September 24, 2024

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

September 21, 2023

The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

From the Gospel according to Matthew, “(The landowner said), “…Are you envious because I am generous?” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

    I have to admit that every time this particular parable from the Gospel according to Matthew comes up in our Lectionary cycle, I automatically look at it from the viewpoint of the workers. Perhaps it’s my background in human resources,  but on the surface this story seems so unfair. After all, shouldn’t those who work harder or longer receive more, or perhaps a bonus? I know I think so. And I think it human nature that some people do think themselves more highly valued than anyone else and, therefore, their work should receive a larger share in compensation. So, on the surface, this story does seem to support inequity and unfairness.

But once more, as we have discovered over and again, scripture always offers a deeper message than what appears on the surface. And this particular parable of Jesus is no different. As my colleague, the Rev. Rick Morley says, “This parable does sound ‘unfair’ to our ears … if we’re looking out for ourselves first … (but) what if our main concern was for someone else to get ahead? … Then, this parable would be amazing. This parable would be exactly what we are looking for.”[1]

And the depth of this story begins to unfold when this maligned landowner cuts to the real heart of the issue. After clarifying that no one has been cheated and everyone has received what they agreed to be paid, he asks, “…Are you envious because I am generous?” That is the crux of the matter here. It’s not that the workers were cheated or not paid, but rather, they felt they should have received more than those who arrived later. And I guess that would be true if, indeed, this story was about us, about our rewards, about our labor.

But there is even more depth to this story if we realize that this story, this parable, is not about work or pay at all. The real complaint from the workers who put in a full day’s labor wasn’t about pay, but rather, about this: “You have made - these late comers – equal to us.” That’s the harder message here. There is a sense of entitlement that those who worked harder and longer should be more highly favored. But remember this parable is not about work. It is about the Kingdom of God and, more specifically, God’s grace. And when considered in that context, this parable offers a much more difficult and challenging lesson for the Church today.

     See, Jesus taught that in God’s kingdom, regardless of when we enter through heaven’s pearly gates or simply the church doors; regardless of when we come home; each of us receives the same measure of grace as anyone else. Such is the way of God and, as the landowner really asks, “Is not God allowed to do what God chooses to do with what belongs to God?” God welcomes everyone home regardless of when they arrived, regardless of who they are, regardless of how much work they have done or not done. Frankly, as one who came late to faith in Jesus Christ as Lord, I rejoice that I received and continue to receive the same grace as those who came before me and who will come after me: that like you, I am a member of God’s family, blessed with an equal share of God’s mercy just like everyone else because we are equal children of God.

But you know, complaining and exalting one’s self above others seems to be human nature. We all want to do better: to have more things to give; more influence; more skills and abilities, and these are admirable desires, but not when they come at the expense of someone else. We are to love our neighbor as our equal in God’s sight.

     The people of Israel saw firsthand time and again, God’s mighty acts of deliverance. And yet, as soon as things became difficult, many of them often whined and complained. “Oh you should have left us in Egypt. Why did you bring us here?” In today’s Old Testament reading, Moses says be careful now because you are not complaining against me or Aaron, but rather, complaining against God. And that’s the truth. And yet, our reading concludes with an amazing affirmation about God’s grace: God still provided what was needed in spite of all the whining and complaining. God’s graceful provision of food is a lesson for all who claim to be God’s people: God always provides! And all God asks in return is that we simply trust in God and share what we have. Our reading from Exodus reminds us God’s grace is never earned: it is a gift of God freely given – that’s what makes it grace.

     You know, I was raised in an Evangelical tradition that taught every good deed we performed would result in a “jewel being added to our heavenly crown.” So, my friends and I would try to outdo each other to earn a bigger and more beautiful crown so that everyone in heaven would know we were the better Christians. Talk about a messed-up theology! Christians don’t offer works of mercy, works of grace, good works, in order to earn something or win a prize. We don’t give in order to receive. Remember: God’s grace cannot be earned: It is always a gift of God. Grace that can be calculated or measured out or earned is not grace at all. No. We choose to do good works because when we house, feed, clothe, visit and welcome all in need, we serve Jesus Christ. The gospel is not about personal rewards. It is about God’s grace that enables one to experience a new life with God in Christ, a new life of equal blessing and unity with all who believe.

     St. Paul, in today’s reading from his letter to the Philippians, says, “Live your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ.” In other words, your life might be the only Bible someone reads. Here, Paul reminds the church that the gospel doesn’t make distinctions about who is welcome, and neither should we. And yet, that is exactly what God’s people have tried to do. Church history is rife with judgements about who is welcome, who fits the rules, how the gospel should be lived, or who is worthy of God’s grace. In many ways, the Church has become the very religious authorities Jesus criticized for perverting God’s justice and mercy. Paul says those who live the gospel stand firm in one spirit – that spirit of reconciliation and grace – that spirit of hospitality that not only welcomes, but embraces everyone especially the stranger, the late-comer, the person who is different from us. Those who live the gospel, Paul says, work together side by side, not grumbling or complaining like we heard in Exodus or in Matthew. Paul says that those who live the Gospel are of one mind – not so we can feel good, but rather, so that, at all times, we demonstrate God’s grace-filled generosity and welcome.

And in all honesty, I think that the only way to demonstrate God’s grace-filled generosity and welcome at all times is for us to adopt the mindset of God. And that is Jesus’ point. That is Paul’s point. That is Moses’ point. When it comes to God’s kingdom, there is no pecking order, no privilege other than dwelling forever as equals in the presence of the God of grace and mercy no matter when, or how we got there. That is why it’s called amazing grace.

     The landowner asked, “Are you envious because I am generous?” That really is a difficult question to answer. If Paul is right and we should live and be like Christ and celebrate God’s generous mercy, love and grace to all creation, then there is no room for envy or exclusion. No room for it in God’s kingdom, in us, and certainly no room for it in the Church. The laborers in our reading from Matthew resented others being considered equal and that is the dreadful struggle all Christians still face today. That sense of being more holy or right has done more to split the Body of Christ than any theological disagreement. Jesus says, in the kingdom of God, those who think themselves as first will find themselves in last place. The grace in that reality, the really good news is that even then they, we, are still welcomed as equal citizens of God’s kingdom even if we are the last to come through the doors. The reality that God includes and welcomes us home in spite of ourselves, in spite of myself, is yet another example of God’s generous mercy and grace.

     You know, the Psalmist says that God’s people go forth with gladness and shouts of joy at God’s generosity. My prayer is that this community of the Holy Cross, may with one mind and spirit, go forth rejoicing and shouting that God’s grace is offered equally to anyone. All anyone they do is come. And when they do come, let us embrace them like and as the equal children of God they already are. Amen.


[1] Rick Morley, Reflections on Matthew 20:1-16