Sunday, September 21, 2008

Proper 20

Matthew 20.1-16

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers 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 marketplace; 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 laborers 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.”

Everything I know about investment banking I learned in the last week:

I learned that Freddie Mac is not a famous rapper and Fannie Mae is not a hillbilly.
I learned that “short-selling” has nothing to do with getting a pair of cut-offs at the mall.
I learned that the “big five” are now the “big two” and may not be for long.
I learned that investment banks are not really banks at all, but vehicles for selling things that don’t really exist.
I learned that somehow government intervention is wrong until the people with the most money stand to lose it.
I learned that “greed is good” until you want the votes of those who know the opposite.
I learned that very little will be learned from the current crisis, and someday it will all happen again.

Legend has it that Joe Kennedy exited the stock market before the crash of ’29 because a shoeshine boy gave him a stock tip. His logic was that when people with little or no knowledge of the market were getting involved, it was time to leave. The Kennedy’s remained rich.

Fast-forward eighty or so years and it seems you no longer need the wisdom of a Joe Kennedy, you only need to wait while Congress decides how to bail you out. For those who work hard all day and avoid unnecessary risks, it all seems terribly unfair. The people who gambled with money they didn’t earn now expect to end the day as secure as everyone else.


Tom Long tells this story about teaching the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard:

Late in the term his class reflected together on the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. They recounted the story of workers hired early in the day and promised a denarius, an honest wage, enough to feed a family for a day. Later, at the third hour of the day, and at noon, and again at the ninth hour of the day, the owner went to the marketplace for more workers. Even at the eleventh hour he was still looking for workers, and when he found them he said, “why do you stand about all day? Come, work for me.”

When it came time to pay them all, he began with those hired last. As they received the denarius, the workers hired first began to imagine the money they would make this day. They got a denarius. Enraged, they said “this us unfair, you have made these eleventh-hour people equal to us, and we worked in the scorching heat all day!”

The students smiled to themselves, as they knew the end of the story: “My friends,” the owner said, “I was good to my word, paying you a living wage. Don’t I have the right to be generous with my money?” The classroom filled with goodwill, as student after student marveled at the generosity of their God and the grace that surrounded them.

Then came a knock on the door. “Are you Professor Long?” a breathless student asked.
“Is this New Testament Class?”
“Oh, thank God. I just realized that I’m enrolled in your class and somehow it didn’t appear on my timetable. If I don’t get this credit, I won’t be able to graduate. I know this is a lot to ask, but is it possible to borrow some class notes and write the final paper?”

The room exploded. “That’s not fair! That’s not possible! You can’t do that! We’ve been here since the fall! Dr. Long, no!”

Dr. Long and the young actor he hired to play the part of the tardy student just smiled. So much for the lesson of the Workers in the Vineyard. So much for all that grace.


Someday soon, I don’t know when, we’ll roll out that baptismal font. Happy parents will bring forward a little one, wrapped in some slippery sateen gown, and I’ll practice my not-quite-forgotten baby holding skill as I baptize a little bundle of joy.

While this is happening, maybe for just a moment, and in a mostly facetious way, I’ll make a little comparison: nearly twenty years of ministry, years of involvement before that, a life given to the church. Looking down I will remember that me and the little upstart I’m holding and are fully equal in God’s eyes. Baptized for mere minutes, little baby X will have as much claim on the grace of a remarkable God as me.


It seems I have no shortage of “older brother” stories, and I’m not even an older brother. If my older brother was here, boy would he have stories. “It’s not fair; everything is easier for you; where’s my compound miter saw?” Perhaps I’m being unfair to poor Andrew, so far away and unable to defend himself. The truth is, each of us has lot of older brother in us. We remember the times that someone got what we deserved, whether it was a fatted calf or a better party or a father’s forgiveness. And each of us can remember a time we enjoyed the good fortune of others until we began to suspect it came at our expense.

We love grace, but we love it more when we get it.
We love a gracious God, but we prefer some people to meet an angry God instead.
We love the idea of a living wage, but the like the little boy with the empty bowl, we’d like some more.


The Israelites grumbled. “Did you bring out here into the desert to kill us? You should have killed us back in Egypt, and at least we would have had a decent last meal!” Apparently they wanted liberation and food, and so they complained. God heard the complaints (the word appears seven times in twelve verses) and gave them quail in the evening and manna in the morning: enough for everyone to eat.

All of this, however, was a test: Food enough for each day was a gift and a discipline. If you were weak, and couldn’t gather all your manna, God filled your cup. The seventh day was Sabbath, so twice as much appeared on Friday. But if you got greedy, on any of the six days for gathering, and you collected more than you needed, maggots filled your cup and it was all ruined.

“Give us this day our daily bread” is really just a bible study. Jesus, like all faithful Jews, didn’t really recognized that passage of time when it came to the story of the liberation. Death passed over all their houses; Pharaoh’s men chased them all to the edge of the Red Sea; God made a way for each of them to cross. Jesus prayed for his daily portion of manna, and prayed that temptation would not lead him to collect more. Jesus prayed that everyone would receive their daily bread, knowing full well that it was human nature for some to want more.

It was Hans Frei who said that the task of the church is to “take a Polaroid of the Jesus we meet in scripture and hold it up wherever pain and sorrow exist.” And it seems to me that this is exactly what we are doing as we serve people in need in our community. We bring the daily bread of Jesus, just enough, not too much, to the very people who need liberation. We defy the Pharaoh of the free market, trickle-down, invisible hand and allow God to free people to be fully human: loved, cared for, children of grace.

Now what about the older brothers who say “I work hard and they can too.” What about the older brothers who say “a tax cut will make everyone richer, then they can eat.” What about the older brothers who say “these are eleventh-hour people, and we’ve been working in the hot sun all day.”

The truth is we are all eleventh-hour people. We have received the same daily bread of forgiveness as everyone else. We have been released from the same sin and sorrow as everyone else. We have stood beneath the cross with everyone else. We may grumble like first-hired, but at the end of the day we are all eleventh-hour workers, praying “give us this day our daily bread.”
May the God who hears all prayers be with us, now and forever, amen.


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