September 15, 2008

Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

A Hand Out

Exodus 16:2-15
Matthew 20:1-16

If you are not disturbed by this reading from the gospel, then you must not be paying attention. It is so counter-cultural for most of us -- down-right un-American. What Jesus is talking about is not the way the world is supposed to be. We believe that you should be rewarded for hard work and good behavior, that merit matters. What kind of a place would the university be, for example, if anybody and everybody could get in? And how about the work required of students? Imagine that you spend eight hours working on a problem set, your roommate spends thirty minutes and makes lots of errors, and you both get the same credit. Or you write a term paper that is twenty pages long with 35 citations, and your classmate turns in two-pages – double spaced – with no references and you both get an A. Not fair, right. Those who work harder ought to get rewarded for that. Those who produce should benefit. That’s the way the world is.

But Jesus tells it differently. He speaks of a world with a different set of rules. He speaks of the world of the kingdom of heaven.

A landowner – we’ll call him Robert Mondavi – goes out to hire some day laborers to pick grapes. He goes early, before 6:00 in the morning, before someone else gets all the most able-bodied and best workers. He sets those he hires to work with a promise to pay them the usual daily wage. But Mr. Mondavi must have a lot of grapes to pick because he goes back to hire more folks at 9:00 and again at noon and yet again at 3:00. He tells these additional workers that he will pay them what is right.

Finally, at 5:00 he goes back one more time to the Napa Valley equivalent of the New Haven Green and finds some folks just standing around doing nothing. You know who they are. They are the ones who might have wanted to work but they were too old or too young or too slow or too weak. They are the ones who were hung-over at 6:00 in the morning and couldn’t get out of bed. They are the ones who didn’t have a car and couldn’t get downtown to look for work. They are the ones who maybe can’t make more working than they get in their government checks, so they can’t really afford a full-time job. In other words, they are the ones that nobody in his right mind would hire. These folks are not productive. They are the ones usually just looking for a hand-out. But Mr. Mondavi seems to be lacking in judgment. He sends these folks to work anyway, even if it is only for an hour or so.

At the end of the day, all the workers line up for their pay. For some reason, our vineyard owner puts the welfare moms and the winos at the head of the line. And what do you know: those folks get a full day’s pay even though they only put in barely an hour and really didn’t break a sweat doing that.

Well. You can imagine the stir this causes up and down the line. The ones who have worked really hard, who have been there all day, the productive ones, are all excited, thinking about
how much more they will get since they have worked so much more –ten or twelve times more. There they are in line, mentally spending all that extra money, that money they deserve since they have worked more than the Johnny-come-latelies. Then, they get to the head of the line and put a hand out for their wages and what they get – is just what everybody else gets.

What an injustice! Everybody gets treated equally regardless of individual effort or the worth of one’s contribution. What kind of a system is this? You can understand their complaint, can’t you? It’s not fair. What kind of business owner would act like this? What kind of God would act like this? It makes no sense to those of us at the back of the line.

But maybe we should not be too surprised by this behavior. God has been engaging in these irrational acts since the very beginning. Out in the wilderness, the people complained because their new life was not to their liking. They had been freed from slavery, delivered from Egypt, they had seen the guiding hand of God, and they had the nerve to complain about the menu.
And how does God reward that ingratitude? By blotting them out from the face of the earth? By leaving them to their own devices? By sending them back to the fleshpots of Pharaoh? No. God gives them quail and manna, food in abundance. They don’t even need to work for it. It falls from heaven almost right into their hands. Do they deserve such generosity? No. No more than the day laborers in the vineyard, the ones who came in the morning and the ones who came at the eleventh hour.

That is how God is. God does not deal with any of us as we deserve. God is not controlled by our behavior. God acts in freedom, complete freedom. We do not convince God to hand out favors by doing good deeds, nor do we earn God’s wrath by our personal failures. The world may work that way but that’s not what we’re talking about here. What we are talking about here is grace.

Frederick Buechner, explains it like this:

Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth. …

A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.

The grace of God means something like this: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.

There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. [And] maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.
(Buechner, pp 38-39, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC)

That is grace. And in the kingdom of heaven, it is all grace – the gift itself and the giving of the gift and the ability to receive it. It is all grace. But how does that work in the world where we live?

For the past few weeks, we have watched the horror of the aftermath of several hurricanes. We have seen death, destruction and loss -- here at home and in neighboring island nations. We have seen people who have lost everything. And somehow, it seems, that the ones who lose the most are those how have the least to start with. The poor, the sick, the marginalized all seem to be hardest hit somehow. Just as in New Orleans three years ago -- all the least and the last and the lost, herded together and abandoned in the midst of what seemed like total destruction. Did they deserve that -- that kind of suffering and pain, that kind of devastation? No, of course not. That’s just how things are, isn’t is? Those who have the wherewithal to get of town do. Those who can afford generators have power. Those who lose a beach house have another house, or two, on higher ground. And the poor suffer disproportionately, but, unfortunately, that’s just the way the world works.

But remember this: it is not the way the kingdom of heaven works. It is not the way God is. In God’s eyes, we are all equal. We are not entitled to more because we have earned it. We do not get special blessings because we are smarter or richer or willing to work harder than others.

You see, the truth of the matter is this: we are all equal. God would give us what God would give everybody – the abundance of enough. Everything we have is a hand-out – a holy hand-out, given to us by the grace of God.

In the world out there, you will still have to compete. You will have to work hard, study hard, strive to be better than somebody else. That’s a reality. But it is not the sole/soul reality. Remember that you also live in the world of the kingdom of heaven – a world where everyone is equal, everyone is loved, everyone has enough. That is God’s way of doing things, God’s irrational grace.

And if we would be godly people, we would seek to embody that grace in our own lives: to see all others as we see ourselves, as valued, as precious, as loved; to promote an irrational equality; to understand that no matter what we give away we will still have enough.

It is hard to live in these two worlds, in the tension between the ways are and the way things are meant to be. We cannot do it on our own. We can only do it by God’s grace.

When we come to God's Table with our hands out, it is God who gives us bread – our daily bread. When we travel through our own wilderness, it is God who supplies the manna. When we are talented and bright and energetic and hard-working, God loves us just as much as God loves any other human being – but not more.

All that we are and all that we have are gifts from God. Open your hands and your hearts, and share God’s grace to you. In this time of offering, give abundantly. Give without expecting reward. Give in the same irrational way that God has given to you. And reach your hand out and receive more grace than you can ever deserve.

© Martha C. Highsmith

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