Sixteenth Weekend After Pentecost
September 23-24, 2017
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manaquan, NJ
This Sunday’s Gospel is a parable. The Greek word parabole begins with “para” like parallel lines, and the bole part is just like bowling, because something important is thrown alongside the story we hear. Jesus’ parables usually blow up in my face with a deep meaning that brings me to a spiritual crisis! They carry us, in fact, to a parallel universe, the Kingdom of Heaven breaking into our world like a bull in a china shop. What is the kingdom of heaven like? Listen and see!
We readily get angry when we hear the story. How did you feel about the pay day deal? How crafty this Lord of the vineyard is! He only actually negotiates a salary with the workers he hires at the beginning of the day. He promises to pay them the usual day worker wage: one denarius for a twelve-hour work-day, 6 AM to 6 PM, 12 hours, dawn to dusk. On this salary, a worker would be able to care for his family.
What is remarkable about the Lord of this vineyard is that he also works hard. He is constantly looking for and finding people standing idle. With these, he names no salary figure. Those discovered at 9 AM, (only 9 hours of work), at 12 (only 6 hours of work) and at 3 PM (only 3 hours of work) he sends off to labor in his vineyard and promises “to pay whatever is right.” Rather mystifyingly, at 5 PM, nearly quitting time, he finds some workers still standing around, desperate, perhaps. So, with only one hour until pay time, he simply says, “You also go into the vineyard.”
At day’s end, the Lord of that vineyard asks his manager to give out the pay. What a vast difference in value between those who worked 12 hours and those who showed up at quitting time! We expect hard work to be rewarded accordingly.
So when the salary is handed out, it is a shock when the last hired are paid first. After all, they have just shown up! They haven’t even broken a sweat! They could have waited until those who had worked all day were paid. Everyone waiting is “all eyes”! A shiny denarius is plunked into their palms—a full day’s wage! These workers have to look twice to believe it! Some of them try to give it back. This cannot be right, but it’s no mistake. Shaking their heads with amazement, tears of joy run down their faces. They head for home, dancing, shouting, singing, “Heavenly day, my children will eat tonight! How blessed we are!” And everyone else’s eyes get large at the shockingly good fortune they got, that they obviously didn’t earn!
Wow! If that’s how he pays those no-accounts, how will he pay those of us who worked like dogs all day? They begin multiplying their denarius by twelve! Well, in spite of expecting more, they all get a denarius as well—only one day’s wage! Seriously? Suddenly the denarius looks small. Feeling ashamed to be made equal to those slackers, the Lord of the Vineyard seems terribly inconsiderate. They have faithfully borne the burden of the whole, long day and the terrible, scorching heat. They judge him to be a small, mean man who OWES THEM. Angry, they seek retribution for their grievances and give reasons why.
“Friend, “ he says. That’s better! Of course, as an important worker in the kingdom, I think of myself as a friend, but . . .Who else in Matthew’s gospel gets called “friend?” Well, when Judas shows up with a kiss to betray Jesus, and Jesus calls him “friend,” it is NOT a compliment. Uh-oh! Jesus knows.
“Friend, I am doing you no wrong, no injury. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?"
Of course, he’s right. The Lord of the Vineyard has kept his promise to us long-day people. It is just that he did the same for the next guy! Invited. Welcomed. Valued. Engaged in mission. Provided for, just the same. We’re not the SAME, are we? I wanted to be more to him. Instead of being relieved that someone who needed the basics got them, I judged the giver.
And here’s where the parable blows up in my face:
“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or, are you envious because I am generous?” Literally, the Greek of the text reads, “Or, is your eye evil because I am good?”
When my husband and I were traveling in Turkey, our guide gave us this amulet to protect us against the evil eye. (I showed it to the assembly.) Everyone feared the evil eye, in Hebrew, the “avin hara,” in Latin, the “Oculus Malus,” a demonic sort of snake-like witchy eye, which might look out with jealousy from under a unibrow to curse one upon whom fortune has smiled, perhaps one who is blessed with the birth of a beautiful child, or a rich harvest. The evil eye might maliciously cause the beautiful child or lucky parent to get sick or die, or the harvest to be eaten by locusts, or the milk of one’s cows to dry up! The jealous evil eye wants to carry out some disaster.
Can it be that the evil eye is who we have become? Yes! The truth of the matter is that, if we are honest about it, the root of our sinfulness is that we really ARE selfish and hard-hearted. We really don’t love our neighbors as ourselves. We want grace for ourselves, but not for others, not for those we prefer to judge. We have a chip on our shoulder. This is a dog-eat-dog world, built upon merit and pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. Have I accomplished enough, do I have enough laurels to prove who I am? It’s not easy struggling to be at the top of the heap. Better update your qualifications on Linked-In. Some workers are afraid to take vacations, lest they be found expendable. Would retirement mean I’m worthless? Who am I, if I’m not working? I certainly thought about these things before I retired.
We don’t trust God either. Not really. We are tempted to trust instead in the security of our possessions, investments, and insurance policies. And how much is enough?--Just a little more than what we have, in spite of the world’s need and our plenty. And when our closets get full, we rent a storage unit!
But 795 million people worldwide do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life. Roughly 100 million children, one out of six children in developing countries, is underweight. 66 million primary school-age children attend classes hungry across the developing world. And hunger kills more people every year than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.
This world tries to make us fear that there will not be enough unless we make it for ourselves and beat off anyone else. We do want so very much! But a truly abundant life through Holy Baptism which makes us beloved children of God is a gift of grace and providence. Our merciful God loves us in our sinfulness and frailty, just as we are. How is it that this story shows us so accurately, both the heart of God and our own spiritual poverty? On his deathbed, it is said that Martin Luther’s last words were, “We are beggars. It is true.”
Ahh, give me Jesus and joy in his heavenly and merciful kingdom! It has no pecking order, no social stratification. There is no one worthy, and yet, it is the communion of saints. Everyone belongs, shares, eats and is satisfied. All have good healthcare. Leadership is not dominance, but service. We begin to realize that all that seeking and hiring, was because the Lord of the Vineyard would be broken-hearted if he did not reach everyone. Like every loving parent, God chooses to give to the last, just as to the first and what is given will be enough.
“Is your eye evil because I am good?” Yes, the devil, the world and our sinful self know that God’s ways are not our ways. This is true. Our eye and our heart are evil. However, the violent green-eyed atheistic monster in each of us, fed on fear and greed, and ignorant of God’s faithful generosity in Christ Jesus, can be drowned in the waters of our baptism into Christ, daily if necessary, so that we can rise by grace as a new creature, filled with love, and more overflowing to share. One who truly loves us has come seeking us in love. And so we sing and plead, “You may have all the rest. Give me Jesus.”
Rev. Dr. Patricia Medley
Notes: Information about the use of the word “friend” (hetairos) comes from The Anchor Bible Commentary on Matthew. The information about the Evil Eye comes from an online jewelry outlet selling amulets, called The Jewish Gift Place. The world hunger statistics are taken from the Church World Service/CROP Hunger Walk website: www.crophungerwalk.org. (If you wish to fund-raise and walk in the Freehold CROP Hunger Walk on Sunday, October 15 at 1:30 PM, click on Freehold, NJ and register there online or call Pastor Pat at 732-822-0711.) Hymn references are to ELW #770 “Give Me Jesus.”