Year A, Proper 20, Track 1
Exodus 16:2-15, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-16
According to Paul’s letter to the Philippians, A Christian life is not a life of happiness at least not according to what the world says happiness is. Nor is our life in Christ pain-free. Paul says we are granted the privilege to suffer for Christ; to experience the pain Christ suffered in life and especially on the cross. Possessions, money, and other forms of security are only security in this life. “You cannot take it with you.”
Clinging onto our possessions in order to make ourselves happier or in order for us to have the “good life” is what leads to death. You may remember when Jesus spoke to a wealthy young man who has faithfully followed all the commandments. Jesus tells him if you want to be perfect you need to sell all that you have and give it to the poor. The young man leaves grieving seemingly unwilling or unable to do what is needed to follow Jesus. After this exchange, which happens just a few verses prior to today’s reading, Jesus tells the disciples, that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Paul tells us that the privilege Christians receive is not an easy life; it is not security in which we can prevent bad things from happening to us. The privilege we receive is pain and suffering as we fully embrace life; as we go into the world experiencing what life has to offer. This may be what Christ is trying to tell us in today’s story.
When we experience life we realize that life is not fair. It is not fair for us nor is it fair for others. Again our western ideas of fairness can distort the fairness of God. Christ uses an example of people getting paid for their labors. One person seems to say that some of these people lazed around all day and worked just one hour in the cool of the evening while I worked hard in the field, in the sun, all day long. Where is the equity in this? Who wouldn’t be upset with the owner who pays someone the same wage for one hour of work as they paid me for twelve? But the fairness comes in that each person received at least the pay they expected and agreed to. Obviously, based on an hourly rate, some received much more; six, nine, and even 12 times more.
The Rev. Jim Somerville makes a great point. To paraphrase he says, that a denarius was the basic
daily wage and it was also the amount that was needed to sustain your family for one day.
The people who were hired at the end of the day still needed a denarius to survive. These workers weren’t just loafing around all day either. They were trying to find work but no one would hire them. Maybe these last-minute workers were ugly, smelly, handicapped, spoke with an accent, or generally not thought to be employable. Maybe these workers actually needed a denarius even more than the others; because they have a harder time finding employment.1
In our story, we can easily visualize the disappointment that the twelve-hour workers had as the owner peels off $100 bills from his bankroll.2 He gives one to each man who worked just one hour. It seems obvious, to the others in line, that each of them would get a bit more money and those working the 12 hour day would get twelve hundred dollars; a half months wage. But this didn’t happen and the 12-hour laborers get upset at the owners claiming that their pay isn’t fair. But on the contrary, the owner is clear that they agreed to work for one denarius, one day’s wage. The disappointment of the workers is clearly jealousy. They wanted more than what was fair and agreed upon. As we know this jealousy is misdirected to the owner who was just being very generous to others. Instead of looking at themselves, in which they felt they were cheated, maybe they should have had a generous spirit in which they could cheer for the other person who unexpectedly received much more. After all, If this one hour worker was my friend, I would be congratulating him.
Have you ever been in a busy grocery store and after your cart is full you spend a moment to see which line will be the shortest? You get into line and wait and wait. As the line slowly creeps forward, a new lane opens, and the cashier starts the new line with people from the back of your line; instead of those near the front. Could you imagen if we all cheered for those lucky people who didn’t have to wait as long? Good for you, way to go! Now, this may not be the best customer service but is it unfair?
I’ve also experienced a times when an employee of many years discovers that the new employee is receiving the same pay as they do. The long-term employee was happy with their salary until they found this out. Then they did nothing but grumble for what seemed like months. Doing what is equal, what is equitable, or what is fair is not the same thing. These attributes can have very different outcomes depending on the circumstances.
Moses is with the Israelites in the wilderness. They have been in the wilderness for about 75 days at this point. It is possible that the people have consumed the majority of their animals. Their stomachs are grumbling, and they may feel hungry, but nowhere does it say that the people were actually starving. We know that the Israelites are really good a grumbling and I’m not talking about their stomachs. Grumbling and grumbling against God is a common theme. Even later in Exodus, we find that they grumble about not having meat because they are tired of eating manna. This grumbling could be more similar to a teenage boy coming into the house and saying he is starving even though he had breakfast and lunch, and dinner is almost on the table. It is even possible that God was sustaining the Israelites in the wilderness. They just didn’t need food even if they were a bit uncomfortable. By the end of their journey, according to Nehemiah 9:2, they lack nothing. We know that their clothes never wore out. They didn’t complain of sore, blistered, or swollen feet. God takes care of them.
What I see clearly is God’s generosity. God offers us abundance even when we are disappointed in what the world has to offer. We look at what our neighbors have and we feel that we deserve the same. We can go from being satisfied to unsatisfied just because someone else has more, or something newer, or something different; and we grumble. We can have security through our money, owning a home or investments. In of itself, this is not bad. There are wealthy people in the Bible whom Jesus doesn’t judge. My guess is it is because of how they used their wealth. Zacchaeus, for example, repented. He paid back what he defrauded people and gave half of what he owned to the poor. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were wealthy yet they were also generous. This is in contrast to the rich young man who cannot seem to let his wealth go.
Grumbling about others only makes us unhappy and if we believe our money makes us happier or that it will prevent us from suffering then this is also a falsehood that is spread by society. I would be lying if I said money doesn’t bring certain niceties or stability to our lives but we cannot cling to it. God’s world doesn’t follow the rules of our world. We have to be able to let it go; for God is overly generous even in ways that don’t always make sense. As Christians, we are also to be generous. Whether we are very wealthy or as poor as a mouse, happiness only comes from within and our security only comes from God.
1) http://asermonforeverysunday.com/category/year-a/ The Rev. Dr. Jim Sumerville, A44: The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
2) Based on the current national minimum wage a denarius would actually worth around $75 dollars today.