Posts Tagged 'Matthew 20:1-16'

For Sept. 21, 2014: 15 Pentecost, Proper 20, Year A

The Reading            Jonah 3:10-4:11

The reluctant prophet Jonah has finally followed instructions and preached destruction to the wicked Assyrian capital, Nineveh; when the citizens, from the king on down, repent in sackcloth, the Lord is moved to spare the city—and Jonah is outraged.

The Response            Psalm 145:1-8

Psalm 145’s 21 verses each begin with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet, making it a wisdom psalm as well as a psalm of praise that transcends time as generations and individuals proclaim the Lord’s greatness, works, power, splendor, might, goodness, righteousness, and compassion. Fairness, however, is not on the list.

The Epistle            Philippians 1:21-30

Whether he liked it or not, Jonah was sent by the Lord to help save the Assyrians of Nineveh. In Philippians 1:21-30, written in the last years of his life, Paul explains that heaven beckons, but in the meantime it is both duty and privilege to labor and suffer in this life so that gentiles may see themselves as God’s people.

The Gospel            Matthew 20:1-16

In the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, which is unique to the gospel of Matthew, Jesus compares likens God’s way of doing business to a landowner who pays casual laborers just as well for working only one hour as for working a full day.



Further thoughts

If a “sore loser” is one who pouts at someone else’s win, a “sore winner” could be one who pouts when someone else fails to lose by a big enough margin. Are Jonah and the early laborers merely sore winners? Well, maybe.

Jonah’s pique isn’t wholly without merit. To begin with, Nineveh is in the far north of Mesopotamia, well over five hundred miles of dusty desert road from Jerusalem. Worse, Nineveh is pagan and the capital of the same Assyrian empire that in the mid-8th century BC has both Judah and Israel well under the heel of its hobnailed sandals. Why on earth wouldn’t Jonah regard Ninevites en masse as his enemy and therefore God’s enemy?

For the laborers, “the usual daily wage” is a denarius, about 18 cents—a very minimal wage, in a day when economic disaster is at least as close to the poor as it is today. Why shouldn’t they seek every possible penny?

But here is the kingdom of God. The odd-sounding “persons who do not know their right hand from their left” reckons up Ninevites who cannot be to blame for the empire’s misdeeds: the infants and toddlers, whom it pleases God to regard with all their elders as fondly as Jonah regards his shade bush. Laborers should accept the wage they agreed to but shouldn’t have to sell themselves short, and the businesses and economies that offer steady work at good wages with decent benefits are doing God’s will. And if God can be patient with Jonah’s guff and the laborers’ grumbling, God can certainly endure ours: as Anne Lamott suggests, in God’s ears, even “I don’t believe in You, and You’re not being fair!” seems to count as a kind of prayer.

What if I build the kingdom of God whenever I’m not being a sore winner?

For Sunday, Sept. 18, 2011: Proper 20, Year A

The Reading            Exodus 16:2-15

Our reading of the book of Exodus continues. The Israelites are grumbling against Moses and Aaron and against God, this time because there’s nothing to eat. It sounds whiny to us, but they had some ground: they were former slaves from a land of harvesting and storing up, and they’re on the loose in something like the Mojave Desert with no cars, no picnic coolers, and no cafes at Anza-Borrego. Learning to depend on God can’t have been any easier for them than it is for us.


The Epistle            Philippians 1:21-30

The experience of the Israelites in the desert is a far cry from that of Paul. He writes his letter to the church at Philippi from jail, where he may very well be awaiting execution—and he’s ready to go either way: ready to keep living, so he can keep helping others in the faith, ready to die to go be with God. Furthermore, he tells them—us—that not only is believing in Christ a privilege, but so is suffering for Christ. Are we ready for this?


Further thoughts

The Israelites in our first reading have come out of a land in which it was very clear who mattered and who didn’t. The ones that mattered had it easy, while the ones at the bottom of the social scale had to work hard. At the same time, as slaves they would get enough to eat because their labor was of value. The culture of Egypt was also good at amassing and storing up—not unlike our culture. That fact had even saved Israel in the time of Joseph. But to souls enslaved to rank and hierarchy or to the mindset that enough is never enough, the earlier means of salvation can serve later as the means of destruction.

Paul tells us to think very differently. As a Pharisee by birth, he has known abundance and privilege in the world’s terms, and he knows what abundance and privilege are really worth. He therefore exhorts the Philippians not to let themselves be divided or misled by what the world thinks. Living is good, in order to serve God and God’s people. Dying is good, to go home with Jesus. Living in one spirit and one mind—not divided by hierarchy, and standing firm in the faith—is right and worthy, and suffering for the sake of the faith is a privilege. In short, Paul tells us, what looks to the world like destruction is evidence of our salvation.

Each of these readings turns things upside down. So does today’s Gospel. As long as we show up ready to work for God, we’ll get what we need. Sometimes it will look like just barely enough, if we insist on comparing what we get to what everyone else has. But if we do that, we’re missing the point, and we’re missing the real abundance of spirit that Jesus has prepared for us and prepared us for.

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