Year A — The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20)

Commentary for September 18, 2011
Click here for today’s readings

Exodus 16:2-15
In evaluating the Exodus text for this day, it is insightful to remember that the Hebrew Bible’s “hymnbook” — the book of Psalms — is filled primarily with two types of songs to the Lord. There are the psalms of praise (such as the glorious Psalm 100 — “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord!”) and there are the psalms of lament, sometimes known as complaint (ya gotta love Psalm 6:3 — “My soul is in deep anguish. How long, LORD, how long?”) I often ask Bible study groups which type they would expect to predominate in the book of Psalms, and the answer is almost always, “Well, praise of course!”

Wrong again, bucko! The lament, or complaining psalms outnumber the praise songs by a considerable margin.

All of which helps us to understand the situation Moses (and Yahweh) are dealing with here. Are the Israelites happy and thankful for all that has happened to them? We are, after all, only a chapter or two removed from the deliverance at the Red Sea and a truly “mighty act of God” in obliterating Pharaoh’s army.

No, true to human nature, they begin to complain and lament — remembering how delicious it was by the “fleshpots of Egypt.” (Not sure that sounds all that tempting to me, but hey — the memory tends to magnify whatever it is we don’t currently possess.)

Of course, this is the setup to the miracle of the manna — I’ve always loved that little word play in Hebrew, the fact that manna means “what is it?” And I suppose there’s something to be said here for the fact that the God who appeared in such awesome power at the Red Sea is also willing and patient enough to bless his grumbling people as they wander in the wilderness.

How long, O Lord, indeed?

Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45
Psalm 105 fits the description (see above) of a psalm of praise; once again, we are reminded of God’s presence in the cloud and the fire. It is a tenacious presence, enduring all sorts of travail and difficulty. It is also a patient presence, enduring all manner of our doubt and sometime faithlessness to feed our bodies and our souls.

Jonah 3:10-4:11
Jonah, the pouting prophet, who was upset that God proved to be “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” Jonah much preferred the vengeful, angry God who does things like bury horses and riders in the sea!

But, that’s God for you! God was awfully honest with Moses that day at the burning bush: “I AM WHO I AM….” God will be who and what God will be; God always chooses God’s own response. (Exodus 3:14)

And besides, if any of us get pouty and decide we don’t want any part of God’s work of redemption in the world — God can always use a worm instead!

Psalm 145:1-8
The psalm connects God’s worthiness to be praised with the fact that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

Id est — praise, don’t pout!

Philippians 1:21-30
Most of us preachers — and, no doubt, most of those who fill our pews — have experienced the dilemma Paul outlines in this text. Some days, we would just as soon cash it in and go on to whatever reward awaits us in the life after this life. That might be relief from pain and suffering, or the joy of hearing the Master’s “well done, good and faithful servant.”

But, as long as we draw another breath, it is apparently more needful that we “remain in the flesh.” Living with Christ in eternity is the better place; however, living for Christ in my present circumstance is my calling, my privilege and the commitment that I will seek to fulfill.

Even if I am prone to the occasional, “How long, O Lord?” (see how handy those laments are?)

Matthew 20:1-16
There are very few of Jesus’ stories or parables that invade our sense of fairness more than this one. If we are ever likely to join the hearers gathered in the crowd that day in a sputter or a shout, it is after the “punch line” of this jewel of an illustration.

Aren’t there those times when you would like to argue with the text…say to Jesus, “I just don’t think that’s right!” We want to stick up for the poor guys who got in too soon and worked all day on the cheap. And those laggards that showed up and got a whole day’s pay for just an hour or so of work? Who do they think they are?

Well, they are blessed by the generosity of the master, evidently. It is true that everyone got the wages they agreed to, despite what we may think of as fair or unfair.

Again, I refer you to Dr. Chilton’s treatment in the sermon below; he has given us a pretty good payoff line, as well. “God’s generosity is not tied to any of our human notions of fairness or equity.”

How long, O Lord? Hopefully, forever.
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

When Jesus tells a parable, he often uses many of the story-telling techniques that are vital to telling a joke.
In a joke you usually start out with a reasonable situation; then you gradually make it less believable so that people can’t be sure where you’re going. You drop subtle hints that the joke will turn out one way, and then you spring the twist, the revelatory surprise.
In the parable of the vineyard Jesus starts with a reasonable situation, then begins to slowly build toward the surprise, the twist that makes his point.
This story of workers and wages is not about economics, or farm management, or even human relations; it is about the incredible grace of God.
The story really begins in Chapter 19 after Jesus tells the rich young ruler to give away all that he has for the kingdom.
Peter overhears this and brags to Jesus, “Look, we gave up everything and followed you; what then will we have?
I imagine Jesus getting a somewhat pained look on his face and then saying with a crooked smile, “Hey, Peter, did you hear the one about?”
There was this man who owned a small vineyard. He needed some workers so he went into town around dawn and went down to the corner where all the unemployed guys hang out. He talked to a few of them and hired them. (The set-up; a reasonable situation)
As the day goes by the vineyard owner keeps going back to town to hire more people, at 9 at noon, at 3 in the afternoon. All he says is, “I’ll pay you what’s right.”
No money amount is mentioned. (Less reasonable, but building to “punch-line.)
Then, a really crazy thing happens that upsets the “reasonableness” of the story. The owner goes back to town and hires still more workers with only an hour to go in the workday, again saying “I’ll pay you what’s right.” (Nobody does that, what’s going on here?)
Then we have the pay-off scene. Jesus has set us in the minds of his hearers and in our minds the idea that since this is a story of God’s generosity, and since we have an assumption that God is fair; then, we think, whoever worked all day will make the most and the ones hired last will make the least.
So when the ones who only worked an hour get a full day’s wage, why there is jubilation in the camp, there is joy, joy, joy, deep in their hearts. Glory Hallelujah, Christmas has come early this year.
Everybody is multiplying their hours in the vineyard against a day’s wage and coming up with some goodly sums. Then they start listening, what, what did he say? That can’t be right. Everybody gets a day’s wage. But, but, we were out there all day, and these people were only out there an hour. This is not fair.
And the owner said, “Why isn’t it fair? I paid you what I said I would pay you.”
Now Jesus is not naive, he knows this sort of thing wouldn’t work in the real world. No employer is likely to really do that.
No, Jesus is using the stark unfairness of the story to teach one basic truth:
God’s generosity is not tied to any of our human notions of fairness or equity.
The whole story was told in response to Peter’s question about what rewards the disciples would get for giving up everything and following Jesus.
Underneath Peter’s question is the assumption that somehow those who serve longest and best receive more rewards than those who serve short term and poorly.
We think like that sometimes, don’t we? We say, “Well, if anybody’s in heaven, it’ll be old so-and-so. What a genuinely good guy he is.” as is salvation had anything to do with human goodness.
Jesus takes this assumption and turns it upside down with this parable.
He reminds us that God is both good and fair, but god is good and fair on God’s terms, not ours.
Friend, I am doing you no wrong, did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?
We have, Jesus shows us here, an almost unstoppable capacity for figuring our own advantage in almost any situation.
And the Gospel is; thank God, God doesn’t calculate things the way we do.
God figures our merits with a calculus of grace that is far beyond anything we can comprehend except to know that God’s love is so overwhelming and generous that all we can do is receive it into our lives and share it with others without trying to figure out how we earned it or whether or not others are worthy.
Amen and amen.


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