Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, September 24, 2023

YEAR A 2023 pentecost 17

Pentecost 17, 2023
Exodus 16:2-15
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So, two explorers are walking through the jungle one afternoon, when they suddenly notice that a man-eating tiger is stalking them.  The one explorer turns to the other and says, “We’re going to die!  What can we do?”  As he is saying this, he notices that his companion is calmly putting on her running shoes, in the face of certain death.  Shocked in disbelief he asks, “What are you doing?  You can’t possibly outrun a Bengal tiger!”  She continues tying up her laces and says, “I don’t have to outrun the tiger; I only have to outrun you.”

And now you’re asking yourself, “What does this possibly have to do with the laborers in the vineyard?”  I’m glad you asked that, because the answer is “everything.”  To recap the story Jesus tells, the Kingdom of Heaven is like this:  a vineyard owner hires some workers for a fair wage and they start in the morning, assumedly content with what they are earning.  In a little while, they are joined by others, and later in the day some more workers arrive, and eventually—right about quitting time—even more workers arrive.  The owner pays the last to arrive first, working up to those who’ve been at it all day.  They all get the same amount . . . an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s work.  

However, as you no doubt noticed, only the first half of that maxim holds true.  Everyone receives an honest day’s wage, sure.  But only the first group has performed an honest day’s work.  To which we all say, What is up with that?  This is a heck of a way to run a railroad, right?  The landowner’s actions go against everything we believe about making a living in this world.  Obviously, if this keeps up, everyone is going to be showing up for work at 4:55pm, just to collect their checks. Before you know it, the grapes are rotting in the fields, and the price of wine is going to skyrocket!  So, one thing is certain: the vineyard owner is a very bad business person.  And yet, Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven is like this.  Huh.

But let’s set aside economics for a moment and look at the emotional side of this story.  As far as we can tell, the workers who are first to arrive are completely content with the promise of an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s work.  They’re looking for work, and the vineyard owner has hired them.  They go out and work as agreed.  Similarly, those who show up later in the day seem satisfied to have some employment opportunity, and they enter the fields and work along-side the early risers.  Everything is fine until it’s time to get paid, and the boss seems to intentionally stir things up by starting with those who just arrived, giving them a full day’s pay for a full hour’s work.

For the all-day workers, seeing the late arrivals get full pay must have seemed too good to be true!  If those people got $100 for an hour’s work, a quick calculation would mean they are going to get like $1,000 for the day!  You can just picture them rocking back and forth, dreaming of how they’re going to spend their hard-earned cash.  And, of course, when the vineyard owner gets to the back of the line, they find their pay envelopes have the same as everyone else: 100 bucks.  

And this is when they begin to grumble.  They say, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us.”  And what is their complaint there?  You made them equal to us.  They are not angry because someone else has worked less.  They are not angry because the lawyer down the street makes more than they do.  No, they are grumbling because these late sleepers have been counted on the same level as the faithful workers.  The extravagance is what angers them.

They are mad because the vineyard owner has “made them equal to us.”  They are upset because someone who SHOULD have less is getting the same thing they are.  They’re not mad because someone else has more; they’re mad because someone “inferior” has the same.  It’s one thing to be counted less than somebody else.  But it sends us around the bend to know that those who "deserve" less are getting the same thing we are.

We don’t care if there a hundred people ahead of us outrunning the tiger, as long as SOMEBODY is behind us.  As long as we can throw SOMEBODY under the bus.  It’s a slippery slope that we just can’t help but start down.  It is our natural response to be angry when the allegedly “undeserving” get what they don’t deserve.  And this, my friends is the scandal of the gospel in a nutshell.  People get what they don’t deserve.

And if you think about it, we’re okay if the undeserving people are fabulously rich.  We might not get angry when athletes and rock stars make millions of dollars a year.  But if you start telling me that the person in the next cubicle is getting a raise, when I know darn well he takes 2-hour lunch breaks, shows up late, and leaves early . . . oh hand me down my running shoes!

The sinful, poor, and lazy do not deserve God’s bountiful rewards of mercy, compassion, and salvation.  And, the sinful, rich, and hardworking don’t deserve them either.  Remember the complaint from the all-day workers? “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us.”  Jesus says, yep, the kingdom of heaven is like this.  The kingdom of heaven is like this!  But, they don’t deserve to receive what I have received.  My hard work means that I should receive more than somebody else. 

We are trapped in a way of thinking about the world that honestly doesn’t make sense.  Like, we naturally don’t want others to receive grace.  Here’s a great example: how can somebody else’s student loans suddenly be forgiven when I have spent decades struggling to pay mine off?  Here’s another: how can somebody live for decades with HIV/AIDS because of new medicines, when I lost my brother to the disease in 1994?  How can these others receive unmerited mercy and grace, and how dare you make them equal to us?  When someone else doesn’t suffer as we did, we resent it.  When everyone is treated with love and respect, we somehow feel cheated.

We all want to be loved, respected, rewarded.  We want to think that God is pleased by the good things we do.  That God sees our good works and will reward us for our good deeds . . . the money we give, the people we help, the kind words we speak.  And we desperately want to believe that we are not in bondage to sin.  In short: we want to earn our way into God’s favor.  Work a full day in the fields rather than showing up at quarter to five.

We secretly doubt that we have sinned against God and our neighbor in thought, word, and deed.  When someone we consider less than us receives mercy, or when someone who doesn’t work as hard gets rewarded equally, well . . . it exposes our secret assumption about ourselves: namely, that we can outrun the tiger, by sacrificing someone else.  If nobody is behind us, that means the tiger is coming for me and you!

And we can tell this system doesn’t work when we just flip it around.  Just think of a time when you were suffering and someone said to you, “Well others have it worse off than you do.”  If I cut my finger and a friend says, “I know a guy who got his hand cut off.”  Um . . . great.  Now let me think if that makes me feel better.  Nope.  Knowing someone else is hurting worse does not take away my suffering.  There is no reassurance that comes from outrunning my neighbor rather than outrunning the tiger.  And the tiger, it seems, is coming for us all.

But when the overflowing and generous mercy of God appears and tells us, “Nobody has to die today,” rather than celebrate, we grumble that others receive the same grace that we have received.  Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven is like this:  The vineyard owner chooses to give equally to all people, no matter when or why they show up.  We would love to think that it is by our own effort and strength that God reaches down and rescues us from the power of death.  And when all the others are ALSO lifted up, well, it exposes us to the truth:  None of us is worthy of God’s grace, and yet we all freely receive it.  

On his deathbed, Martin Luther said, “We are all beggars; that’s the truth!”  And it is as beggars that we approach this altar with outstretched hands, to receive the gift of reassurance that God’s love is more powerful—and God’s redemption is more certain—than any threat we face in this life. 

And Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven is like this.  No matter when we arrive, no matter what we are wearing on our feet, we cling to this hope, as do the saints who have gone before us:  God is big enough to save us all.  Nobody is beyond God’s love and redemption.  Nobody.  So come and receive the gifts of God, given for all the people of God, because God is merciful to all.


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