Wednesday, 17 September 2014

“Are you envious because I am generous?”: a sermon (Matthew 20:1-16)

My encounter with this passage of scripture is related to my time as an undergraduate student, at Lafayette College, in the town of Easton, in the state of Pennsylvania.  When I was a student at Lafayette, almost every day I walked past words from this passage on the front of a large classroom building.  These words were elegantly carved for all to see - in marble, and in King James English:  “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?”

The student folklore during the 1970’s when I was a student was that the biblical quote was put there as a political and economic statement.  The building was constructed in the 1930’s, during the Depression, during the era of Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal”.   The student folklore during my time at Lafayette - and I’m not really sure how true the folklore was - was that the donor of the building to the college chose the quote as a criticism of Roosevelt’s “New Deal” policies and as a celebration of free-market economics at its most unrestrained.  “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?”

But this, I believe, was not what Jesus was talking about in this passage.  It’s not about economic systems, whether the systems are market, command, or mixed.  This passage, if anything, turns one of the key concepts of any school of economics on its head:  the idea that every commodity - including labour - has a price, and that these prices can be set with some degree of logic and consistency.  Instead, the workers all received the same pay, even though they put in very different quantities of work, varying from 12 hours to one hour.  We may find more of Marx than of Ayn Rand in the economics of this parable; but then, if we do, the Marx is not Karl but Groucho.

Most of you are familiar with the story.  A vineyard owner hired some day labourers at the beginning of the day.  Throughout the day, he kept hiring more labourers.  In fact, the last group he hired really put in only one hour’s work.  At the end of the day, he paid them all, beginning with the ones hired last and ending with those who worked all day.  When those who worked only an hour received a full day’s pay, the others began to imagine what a fantastic bonus they’d receive.  But they, too, only received the same thing as the others:  a day’s pay.  When they grumbled, the vineyard owner replied:  “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”

Or, as it says in the marble carving:  “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?”

But then the vineyard owner continued with a quote that wasn’t found on the building:  “Or are you envious because I am generous?”

And I believe that these words are the key to the story:  “Are you envious because I am generous?”  If the vineyard owner is seen as a symbol of God, these words are a celebration
·        of God’s great generosity,
·        of God’s great patience,
·        of God’s great love,
extended to all people. 

Now, some religious people, particularly the more religious sort of religious people, may be uncomfortable with this image of God’s generosity being extended to all people:
·        the fervently religious and the not-so-religious ... equally,
·        the strictly moral and the not-so-moral ... equally;
but it’s a powerful image we find in this lesson.

So the exchange between the vineyard owner and the all-day workers regarding the one-hour wonders can be seen as a comment on God’s response
·        when religious people scorn those who are not-so-religious, or
·        when moral people scorn those who are not-so-moral: 
“Are you envious because I am generous?”

There are some religious people who are powerfully offended with the idea of God’s radical grace and overflowing generosity here. 
·        There are those who, it seems, resent God’s generosity. 
·        There are those who act as if their own status before God is somehow diminished if God also welcomes others who didn’t work quite so hard - or even didn’t work much at all - at their faith. 
·        There are those whose response to a more inclusive view of God’s love is somewhat like the child’s eternal battle-cry of “It’s not fair!” 

But for all people of faith - whether we gather in churches, synagogues, or mosques – God challenges us to realise that this is just the way God is:   persistently generous and radically inclusive.

And, in the midst of it all, we keep hearing God’s persistent question:  “Are you envious because I am generous?”

Jesus summed up the story by saying, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

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