Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Nothing to Earn

Mt 20:1-16[1]

I have confessed on more than one occasion that I’m not very good at handling money. That’s not for lack of exposure to money matters. I was raised in part by a Grandfather who taught me the value of putting your money to work for you before I reached adolescence. So as a young Seminary professor in my 30’s, you will understand that I was putting 10% of my income into retirement. Unfortunately, life has a way of thwarting the best laid plans. In fact, it would seem that our current economic situation is so complicated and confused that it is thwarting everyone’s best laid plans! Even those who study economics and follow the markets closely are scratching their heads and throwing their hands up in resignation.

Economics at that level may be hard to understand, but at a more down-to-earth level, it’s not hard at all. You have to plan your budget based on the principle that income must exceed expenses. If it doesn’t, you have to make other plans, or you have to cut your expenses. That applies to family budgets, church budgets, and businesses as well. And when it comes to running a business, again the principles are fairly straightforward: you reward the employees who perform the best, and to those who don’t perform you give instruction and warning, and finally when all else fails, you let them go.

In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus tells a story that reflects a completely different way of looking at things. It is a story about a vineyard owner who pays his workers on the principle of generosity, rather than on the principle of merit. And this story is supposed to illustrate “the Kingdom of Heaven.” That phrase might lead us to think of this as some kind of otherworldly realm, but that is not the case. In Matthew’s Gospel, “the Kingdom of Heaven” is just a more reverent way of saying “the Kingdom of God.” They both refer to the same thing: a way of living that puts into practice God’s justice and peace and freedom for all people. It is the goal toward which everything in Scripture is moving. It is the hope that continues to inspire faith and love on the part of those who seek to live as the people of God.[2]

Having said that, I think we would have to admit that it is a strange kingdom. The story from our lesson for today depicts a man who owns a vineyard large enough to employ all the day laborers this particular community could supply. Apparently, the harvest is ready and he’s anxious to get the grapes out of the field as quickly as possible. And so he goes to the market at the break of day to hire workers for his field. But then he keeps going back all day long, sending more workers to help with the harvest. So far so good.

But when it comes time to pay the workers for their labor, things begin to get strange. The vineyard owner instructs that the workers be paid beginning with the last to be hired—and he pays them all the same thing! Those who worked only 1 hour get a full day’s wage, just like those who put in a full 12 hours! This part makes no sense if you’re trying to run a business. Think of it—if you tried to run a business on the basis of paying everybody the same thing regardless of how well they worked, your business wouldn’t last very long.

And when one of those who had worked all day complained, the employer simply insists that he has a right to be generous with what belongs to him. The story of the workers in the vineyard insists that in the kingdom God envisions, the realm in which God’s justice and peace and freedom defines life for all people, there is nothing to earn.[3] In a very real sense, we are all “eleventh-hour workers,” regardless of what we may have done.[4] In this kingdom, everyone receives the generosity of God’s grace, God’s unconditional love, and God’s unfailing mercy.[5]

The “Kingdom of Heaven” that Jesus talks about is a strange kingdom indeed! It operates completely differently from the way things work in our everyday lives. In the strange kingdom Jesus envisions, “the last will be first and the first will be last.” In this strange kingdom, those who are deemed godless gain entry ahead of those who are supposedly godly and righteous. In this strange kingdom, little children are the example by which we all must measure ourselves. In this strange kingdom, those who serve are the ones who are viewed as great. It is a strange kingdom indeed! How can this kind of kingdom survive in a world where the first are first and the last are last? What was Jesus thinking in advocating this kind of kingdom as the ideal for those who seek to be the people of God?

I think the point of it all is that the grace of God, God’s unconditional love, and God’s unfailing mercy, are gifts that we can never earn. They are given to us all freely, generously, with no strings attached. That means there is nothing to earn—we don’t have to do more or be better in order to ensure that God loves us, because God loves us completely already.[6] As Desmond Tutu puts it, “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more” and “there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.”[7] It is a strange kingdom indeed where there is nothing to earn. Thanks be to God!

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/18/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 97-99.

[3] Cf. Desmond and Mpho Tutu, Made for Goodness: And Why This Makes All the Difference, 21.

[4] Douglas A. Hare, Matthew, 231.

[5] Cf. M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” New Interpreter’s Bible 8:394.

[6] Tutu and Tutu, Made for Goodness, 24-25.

[7] Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time, 32

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