SJF • Proper 20a • Tobias S Haller BSG
The landowner said, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”
In spite of the fact that we’ve had a mild summer, it’s a little muggy today, and all things considered I can still sympathize with the workers in our gospel this morning who had to bear the burden of that long day and that scorching heat. So, to prepare for the coming fall season — it starts tonight! — and the winter that will no doubt be close on its heels, let me to remind you of a scene from one of my favorite winter movies, A Christmas Carol. I’m thinking of a scene from Scrooge’s younger days, when his employer, Mr. Fezziwig, throws the annual Christmas party for the workers at his warehouse. The Ghost of Christmas Past notes Scrooge’s pleasure at the festivity, and comments, “A small matter to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.” When Scrooge protests that it isn’t small, the Ghost reminds him, “Why! Is it not! He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves your praise?” Scrooge responds, more like his youthful former self than the cold mean thing he has become, and says, “The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.” And even as he says those words, he realizes how much he has changed since those happy days, before money became the golden idol of his worship, and as he feels the Spirit’s stern look upon him, he lowers his head in shame.
Well, in our gospel today we see a man very much like Mr. Fezziwig — the landowner in the gospel is eager to employ people, but also generous even to those employed only for a fraction of the day. Had he been like Scrooge, you had better believe he would have divided up those wages according to the hours worked, and the latecomers would have been pro-rated at only a fraction of a day’s wage. But this landowner is generous, and he does as he chooses with what he has.
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But wait a minute. If he is really so generous — as he describes himself — why doesn’t he give those who worked all day long an extra bonus? Why is it that they just get what they bargained for, while the latecomers get more than their fair share? For those who worked all day in the heat of the sun, and only get that agreed-upon daily wage, this does not appear to be generosity — at least not to them! — but favoritism. As far as they are concerned, it simply isn’t fair.
And you know what? They are right; it isn’t fair; but the landowner doesn’t claim to be fair — no, he says he is generous. And that, my friends, is the point of the parable.
Generosity isn’t about giving everyone what they deserve, or more than they deserve, but about the freedom of the giver to give out of his abundance to whomever he chooses — freely, not under constraint as if the giver were paying a debt, but solely because the giver wishes to give.
Now of course, this is a parable; and like all parables in this one Jesus is trying to tell us something about God and our relationship to God — what God’s kingdom is like. He is telling us about God’s generosity, as well as reminding us about human envy, how easy it is to presume upon generosity, to expect it, to resent it when others receive it and ourselves not.
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The lectionary pairs this gospel with the story of the Israelites complaining against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness of the Exodus. There is a Yiddish word that describes this kind of whining complaint: to kvetch. Well the children of Israel are the biggest kvetches in history, complaining and whining again and again. Even though God has delivered them from captivity and is bringing them into a new land of milk and honey — they kvetch! And even though they don’t deserve the treatment God delivers, God hears them and answers their kvetching and gives them the manna, the bread from heaven. God pours his grace and mercy on people who really don’t deserve it, people who have earned no credit with God and have even complained against God’s chosen leaders, kvetching like spoiled children. They don’t deserve God’s grace.
Which is, of course, what makes it grace. For grace and mercy are precisely needed where credit isn’t earned, where grace isn’t deserved. None of us is so good that we deserve salvation; none of us earns it, however much good we do; God doesn’t owe us anything. And yet our loving God gives us everything — even himself, in the Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord. God isn’t fair by human standards, the standard of “get what you deserve”; but God is good — and God is generous, and treats us infinitely better than we deserve. Even the grace of believing in God is a gift from God, as Paul told the Philippians: “He has graciously granted you the privilege ... of believing in Christ.” God is like the landowner who surprises the part-time workers with full-time pay; God is like Mr. Fezziwig who doesn’t count the cost of bringing joy, but simply brings it. And God brings that joy not just on Christmas — believe you me, though that is when we commemorate the start of it all — but on every day of the rolling year. God, thank God, is gracious and merciful and abounds in steadfast love. His grace covers the multitude of our sins, and the generous outpouring of his blood washes away our guilt. None of us have worked for the whole of the day — all of us are latecomers, and God chooses to be generous to us because God isn’t fair by human standards, but because God is good through and through, the fountain of all goodness, the generous well that never runs dry.
For there is only one day’s wage, my friends, one day’s wage worth working for, one day’s wage with which we can be paid: the one day’s wage of the one Lord’s Day which will last forever, the one day’s wage of entry into the kingdom of heaven. God can give us no more than that, nor should we desire more — and he is generous to those of us who come late, as he is to those who came early: why, he even lets the last in first — so generous is this God of ours.
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Let me close with another parable. Once there was a man who died and came to the pearly gates where Saint Peter greeted him. Peter, in addition in to carrying the keys, had a clipboard in hand. He said to the man, “Before we let you into heaven there are a few questions you have to answer and I have to fill out this form. You see, we work on a point system here in heaven — maybe you’ve heard something about it. You tell me the good things you’ve done and I’ll score your points — and when you reach a hundred points I’ll let you into heaven. Is that alright?” The man thought for minute and then began to recite his good deeds. “Well, I was married for over 50 years and I never cheated on my wife all that time; I never even looked at another woman with lust in my heart.” Saint Peter said, “Very good; better than most, in fact; though as I recall you made that promise on your wedding day; but well done, considering it’s so rare: that’s worth three points.” The man was a little surprised at that score, but continued, “I was very active in my church — I went every Sunday and I was a longtime member of the men’s group.” Peter said, “Excellent; remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy: that’s another point! But being a member of the men’s group? You are a man, aren’t you? I’m afraid I can’t give you any points for that.” The man was starting to feel very nervous, and said, “Well, I was also very generous with my wealth. I tithed to my church and I gave all my old clothes to the Goodwill.” Peter responded, “Let’s see, clothes you didn’t need any more... a tithe of your wealth… I recall hearing Jesus saying something about giving up all your possessions to follow him; but, hey, I’m in a good mood. I reckon that’s worth another point.” Exasperated, the man said, “My goodness, at this rate I’ll never get into heaven based on what I’ve done. I can only throw myself on God’s mercy.” And tossing aside the clipboard, Peter said, “Oh, that’s worth a hundred points right there. Welcome to heaven.”
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No my friends, God isn’t fair by our standards. He rescues and feeds ungrateful, disagreeable, judgmental, ornery kvetches and wretches and feeds them with bread from heaven. He gives to the latecomer the same favor as he gives to the one who works all day. And he gives us himself, my friends, he gives us himself. So let us not be envious, but rather thankful that God’s generosity exceeds even our greatest expectations, and that his goodness and mercy and grace endure for ever and ever.+