The Reverend John Allison, Celebrant
Proper 20A, Christ Church, Hudson
September 20, 2020
From the time since I was quite young I have always had some kind of job to do. Whether it was doing chores around the house and earning an allowance or later, when I was older, mowing lawns around the neighborhood and earning my own spending money, I have always had some kind work for which I was compensated. It taught me the value of work, the value of a dollar, and instilled in me a work ethic that is part of who I am to this day. I imagine many of you here today can say something similar, which makes the parable Jesus shares in our Gospel today all the more surprising. I’m used to getting what I deserve, what’s fair—a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. The reaction of the workers hired early in the day by the landowner is not all that surprising to me; I can understand their dismay, their resentment that the workers hired in the eleventh hour, at the end of the day, earned the same as them. It just doesn’t seem fair.
And we humans are hard-wired for fairness—often to the point of our own diminishment. Various psychological studies show that from a very young age children recognize unequal treatment. One study (Cesare, Chris. “Cultural Differences Determine when Kids Learn to Play Fair.” Nature. 18 Nov. 2015) placed two bowls of candy, one each in front of two children being studied. One child would receive a single piece of candy in his or her bowl and the other would receive four pieces in his bowl. The child being tested then had a choice. He could pull a green lever and each child would receive the candy allotted them; or, he could pull a red lever and the neither child would receive any candy. Time and time again the child who was disadvantaged, who had the single piece, would pull the red lever and neither would receive anything. There are numerous variations of this experiment, some with older children and even adults and, of course, this is an extreme example, but my point remains—we have strong feelings about what is fair and what isn’t fair. And quite often, perhaps more often than we are willing to admit, we become quite attached to our notions of fairness—so attached that we sometimes fail to see the real issue at hand.
What the laborers in Jesus’s parable don’t get, and, for that matter, what we don’t get in our very human preoccupation with fairness and getting what we deserve, is that God’s mercy, God’s love, does not depend on us. It’s not about us. God’s love, God’s forgiveness, is unconditional. It’s not about how many hours we’ve worked or how many prayers we’ve said, or even how many years we’ve had perfect attendance at church. God’s love is there for us to accept, for us to turn to and live into—to repent, which simply means to turn. If we understand Jesus’ parable as representing the Kingdom of God, those laborers who come at the end of the day, who turn to the Lord—no matter how late—are welcomed with the same love as those who have been in God’s grace all along.
For some of us, that is a hard lesson to learn. It doesn’t help that we see pop culture representations of heaven with people standing at its gates and St. Peter tallying up good deeds versus bad to see if the scale might be tipped and the gates opened in welcome to those worthy souls who’ve labored hard. No. God’s love does not depend on us. Do not misunderstand me. I’m not giving you a blank check and saying it doesn’t matter what you do. That’s not correct either. We turn from God of our own volition; it’s our choice. And it is our choice to turn back. But God's love comes first. God descended to us, came to us in the Incarnation and we are called to return with Christ, ascend back to God. That’s what it means to say yes to God’s call, to seek union with God.
As laborers in the vineyard, we work not to win favor but because God has called us and we have accepted. The works that we do, the gifts that we offer, are not offered to win God’s love but are the outward signs that have said yes and are living into God’s love for us. We are reflecting God’s love to the world. The love that we show to our neighbors, the forgiveness that we offer our enemies, the prayers we say, the alms we give, the Eucharist we offer—all is the expression of God’s love for the world and it comes through us. We are Christ’s body in the world. “We who are many are one body,” Paul told us just a few weeks ago in his letter to the Romans.
We know the work to which we are called. We know who we are called to be and, yet, time and time again, we forget. We become preoccupied, with ourselves, with our world and its ways, which run counter to the Kingdom ethic of the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. We grumble and complain. We see it not only in our own lives but throughout scripture. Today, in our reading from Exodus, we are in the wilderness with Israel. God has led them out of Egypt, where they were slaves, so that they may embody a new way of being, a new ethic that does not revolve around domination and submission, rich and poor, powerful and powerless. But in the wilderness life is not easy and they complain: “If we had only 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 the whole assembly with hunger.” We know what happens next; God shows mercy with the gift of quails that cover the camp in the evening and then, in the morning, this fine, flaky substance—manna, bread from heaven. We learn a few verses later (16:20) that manna cannot be hoarded. If people gather more than they need for the day, the extra becomes worm-ridden and foul. With manna, everyone has plenty but no one has too much. The people must trust God to, as we also pray, “give us this day our daily bread.” Interestingly, in the Gospel, the workers in vineyard receive the “usual daily wage,” which would have been a denarius, just enough for a day’s supply of bread. Like the workers in the vineyard, the people of Israel in the wilderness all receive the same amount—plenty, but not too much.
God’s graciousness and mercy, God’s love, transcends human notions of fairness. When Jesus tells the parable of the laborers in the vineyard his disciples are struggling to understand the Kingdom of Heaven within the framework of the world in which they live. It’s a world of rich and poor, superior and inferior, and a whole host of other hierarchies that continue to define our world to this day. What we know as followers of Jesus, what we trust, is that we are called to something completely different, where the last shall be first and the first shall be last. What we must ask, each of us, is how are we called to participate in this new order initiated in Christ? It’s a big question, what I like to call a life question, but it’s the work to which God calls us to share in and through which we come to embody our faith.
We prayed in our collect today to let us not be anxious about earthly things but to love things heavenly, that amidst all these things temporal that are passing away, we hold fast to what endures. Love is what endures. Hold fast to God’s promise of love in Christ and know that in Him, in his mercy, we are held and strengthened to do the work we are given, work that has the power to inaugurate something completely new.