Economy of God
Before I read the gospel lesson today, I want to show you a film clip from “Les Misérables,” the movie, not the musical. Jean Valjean has just been released from prison and pledged to become a new man. The bishop takes him in as a guest in his house, but one night, Jean steals his silverware and knocks the bishop unconscious. The next day, the police catch Jean and return him and the stolen goods to the bishop. Here is how the bishop reacts. By the way, since it’s St Patrick’s Day, I’ve carefully selected a clip with an Irish actor as Jean Valjean…
I showed you this clip because it is like our text today: a generous gift of grace is offered to someone and the gift is a departure from what justice seems to require.
And now, the Gospel lesson. As I read the story, who do you identify with?
(Read: Matthew 20:1-6)
This parable asks questions of us that challenge our assumptions, so I’d like to make a few observations.
So, do you think it was fair of the landowner to give the same wage to both parties? This is not equal pay for equal work. A reasonable person of faith would say that justice demands that. But notice how selective our sense of injustice can be in some ways. Even though the first workers received exactly what they agreed to – a livable wage – their focus was on those who also received a livable wage but should not have. Now, those workers chosen first were probably not offended by the injustice that others were probably passed over when they were picked to work in the morning. However, they sure cared about justice when the last were paid first! In other words, as long as I benefit, it’s pretty easy to overlook injustices, isn’t it?
For instance, in our own time, it’s pretty predictable that the ones who have the most favorable position in the marketplace do not cry out “injustice” about the systemic passing over of minorities or women in the workplace. But when actions are taken to correct that – like affirmative action, for instance – suddenly, everything is so unjust. We see injustice when it affects us personally. We tend not to see it when it affects others.
Perhaps Jesus is inviting us to consider a broader perspective on justice, from God’s point of view, where justice bleeds into love. A bit like the bishop.
Let’s look further at this whole question of our sense of “deserve.” Those who worked hard all day deserved more than those who were idle most of the day, right – I mean, the heat of the day and all? Well, tell me which is harder to endure? Working hard or waiting to be chosen? Not knowing if you will be. Not knowing whether you and your family will be able to put food on the table.
Is it possible that work is not such a big burden after all, but a gift? It is a basic human need to work. Better to be working than idle. It says the landowner repeatedly seeks out people in the marketplace who are “idle,” which is a good metaphor for an untapped life. If a car is idling, it’s not doing what is was intended for, right? So, too, with an idle life. So, the landowner goes into the marketplace – why? – because some people are idle, and all people deserve to work. Even the last ones chosen.
This whole parable is framed by the phrase that Jesus has already spoken in Matthew: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Such is the reversal that Jesus suggests over and over again about the kingdom of heaven – the kingdom that is future and present for the person of faith!
But this parable is not just about human rights and economic privilege. This parable is about the landowner, who is God. It’s about the heart, actions and economy of God. And in this economy, God gives the free gift of life and its sustenance, now and always. That is the economy of God. The logic of an economic system like capitalism is that the first ones are paid more, there are “haves” and there are “have nots.” The logic of the gospel is that everyone gets what they need because God loves them and that we, in turn, are invited to trust in God’s abundance.
But sometimes, rather than being grateful for what we have, we become envious or angry for what someone else gets who doesn’t deserve it. And we wish it would be taken away. That would make it better.
When Jesus told this parable, there were many who were listening who had been faithful Jews their whole lives and then converted to this new Jesus church. Who do you think they are in this parable? The first ones hired! These lifelong Jews were faced with other populations that Jesus seemed to be letting into the fold: Gentiles, sinners, children, lepers. “They are the idle ones who do not deserving,” the entitled men might say.
Likewise, regular churchgoers will often feel like certain sinners out there are less deserving of the kingdom than we are, that those who don’t come to church and haven’t been paying their dues. I mean, deathbed conversions aren’t really fair, are they, because “he got to do whatever he wanted all his life and then sort of ‘waltz into the kingdom’ with all those faithful Christians who walked the walk their whole life.” So, like many of Jesus’ early listeners, we may hear this story from the front of the line and we think it’s wrong.
And let’s be clear: this kind of thinking is the very thinking that, if we’re not careful, easily mutates into white nationalism or nativism. A subject that is particularly alarming in the aftermath of the New Zealand massacre. “I got here first, and I am deserving. You are an idle interloper – or worse. An invader. You don’t belong. So just stay away altogether. You don’t deserve what I have.” People who think they’re at the front of the line always forget they’re not really at the front of the line. I mean, white supremacists think they’re the real Americans, the ones at the front of the line. But who are the real “Americans”? I believe it was the “Native” Americans.
Barbara Brown Taylor asks a question of we Christians: what happens if we identify not with the first workers who view themselves at the front of the line of worthiness? What if we identify with the idle workers who get hired at 5 o’clock? How would we hear this story then? Well, then the story is less aggravating and a bit more hopeful, isn’t it?
But for that matter, in the broader scheme of things, on the worthiness-meter, what makes us so sure we’re at the front of the line? What if we’re at the back of the line? Are we who are straight more deserving than our LGBTQ brothers and sisters? Many in the Methodist church think so. Lutheran Church, too! Are we more deserving than our neighbors – you know, the ones who don’t even think about coming here to worship? Are we more deserving than recent immigrants? In the economy of God, we are not.
Why should any of us think we’re more deserving than this person or that person? When we begrudge God’s generosity to his children, we have forgotten where we are standing, maybe. Maybe we’re farther back in the line than we think. Maybe we really need a merciful God more than we think we do, and when we come to that realization, would we rather have a God who fills empty hands or one who rewards by merit? One is dependent on God’s heart, the other on you and me. I’m going to go with God’s heart in this one!
Jesus’ parable of the vineyard proclaims to us that God is the giver of gifts we don’t necessarily deserve and maybe never asked for. William Willimon and others tell the story of a northerner that was traveling through the south. One morning he stopped for breakfast in a small country restaurant. He ordered coffee, eggs, sausage, toast, and juice. When his plate arrived he noticed, in addition to the stuff he ordered, there was a pile of grey, lumpy stuff in the corner of his plate. Confused, he called the waitress over to his table, and inquired what the “stuff” was.
“Why, sir,” she responded, “them’s grits.” “But I didn’t order them,” he informed her.
With a big smile, the waitress reassured him, “Sir, you don’t order grits. They just come!”
The Good News of the kingdom of heaven is clear. We don’t order God’s lavish, radical, sometimes offensive grace. It just comes. Called out of our idleness, no matter where we are in line, and given the gift of work, of life, even eternal life. Thanks be to God! Amen.