That's not Fair!
Exodus 16:2-15, Matthew 20:1-16 September 21, 2014
The summer after I finished seminary I worked part-time at Ravenswood Presbyterian Church on the northwest side of Chicago. I’ve shared some stories about my experience there before. Ravenswood was a very interesting congregation. In 1968 the predominately [entirely] white, English-speaking congregation merged with a Spanish-speaking congregation that was predominately Colombian. By the time I got to Ravenswood in 1990 the merger has been in place more 20 years. And certain patterns had developed.
When I arrived there about 2/3 of the members were Spanish-speaking and the rest spoke English. The pastor was bilingual, having served as a missionary in Guatemela before returning to Chicago. They often hired seminary students and recent seminary grads for part-time work, or as interns. There are a lot of seminary students in Chicago, so Ravenswood had their pick of energetic, young, bilingual people to choose from. Every time a new intern arrived, within a few months the interns were always spending more time and giving more energy and attention to the Spanish-speakers. This made perfect sense: There were more of Spanish speakers. The Sunday school was in Spanish because none of the English speakers had children in that age group; and to be honest, the Spanish speakers were more fun and lively.
I didn’t know this pattern when I arrived. After a few months I learned that the reason I was chosen for their part-time position is that I do not speak Spanish! The English speakers thought to themselves, “This one’s ours!” I want to stop here and ask a question: “Raise your hand if you’ve ever gotten a job because of a skill you didn’t have.” That’s what happened to me at Ravenswood.
One of my first days there I met Augusto Torres. Augusto was on the Session at the time. It was at coffee hour and I asked him, “What do you do?” Which is a good question to ask when you’re getting acquainted. Everybody laughed. I’m a funny guy, but I could not imagine why this was so funny. Turns out, Augusto was the anchor man for the Spanish TV station in Chicago. As a non-Spanish speaker I didn’t know that, but to all the Spanish speakers it was like asking Walter Cronkite what he does for a living.
Augusto and I got to be good friends across the language divide. About a year later he spoke at my ordination. This was a big deal. Augusto lives in Chicago and he and his wife drove all the way downstate to Peoria! He was one of two speakers to give me a charge. I will never forget how he started. “Tom, you have already been toiling in the Lord’s bean yard for several months…” Augusto grew up in Ecuador, sometimes he mixes up b’s and v’s. Ever since then I have imagined myself, not serving in the Lord’s vineyard, a place where grape are grown for wine, but in a much more humble, earthier place, the Lord’s bean yard. I grew up in a family that never drank anything harder than Kool-aid. A bean yard is a much better fit for me!
Our parable today asks us to imagine the Kingdom of heaven to be like a vineyard owner who hires what we would call today day laborers to work harvesting his grapes. Some workers work about 12 hours, others 9, other 6, others 3 and other worked only one hour. And the vineyard owner paid them all the same! We talked about this passage at last week’s Session and deacon meetings. And the reactions of your elected leaders were very revealing. Here are some of the comments people made.
Life is not fair.
The first ones hired become the lowest paid.
The land owner was not a good motivator.
Maybe he was “mathematically challenged.” As if he couldn’t be bothered to, or didn’t know how to make change.
A business owner said, “If I treated my staff that way, they’d be gone.”
A deacon said, “That’s poor employee training, and wouldn’t be good for morale.”
Someone pointed out that even when the owner explained what he had done and why, they still didn’t understand or accept it. [Hmm, does that ever happen to anyone else who tries to follow Jesus?]
Someone said that the first ones who were hired couldn’t understand generosity.
Someone else said, “The land owner’s on a power trip.”
Finally, someone said, “The lord treats us all equally.”
There were other comments, and I have to thank our deacons and ruling elders for sharing their thoughts. You have elected wise and thoughtful leaders. Their comments made me see this parable from new angles. Someone pointed out that the owner could have paid the first ones he hired first, and they never would have known that he’d paid those who worked fewer hours the same wage. So, obviously, in the parable the owner wanted there to be discussion about how he was paying his workers. Yes, that’s what we need to wonder about. And keep wondering about.
