Week of Sunday September 18 - Pentecost 14
Gospel: Matthew 20:1-14
‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the labourers 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 market-place; 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 labourers 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.'
“’Don’t make me leave.’” That’s what he said.”
“He wasn’t talking to you. He was talking to God. He didn’t want to go.”
“No! Vincent was like me, Booth. He was an atheist.”
“OK. Then he was talking to the Universe. He didn’t want to go. He wasn’t ready, Bones. He wanted to stay.”
“If there was a God then he would have let Vincent stay here with us.”
“That’s not how it works.” [Bones Series 6 Episode 22]
We may not be as hyper-rational as Bones (Dr Temperance Brennan) but we all have a fair idea of how the world should work. We know what should be right; what is correct. Perhaps as we face the end, we can simply surrender to the way of God and the contrariness of grace, and say, “That’s not how it works.” But while we are still cleaning the church kitchen, or managing the placement of hymn books, we have definite opinions about what is right and fair. This is our church, and our ideas naturally have precedence. That’s how it works.
The world has an economy, our economy, and it’s not the economy of grace. It’s the economy of getting paid for the amount of work you do (even if that’s really a myth.) It’s the economy of seniority and the economy of I was here first. It’s the economy that says if you keep the rules, and do well, you will get on in life, and be rewarded. You will get your just deserts, just as when you do not do well, and when you don’t live up to your responsibilities.
“That’s not how it works.”
Life is unfair, full of nepotism, corruption, and injustice.
And the kingdom of God is not about getting just deserts and a fair reward. That’s not how it works. It is more than arbitrary. It is far more than reward for good works. It is a hope for, and a promise of, unrestrained giving from the heart of God.
In Jesus we are learning that God is not working with a rights and deserts scale and making exceptions, but simply loving because that, not rights, is what is at the heart of God's being. If we persist in thinking of God in terms of God's rights, we will inevitably view all of life in terms of rights and miss the point of the gospel. (Loader)
In Matthew Chapter 17:22ff Jesus foretells his death a second time. He does it a third time in 20:17. In between these two events we have a sustained teaching about the life of the church.
The children are free. (17:26) We are given opportunity to step out of the system of society. We ‘pay the tax’ so as not to give offense. But we are free from the crippling expectation of just deserts and fair pay. We are free to enjoy and to give the life we have been given.
As the chapters progress, Matthew teaches about true greatness, (18:1ff) God’s love for the ‘lost sheep,’ and forgiveness in the church. The issue of divorce is raised in Chapter 19, and then the key question, just in case we have forgotten from where this Life comes.
“What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (19:16)
The question almost implies that there is something we must do to get it given to us; something that needs doing so that we achieve it, or own it. I certainly had that feeling as I began my journey in the faith.
But there is a sense that eternal life is here all the time. “If you wish to enter into life....”answers Jesus. It’s given. It’s here ‘waiting for us.’ Will we accept it? Will we respond? Will we enter into it?
“If you wish to enter into life,” answers Jesus, “keep the commandments.” And here the rich young man betrays his problem, for he does keep the commandments, but he knows and feels in his heart that he is lacking something. “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.”
The economy of the world is that we earn what we have. We get what we deserve; even our salvation. Jesus says, “That’s not how it works.”
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (16:24)
If you want to enter into life, and be complete, give as I have given; even your whole life.
It was axiomatic that God rewarded the good with riches. That’s how it worked. That’s why Job’s misfortunes were such a challenge to good sense. That’s why it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. (19:24) Jesus is turning everything on its head. Many who are first will be last and the last will be first. (19:30)
In a poor church one might feel justified about all this. The rich are going get what is coming to them. And we poor who have left house and family will receive a hundred fold and will inherit eternal life. (19:29) It’s underlined in the bible I used as a young man, and was a comfort in a hard time. And it’s always a very short step to contempt for other human beings no worse than myself.
So Jesus tells a story to the poor people of his day. He tells a story of the day labourers, waiting at the mercy of rich employers. It would have been easy to identify with this story; these are the people waiting for a shift at Myers, or doing it tough this week because a supervisor has cut their hours back for some imagined slight last week.
The work is not well paid. A denarius will only just pay your family’s food for a day. The employer is not especially friendly or kindly. (20:9) Bill Loader is correct, I think.
The farmer's gruffness in accosting these men for standing around all day doing nothing has its echo in stereotypes of dole bludgers or people unemployed because they are too lazy to seek a job.
The poor would not be seeing a generous employer as this story began. But even those who are poor casual employees, expect fair pay. According to the ways of the world, when those who were hired at 5pm were paid so highly, the rest were entitled to assume they would be paid more. That’s only fair.
But in the Kingdom, that’s not how it works. The last will be first and the first will be last.
The economy of the kingdom is not about earning and being paid. The economy of the kingdom is about giving and sharing because of the joy we have received. It’s a conversion to a mindset that wishes my own good fortune upon all people.
“I think that the major contrast in this passage is between our hard work and God's gracious will,” says Brian Stoffregen. “Centering on our work” and focussing on our achievements and rights, “creates a hierarchy of believers -- some better than others...” When we hold to this it creates blindness in us. We are “unable to see the goodness of God because [we] are blinded by a sense of [our] own goodness.”
It sounds harsh, but it’s true. Elsewhere this week, Brian recalls a quotation: "There are a hundred ways to clean a kitchen -- unless you're in my mother's kitchen." This translates seamlessly into our churches and congregations. Those other people don’t clean the toilets properly. They don’t turn off the power, or they leave doors unlocked, or lose keys. It matters not that we who have been here longer, also periodically do all these things. What’s going on is that the first shall be first and the last shall be last. That’s only right. But Jesus said, “That’s not how it works.” Not if we want to enter into life.
We are meant to pluck out (18:9) our evil eye (which NRSV translates as envious) that darkens the whole body, (6:22) and to focus on God’s generosity. (20:18) Stoffregen says this “creates a unity of believers -- all receive the same benefits and with that, the ability to see the Light with their eyes.”
In the episode of Bones with which I began, Bones mourns the loss of her friend. All her intellectual brilliance, and all her rigorous logic, is inadequate in the face of his death. Logic has no answer to the arbitrary and unjust nature of the universe. That’s not how it works.
What works for Bones is the generosity and loves of her friend Booth, who holds her and lets her sob her heart out. At that moment he is her way into the kingdom. The challenge for me is to take this theological gem from a TV show that has a fair amount of schlock, and apply it to my life, (which also has a fair amount of schlock.)
What Bones discovers is not reserved for moments of high pathos, or when grief and loss drive our logic into a cul de sac. It is for all of life, even the ordinary. (When will we let the generosity and forgiveness of our funeral services bleed into the daily life of our congregation?)
Why will I simply not give? Why do I stand on principle? Why do I expect a return for my time? That’s not how it works. It’s in giving, simply generous giving of all that I have, and all that I am, that I enter into life. Logic and reason has nothing to do with it. That’s not how it works.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
For readers in Australia, at least, this episode of Bones is viewable at Channel Seven until early October.
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