This week in Discovery Class, we did a review of Holy Scripture. We talked about how many years writing the Bible took, the content in each section, the types of literature we find in scripture, and what scripture reveals about us as God’s people. Our homework was to study today’s gospel lesson, being sure to read the text immediately before and after the text we hear today as a way of helping us interpret the passage. That tip was especially telling in today’s Old and New Testament lessons
In our lesson from Exodus last Sunday, we heard the story of the parting of the Sea of Reeds. We heard of that dramatic moment where God allows the Israelites to pass through on dry land, but destroys the Egyptians as the waters return. The last line in last week’s lesson from Exodus is, “Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.” Today, the first sentence from our Exodus reading is, “The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’” Israel’s groaning and complaining today are much more grievous when we read the great heights of their praise and faithfulness last week.
Likewise, in our gospel lesson today, we hear the familiar story of the generous landowner, who gives the same wage to those who work an hour and those who work all day in the broiling sun. We can read this passage, and criticize the envious, hardworking laborers for their lack of gratitude. But the power of the story is heightened when we realize immediately before Jesus’ parable, Peter interrupts Jesus’ teaching and basically says, “But what about us? We left everything behind and we have been following you. What’s in it for us?” And right after Jesus’ parable, the mother of James and John approaches Jesus and basically says, “Listen, if it’s not too much trouble, can my boys sit at your right and left hand in the kingdom?” So, when Jesus says to Peter, “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first,” and when the landowner says to the workers, “the last will be first, and the first will be last,” what do you think Jesus is trying to address?[i]
I do not know about you, but both of these texts have left me pretty uncomfortable this week. Watching the Israelites go from faithful, obedient, loyal followers, to whiny, unappreciative, complaining messes hits a little too close to home. Admittedly, part of me cringes at this text because we have been hammering home the importance of gratitude with our own children. No sooner is the ice cream cone finished before the complaint comes that we never do anything nice for them. But as much as we fuss at them, we know the same is true for us. We are great at praise and thanksgiving to God – when things are going well. When seas are parting, and enemies are defeated, our God is awesome. But when we cannot seem to make ends meet, when our loved one is sick again, or when our relationships are falling apart, gratitude is the last thing on our lips. We find ourselves in what one scholar calls the “spiritual wilderness of ingratitude.”[ii] We cringe at these readings because we are no more masters at gratitude than our children are.
What both of these lessons do, ever so brutally, is lure us in with stories about abundant, underserved generosity, and put under a microscope our deeply buried discomfort with abundant, underserved generosity. Part of the reason we are uncomfortable is because God’s generosity often bumps up against our notions of fairness.[iii] I do not know if we understand the concept of fairness innately or if we are taught fairness by our community, but somewhere along the line, we learn the concept of fairness and apply the concept with exacting scrutiny. I remember when I was a child and wanted a treat, my dad would make my brother and me share the treat. One child was allowed to split the treat in half, but the other child got to pick which half he or she wanted. You can imagine how precise my cuts became when looking at that cookie.
But our notions of fairness evolve over time. One could take that same cookie and give a slightly larger half to the older child since they are bigger. Or one could take that same cookie and give the slightly larger half to the child who was better-behaved. Or one could give the larger half to the one who was physically weaker and needed more nourishment. There are all sorts of ways to determine fairness. But God’s measure, in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures seems to be that everyone receives God’s generosity despite worth or effort – or even the showing of gratitude.
Take our lesson from Exodus. The people have clearly approached mutiny. Their love for God is buried in their physical hunger and their self-centered greed. But instead of punishing the Israelites, God lavishes them with all they need. God gives them bread every day and meat every night. In fact, God even gives them a double portion on the eve of the Sabbath so that they can observe the Sabbath without having to work for their food. The feast is not a rich feast of wines and marrow, but their feast is gloriously generous and enough.
The same is true in Jesus’ parable. Yes, the landowner has a weird way of putting the day-long workers in the awkward position of watching his generosity, but ultimately, the landowner gives everyone enough. He gives the wage he promised to the day-long workers – a wage that will fill them and their families for days.[iv] But he also gives the same wage to the hour-long workers. Sure, they did not deserve the wage, but the same wage that feeds the other workers feeds them too. The landowner is gloriously generous and gives enough.[v]
I have been wondering all week where these texts leave us: maybe a bit guilty, perhaps a bit convicted, and definitely “last” in the pecking order Jesus describes. But what I realized this week is both in Exodus and in Jesus’ parable, perhaps being last is not all that bad. You see, Jesus does not say, “The last shall be first, and the first shall be ejected.” No, Jesus says, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” So even on our worst Israelite days, when we are moaning and complaining about the very God who miraculously saved us, or even on our worst vineyard days, when we are complaining about an unfair, albeit generous, owner, we are still not ejected. We are not taken out of God’s generosity; we are not stripped of our blessing. We may be last, but we still have enough. Our abundantly generous God takes care of us when we deserve God’s care and when we do not. Our abundantly generous God gives us enough when we think God’s generosity is fair and when we do not. Our abundantly generous God loves us whether we embrace God’s generosity or we do not.
I cannot promise we will ever get in line with God’s generosity. I am not sure we will ever be cured of our sense of fairness or even our ill-conceived notions that we could earn God’s generosity. But what I can tell you is that we are not alone. Our people thousands of years ago did not master God’s generosity. The disciples two thousand years ago did not master Christ’s generosity. And I suspect we will not either. But every week, we try. Every week we continue on our journey toward generosity – seeing God’s generosity in ourselves and others – being inspired to try again. I am not sure we will ever be first in line. But the good news is we get to stay in line – which means there is always room to try again. Our generous God will make sure we have enough until then. Amen.
[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 100-102.
[ii] Deborah A. Block, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Supplemental Essays, Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 2.
[iii] Taylor, 103.
[iv] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: Harper Collins, 2014), 224.
[v] Block, 4.