Genesis 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-20; Matthew 20:1-16.
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox
When I was in seminary in Austin, a Friday tradition was to go to The Posse for lunch. The Posse was a pub a couple of blocks from the campus, right down the hill. We would all head down after morning classes and get a burger and a beer. And maybe another beer. And then it would be time to leave…except you had to walk UP hill from the Posse to get back to the campus. So it was often easier to just stay and have yet another beer. Or two.
One such afternoon, I was listening to a group of my classmates complain about one of the professors. Then they complained about all of the professors. And then they complained about the library staff. And the food in the cafeteria. And anything else they could think of to complain about. Finally I got up to leave, and announced “I am officially renaming you all the Gripe and Moan Society—you’ve done nothing else for the last forty-five minutes!” I don’t think they even recognized what they were doing. It had just gotten so easy somehow, to sit and grumble.
There’s an awful lot of griping and moaning and carrying on in our readings this morning The children of Israel complain to Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. “You should have left us in Egypt—at least there we had something to eat!” They have already forgotten the forced labor—making bricks with no straw—and the abuse they suffered at the hands of the Egyptians. Now they are hungry and tired and far from the only place they’ve ever known as home. And they are frightened. When they set out on the journey, it was new and exciting and everyone was ready to got. But now they’ve been walking for a long time, and they’re starting to wonder “How much longer? Are we there yet?”
You know how you feel when you’re hungry and tired and afraid and far from home? Yeah—like that.
Moses and Miriam and Aaron feel that way too. And they are the ones who are supposed to be leading this parade! They’re not sure if they’ve been getting the daily memo from the Lord…and don’t we always want it? Written down on an official papyrus scroll, with detailed instructions. “Go here. Do this. Stop for the night at…” It’s much easier that way, you know. There’s no discernment required. No waiting or watching, prayer or thought demanded. Everyone just follows orders and it’s all okay.
The children of Israel demonstrate their own fear and hunger, tiredness and anxiety in this complaining. This will become one of the themes of the wilderness journey—the people complain or act out of fear, and the Lord provides for them even in spite of their fearful, anxious griping, moaning and carrying on. Over and over again, this pattern appears as the story goes on. It is as if the writers want future generations to understand without question that in spite of the people’s fear and complaint and uncertainty, God was—and is—faithful to provide for those in need. Especially when it is God who has called them into the desert in the first place.
When Jesus tells the parable of the workers in the vineyard this morning, it is only a very few verses before he himself will be called into a place of danger and uncertainty, and will himself wonder “Are you still there, God? Are you with me?” We’re reading this passage in the fall, but were we to keep reading directly through Matthew, in just a few verses we would hear the crowd shout “Hosanna in the highest!” as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. It is nearly the last week of his earthly ministry, in fact. Time is running out, and Jesus knows it.
He tells this story of a landowner who goes early in the morning to hire day laborers to work in his vineyard. As soon as we hear of a vineyard, our ears ought to perk up—because that image is one that occurs throughout scripture. A vineyard, a piece of land where grapes are cultivated for the production of wine, is a very special place. It is a place where human beings and God work together. It takes time for the plants to grow and produce fruit, and in the meantime they must be pruned and watered. Someone (or many some ones) have to take care of them. If there is too much, or too little rain or sunshine, the grapes may be compromised. And if all goes well, then when harvest time comes, there is no end of work until the grapes are gathered and the young wine is pressed and stored. There is always some work for the workers in the vineyard to do, but as every good gardener knows, human effort can only do so much. We can help make the conditions for growth more favorable, but we humans do not cause the growth to happen. That’s God’s work. (We can, all too easily, interfere with and block growth—in all young growing things. That is why we are called to be stewards of the creation, not owners and landlords. The creation is not ours to own. But that’s another sermon.)
The image of the vineyard as a place of peace and stability and cooperation between human effort and divine nourishment and growth appears over and over in the Bible. Jesus is intentionally using that tradition to talk about the dominion of God, its priorities and values.
The first group of workers arrive early, but then more workers keep coming. More and more, every few hours another group arrives. There is clearly plenty to be done, what with weeding and pruning, tying up and smoothing out, watering and fertilizing and all the rest. But it must have been a very big vineyard indeed, to have so many workers in it. I can just see them getting in each other’s way occasionally—two wheelbarrows approaching a corner of the garden path from opposite directions, CRASH! Head-on collision, soil goes flying everywhere…and still more workers coming! Where will they all go?
finally the whistle blows, the workday ends, and the workers line up to receive their pay. The newcomers are paid first—the usual daily wage, as was customary. The others, who have been there all day, see this and think to themselves “Great! If they’re getting the usual daily wage, then we’ll get even more!”
First, they’re shocked. Then, they’re mad! And then the complaining and moaning and carrying on starts up. “We’ve worked ourselves into the ground all day long, and you’re giving them the same amount you’re giving us? That’s not fair!”
It’s not that the workers who have worked all day think themselves ill-compensated as such. They received what was customary, to which they had agreed at the beginning of the day. But they were upset because the latecomers (“them people!”) were, in their estimation, being paid too much. “They haven’t earned the right…”
The Landowner of the vineyard (or perhaps Land LORD would be the better term—the LORD of the vineyard, the land, and indeed all of creation) is having none of it. The phrase in Greek is wonderful: “Is your eye evil because I am good?” Are you giving someone the stink eye, or looking down your nose at someone, because of my kindness? “Are you envious because I am generous?”
YES…great big pea-green YES right there!
They’re right about one thing. It’s not fair. At least, not in the way we usually mean that word. The only reward that the early arrivals have, other than the agreed-upon wage, is the satisfaction of knowing they did much good work there in the vineyard.
Jesus tells this parable to his inner circle of friends, after he has told them (and many others within earshot) how difficult it will be for those who trust in their bank accounts and many possessions to see and participate in the dominion of God. We didn’t read that passage in the Sunday lectionary—we skipped over it from last week to this. He is not condemning anyone—not those who have wealth (and by extension, the good opinion of society in general) nor those who do not have wealth (and perhaps are looked down upon as a result.) What he intends them to understand is that the dominion of God, the inbreaking of God’s values and priorities into human culture and society and experience, looks weird. It’s not “fair,” it’s not “normal” in many ways. It goes absolutely against the grain of all our hierarchies and systems and structures that serve the status quo. “The first shall be last; the last shall be first; a little child shall lead them all…the wolf and the lamb shall lie down together.”
In a very short time Jesus himself will come face to face the principalities and powers of the world, which function by violence and coercion, fear and death, and on the cross will overcome and reconcile them all. He will meet violence with peace, coercion with invitation, relentless hatred with equally relentless mercy and forgiveness and love.
No, it is not fair. It is not natural. It is a deep mystery of the reign of God, which still to this day confounds and confuses, undermines and subdues the powers and practices of the world.
Dear ones, this week—this day, this very moment—may we turn in repentance from grumbling and complaining, fear and anxiety, and learn more deeply to trust the love of Emmanu-el, God-with-us, walking side by side with us, at all times and in all places.
May we, more and more, day by day, become co-conspirators with Jesus, as we practice his transformational way of life in our own time and place.
May it be so for us; may it be so among us.