Receiving the Gifts (Exodus 16:2-15; Jonah 3:10-4:11; Matthew. 20:1-16)
In a few minutes we’ll sing a hymn about God’s eternal giving of gifts enumerated as “nature’s wonder, Jesus’ wisdom, costly cross, grave’s shattered door.” And we know that these are but some of God’s gifts. Here’s the thing: from our human standpoint it’s often difficult to recognize these gifts, let alone receive them or respond to them. Our passages today all help us to think about receiving the gifts, mostly by negative example.
In the introductory passage from the Book of Exodus, the Israelites – after being out of slavery about six weeks – were “complaining” to Moses and Aaron that life out of Egypt wasn’t at all like life in Egypt. Most of us don’t like change, and when we’re put into new situations we sometimes contrast the old and familiar with the new and unfamiliar as good (old), bad (new). Remember that they were actually contrasting the old slavery with the new freedom.
The Hebrew text uses a special word for their complaining that is, pretty much, reserved only for this story and a parallel one in the book of Numbers. The old translation is murmur. It means to whine, to moan. The form of the Hebrew verb here may be translated something like “they allowed themselves to murmur.” In Maritime Canada they might say, “they worked themselves into a right snit.” They sighed and whined, “We can almost smell the meat cooking back in Egypt.” Last week, when I was working on this passage, Maxine cooked stew in the crockpot all day long, and, every time I came into the house I felt slightly Israelite in wishing it could be supper time. The Israelites said, “We remember how that meat smelled and how we used to eat bread until we were stuffed.” In a parallel story in Numbers chapter 11, the Israelites also remember the leeks, onions and melons of Egypt. “It’s too bad we couldn’t have died then, because at least we could have died with full stomachs. Now, in this wretched place, we’ll have to die of starvation.” Their description of Egypt was an exaggeration, but it does point to what God is about to give them, an abundance of quail and another gift. They looked at it and asked, perhaps a little like a four year old: “What is it?” or “What is that?” which is what the word manna means. Later on, in the Book of Numbers they would call it “this manna.” Sometimes folks look at the gift of God’s grace and say, “What is it?” The line from the Rolling Stones’ song comes to mind: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try some time, you may find, you get what you need. The Hebrews didn’t necessarily get what they wanted, but what they needed.
The central lesson is a parable from Jesus, which is a story that makes us think by pulling us up short. “Really?” You’re kidding!” “I don’t understand this, it doesn’t make sense.” This story is about an employer and some workers. The employer gives generously, and the workers complain because, they’d rather settle for what’s fair than what’s generous. Maybe generosity is OK, as long as others don’t get more of it than they do. They don’t recognize that God isn’t fair. God is generous. Good thing!
This employer is headed for economic disaster because he paid all the workers the same no matter how long they worked. We might critique the economics here, but the story isn’t really about either that or labour relations. In fact the story isn’t about what it seems to be about at all. The opening words tell us what it’s about. They are “the kingdom of heaven is like…,” which is Matthew’s way of talking about how people live when God’s in charge. Matthew tells us that to understand what the Kingdom of Heaven is like we have to understand what God is like. In the story, Jesus implied that God is like a landowner who goes into the village marketplace to add workers for the harvest of his vineyard. It would have been a necessity in Jesus’ day for that landowner go looking for workers, because, even with peasants or a step below, day labourers, no one went looking for work. These folk were beneath the status of the landowner and couldn’t ask. In that culture, landowners had to ask.
The “normal day’s wage” was one denarius (a common Roman silver coin). They agreed. The day was long, the work was heavy, and the crops were abundant, and many workers were needed. So the landowner kept going to the marketplace to invite more workers. The second time it was for “whatever is right,” which can be understood as the standard wage (what’s right in the landowner’s eyes will become clear later). Every time the landowner discovers a need for more workers, he goes back and invites more to work. Finally, about an hour before quitting time, he goes back one more time. there’s but one group left. He asks, “Why have you been standing here waiting all day?” They say: “Because no one has hired us,” which, as I said, would be culturally necessary. The workers were not lazy!
The landowner gives a full day’s pay to everyone whether they began work at 6:00 a.m. or 5:00 p.m. He also paid the last workers first, while the first workers watched. When those who had broken their backs in the vineyard all day saw it, their first thought may have been that, if he paid a full day’s wage for one hour, they’d get a bundle. But when they got the exact same amount, they complained loudly (reminds us of Israel in the first story, and maybe, of most of us) “It’s not fair!” We have blisters and sore backs for the same amount as those guys who only worked one hour after the worst heat was over. It’s not fair!” Here’s where the parable hooks us with “I don’t get it.”
