The scene in today’s reading from Matthew becomes more and more familiar. People are waiting for work. Waiting to be hired. Waiting to earn a day’s wage – which in those days was just enough to feed one’s family.
The issue, then, is one of daily bread. Just like manna in the Exodus narrative. Just as in the prayer Jesus gives us when we ask him how we should pray.
“Give us this day our daily bread.” We say this every time we say the Lord’s Prayer. Does it ever occur to us just what it is we are praying for and saying? How many of us have experienced living one day to the next?
Consider what it feels like to be hired late in the day. To be hired late in the day and get less than a day’s wage means belt-tightening for the entire family. Not to mention what it does to one’s sense of self-worth to be overlooked or passed by when the hiring is being done.
To not be chosen to work creates anxiety, and the anxiety of going home empty handed becomes more and more intense as each hour passes by. Is laboring through the heat of the day any worse than having one’s hope of a meal for the family fade away as the sun begins to set in the western sky?
Even apart from the need for daily bread, work is an integral part of identity, and those denied the opportunity, whether for disability, age, or any other cause often feel a deep sense of despair and a keen lack of purpose and meaning in life. Work can be stressful, monotonous, and difficult; but to be out of work can be even worse.
The lesson in today’s gospel reading is one of extraordinary generosity and fairness. Everyone got a day’s wage. Everyone could go home and feed his or her family. Just as it was with manna, everyone got enough, no one got too much, nothing was left over.
Jesus is somehow trying to engineer a return to the wilderness sojourn, a return to manna season, a return to utter and radical dependence on God and God’s daily provisions. God makes it clear to Moses that you cannot gather the stuff up and save it for a rainy day. It goes sour on you. It spoils. It begins to crawl with worms. Take it one day at a time and all will be well.
So with Jesus, everyone is given a day’s provision, those who worked all day and those who worked just a few hours. Like any household with children, the cry of those hired early in the day is oh so familiar. “It isn’t fair!” they whine. “We were here first. We deserve more because we did more.”
And we glibly reply to our children, “Life isn’t fair.”
Or is it? What Jesus seems to be getting at is that what is fair and what is just, is established by God, not by our standards of merit. What is being discussed, as usual, is God’s kingdom – life lived under the reign of God – a God who is generous to a fault, a God whose generosity offends us and baffles us.
The temptation is always to believe that somehow those who come to the vineyard first and early are more deserving to stake a higher claim on God’s generosity, love, and forgiveness. The temptation is to believe that we can really earn the right to more than bread that is given daily. An even worse temptation is to think that it is always too late to accept the Master’s invitation to work in God’s vineyard.
The good news is that God’s grace is so great and so surprising that it can provide enough no matter how late in the day it is – on the deathbed, in the jail cell, after repeated failures – because the recipient need not add anything to the grace, but simply receive it in order for it to do its life-sustaining work. Even as the sun sets on this life, it is not too late to accept God’s Amazing Grace.
And it is never too soon for the rest of us to begin to consider that heaven is “enough,” heaven’s daily bread and heaven’s daily wage make all earthly comparisons look meaningless and silly.
We are called to be those people who pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and really make an effort to live that out. To live life in God’s kingdom is a journey to return to manna season.
One suspects this journey begins with being as generous toward God and others as God is with us. After all, there must be some reason that God has created us in God’s own image. As John 3:16 states, 'God so loved the world that God gave his only son.' We are created to love and to give. And to be as surprisingly generous with our giving to God and to others as God is with us.