Sermons That Work

The Scene in Matthew, Proper 20 (A) – 2008

September 21, 2008

The scene in Matthew is becoming 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.

To be hired late in the day and get less than a day’s wages 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.

The lesson here is one of extraordinary generosity. 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. “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 and saying? How many of us have experienced living one day to the next? People who do, come to our church doors every day hoping we have listened to Jesus tell this story – and that we believe it.

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 starts crawling with worms and moths. 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 cries of those hired early in the day are oh-so-familiar. “It isn’t fair!” they whine. “We were there first. We deserve more because we did more.” And we glibly reply, “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, qualifications, and grounds for staking a claim. 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.

As Marguerite Shuster observes in The Lectionary Commentary:

“Grace is not grace if it is qualified by superior virtue in the recipient. Sinners are not sinners if some are less dependent on grace than others. Besides, if one has enough oneself … why would one even want more than someone else, unless out of some sense of pride and self-righteousness? That it seems odd to put the question that way – so normal, so natural, is our desire to want more – shows the depth of our sin. The more we insist on our tit-for-tat way of thinking, the more baffled and angry we will be at God’s whole way of dealing with us.”

Again, consider what it feels like to be hired late in the day with the anxiety of going home empty handed intensifying as each hour passes by. Is even 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 creation, and those denied the opportunity, whether for disability, age, or any other cause, must feel a deeper 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.

I think of all the people who leave home each day, briefcase or tool box in hand, pretending to go to work long after they have been laid off. They cannot face telling their families that they no longer have a job. We are tempted to say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

The temptation is always to assume God serves our sense of what is fair, our sense of “justice.” The temptation is always to believe that somehow those who come to the vineyard first and early are more deserving and have stake to 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’s “enough,” heaven’s daily bread, and heaven’s daily wages make all earthly comparisons look meaningless and silly.

Jesus’ assurance that the last shall be first and the first shall be last is tied to manna season, and settling for bread and wages that are given daily. 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.

Jesus seems to be announcing a great reversal of places in the kingdom. The New Testament calls this “turning the world upside down.” People outside the church in the first centuries called Christians “those people who are turning the world upside down.” Go figure!

So if 10 is Bill Gates or the Sultan of Brunei, and 1 is the poorest of the poor, it has been suggested that those who are really clever will live around number 5. That way, when it all turns upside down, they will feel the least amount of disruption in their lives.

Manna season: when everyone has enough, no one has too much. If you store it up, it sours on you. The world lived at number 5.

Sounds easy! But on a global and even national scale, most of us are living conservatively at number 9, except on April 15 when we pay our taxes and attempt to argue ourselves down to an 8.5. Looked at from this perspective, the journey to number 5 looks like a long, long journey. But, says Jesus, it is the journey to life lived in its fullest!

One suspects this journey begins with being as generous to others as God is with us. After all, there must be some reason that God has created us in God’s own image. And as John 3:16 states, “God so loved the world that God gave … .”

God loves and God gives. We are created in God’s image. We are created to love and to give. And to be as surprisingly generous with others as God is with us.

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Christopher Sikkema


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