Thursday morning about 2 o’clock, I woke up with this thought, “God’s a bad business man.” Really. God is the land owner in the parable, as I see it. And no business owner would do this. It would only irritate the workers, and it’s patently unfair!
Another thing I realized after our conversations is that nearly all of the deacons and Ruling Elders identified either with the vineyard owner or the workers who were hired at the start of the day. Isn’t that revealing? Presbyterians are people who take their obligations seriously. We get to work on time. We put our noses to the grindstone. We expect to be treated fairly and we are angry when we are not treated fairly. No one even walked around in the parable as one who worked only an hour and got a full day’s wage. We would not be that person! Got it, but imagine if you were! Even imagining that was hard. It was even hard for Presbyterians to imagine getting a gracious gift. We’re much more comfortable earning than receiving. We so want things to be fair, that it’s troubling when thing are unfair in our favor. The workers in the parable complained. The leaders of this congregation also complained.
Let me say very clearly, complaining is fine! There is a long tradition of complaining in the Bible. Maybe Adam and Eve were the first ones to notice that little spot in the middle of your back that you just can’t…quite…reach. The tradition of complaining to God was well-established by the time Exodus rolled around, in fact, it was the cry of the Hebrews on account of their taskmasters that made God decide to deliver them from the Egyptians.
But you know what? They got scared. First they were scared because Pharoah’s army was going to catch them at the seaside that was the lesson last week. Then they got scared because they were hungry, which is where today’s story picks up. Not only were they scared and hungry, they were complaining against Aaron and Moses. They said, “If only we had died in Egypt…when we sat by fleshpots and ate our fill of bread! Webster’s dictionary tells me that fleshpots are “places of luxurious and unrestrained pleasure and amusement.” Now they’re under the spell of nostalgia here, or they’re completely delusional. They hated be slaves. The harsh treatment they endured started the whole escape from slavery thing. But they got hungry and scared in the wilderness. But in their fear, and their need to blame Moses, they look back on their time in Egypt like it was Club Med!
And I have to say, it’s not clear to me whether their complaining is legitimate. It’s called “grumbling” and “murmuring,” maybe they’re just complaining, not lamenting to use a stronger term. Anyway, God responds to their murmurs and acts decisively to give them….what is it? Manna! The word manna in Hebrew means “What is it?”
We can try to decide whether the Hebrews had legitimate reasons to complain, and maybe never resolve the question. What we do know is the complaining to God is acceptable. Those who went before us in faith grumbled, murmured, carped and complained…and God heard them.
The lesson in Exodus makes it clear that the gift of manna is a test to the Hebrews, if they trust God and follow God’s instructions, all will be well. If they gather more than they need for one day, if they gather more than their daily bread, it goes bad. And some of them did that. Some of them did not pass the test that the gift of manna posed to them.
But let’s not forget that the gift is a gift from God. A gift available to everyone. Those who were afraid and those who readily trusted God. Those who grumbled and complained and those who didn’t. Manna was a gracious, miraculous gift from God when they were scared and hungry. Manna fed everyone who was hungry. Not everyone who was deserving.
God is the owner of the vineyard in the parable and God chooses to be fair to some and extravagant to others. And I can’t tell you why God operates this way. The vineyard owner asks those who toiled all day for a denarius this question: “Aer you envious because I am generous?” But literally the question God poses the question this way: “Is your eye evil because I am good?”
Which of you hasn’t looked at the talent or wealth or ability or grace that someone else has and thought, “It’s not fair!” He doesn’t deserve that!”
Ok, I’ve got one final thought to share, this one also came to me about 2 in the morning. “God can afford it.” Remember in last week’s lesson, the king was so rich he could forgive the slave’s !57 million dollar debt? That’s a wealthy king, or nation! God, the owner of the field can afford to overpay the workers. God has more than enough. And God delights in being generous! Our God, the one whom Jesus Christ points us to, is a god of abundance and extravagance. And it’s hard for us, even scandalous, to imagine that God loves us so very much. But I really, really hope that you’ll try to feel God’s extravagant love as you toil in the Lord’s beanyard! Amen