God chooses that every child of God must be blessed by the abundant resources of this earth, and invites you and me to join in that generosity and find life and joy.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 25 A
Texts: Matthew 20:1-16; Exodus 16:2-15
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
What if in this story Jesus actually means God cares about real things like money?
After all, Jesus used a financial transaction as the chief image in this story. He describes a farmer who hires workers to bring in a harvest, workers who were hired at different times in the day, workers who end up being paid the same.
Most of us were taught that in this parable Jesus is speaking of people who come to faith early and work as disciples for years, compared to those who might, on their deathbed, seek hope in God’s love. This interpretation says God’s grace is full and complete even to the one who only turns toward home in the last moments of life. But I know you, my family at Mount Olive. You don’t need this parable to teach you what you already deeply believe, that God’s grace belongs to all God’s children, late-comers or long- workers.
But if we turn this parable like a jewel in the light, focusing on the money image Jesus uses, we see a truth about the reign of God hidden here Jesus also wants us to see. A truth about the economy and how God desires the world to work.
To see this, let’s imagine that the vineyard owner is God.
There are ways to read the parable where we’re the owner in the story, or where we’re the long-hours workers, or where we’re the ones standing idle who receive both the grace of being hired and a full-day’s wage for an hour’s work.
But here, let’s consider God as the owner. If this parable might actually be about wages, that suggests that God’s intent, God’s generosity, is that the economy of this world is one where everyone, without exception, has enough to live on, a roof over their heads, a meal on the table.
This is not how our world works, is it?
We can’t even agree on a fair minimum wage in this country that allows everyone who works to earn enough to feed all who depend on them. We’re seeing steady attempts to dismantle what structures we do have to care for the health of all people, to ensure that those too old to work still receive money to live.
Most people can’t see this parable as speaking to the actual economy because it seems ridiculous. Argument after argument is made how this isn’t sustainable, how the world doesn’t work that way.
But none of those arguments matter to us if God wants the world to work that way. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” the owner asks. If we imagine the owner as God, that question weighs heavily on those who want to follow God’s way.
God has provided a world with abundant resources, enough for all. That’s not disputed. But humanity has largely decided we won’t let God choose what we do with God’s resources. Our systems are built not with abundant generosity at their core, but with strict rules of how to earn money, rewards for accumulating for ourselves and building up treasures at the expense of others.
I know this is uncomfortable ground for those of us who have money laid away.
You might value how you’ve worked hard, and put aside money, and are reluctant even to consider that God might hope for something else. It would be easier to spiritualize this parable and say, “of course it’s not about money and the economy.”
The problem is, hearing this parable with real money and the real economy in mind resonates with everything the Bible says about God’s view of wealth and poverty, abundance and scarcity. God constantly calls us to live justly, feed those who are hungry, care for those who lack. God never says in the Bible, “build up barns for yourself so you make sure you’re taken care of.” So, God happily saying in this parable, “Everyone eats tonight, everyone gets a day’s wage,” is exactly what we expect God to say.
So if you and I wish to be faithful to Christ here, what can we do?
First, imagine living with a belief in God’s abundance for all – manna for everyone to live on, wages enough for everyone to eat and have shelter and clothing. If that’s what God chooses to do with what belongs to God, consider: how can you be part of that plan and not one of the grumblers or hoarders?
Second, imagine how to learn what’s enough for you to live. In both the manna story and Jesus’ parable, there’s one clear standard: do you have enough for today? Israelites who tried to save more manna than they needed for that day found it was rotten. Vineyard workers all got a day’s pay, regardless. If what God chooses to do with what belongs to God is ensure that every single child of God gets what they need for today, what does that mean for you, your decisions?
Third, since you want to follow Christ, when arguments rise up in you against an economic understanding of God’s will– as they can in all of us – you could make an effort to set them aside. It’s far easier to find reasons “that can’t work in the real world” than to imagine what God might call all of us to do. So you could practice the discipline of setting aside your gut-level objections and letting the Spirit open your mind and heart to new possibilities.
Don’t be frightened, though. You aren’t asked to find all the answers all at once.
Jesus wants parables to stick with us, roll around in our minds and imaginations. Let this one do that. Ponder it and hold it in your heart and see where it brings you in the next weeks, months, years.
Because if you know you want to follow Christ on this path to economic justice for all people, a society where everyone is cared for and has what they need, a world where every nation equally shares in the resources of the earth, remember that Christ calls you to follow a path, not instantly arrive at the destination. Baby steps are still steps. You and I can learn this together, follow Christ together, and that in itself is faithfulness.
And remember the main point of this story: the Holy and Triune God is abundantly generous, and that includes, you, too.
You learned that at the cross, saw it at the empty tomb, know it in the Spirit’s breath in your heart. Here, your faltering steps to be faithful are welcome to God, because you’re starting to choose what God chooses. When you stumble, God’s abundant love and forgiving grace wash over you and lift you up again.
There’s enough for everyone on this earth. Everyone gets to eat every day. Everyone has a place to sleep. Everyone has what they need to live. That’s what God chooses for what belongs to God.
Are you envious of this generosity? Or might you, living as Christ, want to find the delight of joining in it with the Triune God for the life of the world?
In the name of Jesus. Amen