The landowner reminded those first workers that they’d agreed to work for the standard day’s wage, and all of them had gotten exactly that. No less. No more. So it was perfectly fair. In fact everyone had gotten the same wage. “Can’t I do what I want with what is my own?” What he said next is literally, “or are you giving me the evil eye because I’m good?” The “evil eye” was a powerful belief in Jesus’ day that energy came out of the eyes as the “windows of the soul.” If the person looked on another enviously, greedily, jealously, lustfully, it would make the person they saw just that way, too. People did what was necessary to avoid the evil eye, including wearing charms, etc. The landowner was saying, “Are you trying to bring me down to the level of being merely fair when it is my aim to be generous?”
Again, let’s remember how the parable begins. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” This isn’t what it’s like here where fairness is the best we can get or give. This is what it’s like when God’s in charge, and God’s values call the shots. God goes beyond being fair to being gracious. In God’s economy there’s something better than the bottom line, there’s something more important than incentives and rewards, more credible than principles of capitalism. What’s important in the Kingdom of Heaven is God’s passion to include everybody inside the vineyard. God will not stop going out into the marketplace until all have been brought inside: the poor, the imperfect, the sick, the uneducated, right beside the rich, the gifted, the talented, the beautiful, the able and the brilliant. God wants them all in the vineyard. That’s what the kingdom of heaven is like.
The problem of mistaking fairness for the highest good can affect congregations very deeply. It’s easy for those who have worked the longest and hardest, to think that preserving their own status and their own rights is only fair, and more important than enjoying the beauty of the vineyard, the benefits of being employed, and the company of those with whom and for whom they work, which is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. Sometimes are those of us who have been at church things the longest the most resistant to new folks coming in, and getting same reward we do right from the get-go – without all our work. They haven’t paid their dues. It’s not fair! Let them wait!
The Jonah story gives one last take on the same God and the same kind of resistance from God’s people. This story extends the point since Jonah’s God even wants to include the most wicked people of the time, the Assyrians in their capital city of Nineveh within the community of faith. I say it extends the point because there couldn’t have been any group of people who were less deserving as recipients of God’s generosity than these. They were world-renowned for their cruelty to those they conquered. They were the super-power that eliminated the northern 10 tribes of Israel from the earth. And God said, “Even the Assyrians.” Jonah had refused even to go to Nineveh because he was opposed to those awful people being a part of God’s family in the same way he was. He ran to the other side of the world to keep him from having to give them a chance, and ended up in the belly of a fish for his own small-mindedness. When he finally was “convinced” to go to Nineveh as the great fish belched him up on an Assyrian beach, and was actually successful, he was so mad he asked God to kill him, not once, but twice. Jonah basically said the same thing as the workers in the vineyard: “I’ve earned a bigger reward than they have because I’ve done it right and they haven’t, I’ve believed the right stuff, they haven’t. They’re bad, and I won’t have it that God loves them, too, and wants us to treat one another as family. It’s not right or fair that they get it as good as I do from God. It would be as if God told us to buddy up with North Korea, Al Qaida and the folks at ISIS. Really!? Afraid so.
Long ago now, when one of my grown-up nieces was very small, her family was celebrating her younger sister’s birthday. She watched her sibling receiving many gifts, and said: “Well, what about me?” Taken together, do not these three biblical stories tell us that how we receive God’s gifts to us is a key to their wise use? One of the reasons we, like the Israelites in the wilderness, do not recognize God’s gifts is that we think they’re solely for us. These biblical stories teach us that the way to be God’s people is to imitate God in actions to include others in the vineyard, others who are not like us.
God is inclusive in love and mercy. God is not as concerned with fairness as with generosity and grace. I sometimes have people ask me, “Where’s God today in all the mess of the world”? My quick answer to that is “Yes, that’s exactly where God is!” In all the mess with hurricanes, floods, North Korea, Al Qaida, and ISIS. Jesus’ parable would suggest that God is out in the mess of the marketplace being gracious and inclusive inviting people to work in the vineyard. Some of us apparently forgot that God is eternally out there being generous. Some seem to think we’ll find God safely locked up in here being fair. No, the God of Jesus’ story and Moses’ and Jonah’s, and the whole Bible will never be locked up in an institution, no matter how holy. God will never be satisfied until all folk have been brought into God’s embrace in the vineyard. Receiving God’s gifts means recognizing that they are for enabling us to go out and share the gifts with the widest world.
God knows that the greatest joy in the kingdom of heaven is enjoying the vineyard with an innumerable throng of colours, races, peoples, tongues, backgrounds, preferences, politics, economic situations, on and on and on. The design of the Almighty is that we share that joy with God. Might we begin to do that in a simple way by trying to transcend mere fairness and treating others with grace and generosity? In the words of Paul in Philippians 1, “Stand firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.” That faith goes beyond mere fairness to grace as we go with God and with Jesus into the world to include others, echoing the God who says, in Jesus’ name, “You and you, and you also, welcome to my vineyard.”
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.