome company. Bless us, dear Lord our God, to be faithful to our callings from you, and to be forever wholly yours. For Jesus’ sake and in his name we pray.  Amen.