Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

by Bear Wade

NEXT in Line
Matthew 20:1-16
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
analysis by Joan Hunt and Ed Schroeder


LESSONS FOR SEPT. 22, 1996 (PENT 17) YEAR A PROPER 20

Jonah 3:10 – 4:11 with Psalm 145:1-8 (why not 9?)
The connection of this passage with the Gospel lies in the attitude of Jonah, which parallels the attitude of the those who’d been working in the vineyard all the live-long day. Both the prophet and the day laborers resent the inclusive mercy of the One in charge. The original Jonah was a Galilean prophet who counseled Jeroboam II (8th century; 2 Kings 14:25). The book of Jonah seems to be post-exilic, 6th-4th century. “With skill and finesse this little book calls Israel to repentance and reminds it of its mission to preach to all nations the wideness of God’s mercy and forgiveness.” (Oxford Annotated) Jonah’s not just being dramatic in asking for death; he is saying that he has participated in an act of injustice and is worthy of the death sentence. God, however, –this is the turn– does not interpret relating to the Ninevites in truth and welcome as an act of injustice or unfaithfulness to the covenant. The original public context of the narrative may be as a polemic against the alleged narrow nationalism of Ezra’s post-exilic community. How does this address the xenophobia currently being expressed in welfare and immigration legislation in our [sc. USA] country? **This book is read publicly by Jews on Yom Kippur [begins sundown the 23rd of Sept.] to mirror the experience of the repentant worshipers. (Joel Rosenberg in Harper’s.)

Alternate First Lesson: Ex 16:2-15 with Ps 105:1-6, 37-45
For me this text links strongly with the Gospel in this way: These people of Israel do not trust God’s abundance, either. While the workers Jesus talked about were resentful because of the way the owner chose to spread his abundance around, these stressed wilderness wanderers worry whether any of God’s abundance will find them at all. In their scarcity mentality, they are afraid. They think there won’t be enough for their life. Terence Fretheim in the Interpretation Commentary on Exodus adds: ‘A food crisis leads to a faith crisis. Lack of discernment of God’s presence in the ordinary leads to denial of God’s activity in the extraordinary. ‘In contrast to the raining of hail that might have indicated divine wrath, the raining of manna is testimony to God’s new creation. Life and blessing abound, as promised at creation (note refs. to Gen. 1 in vv. 5, 8). ‘The manna is seen as natural here, not unusual –though unfamiliar. Precisely the natural is a gift from God. ‘How common it is among the people of God that a crisis whether of daily need or physical suffering occasions a crisis of faith. Material and spiritual well-being are closely linked in our minds.

‘Israel acts like a community whose understanding of “acts of God” has been defined by its insurance policies, when it is sure that God is behind the lack of food. Their connection of God with daily affairs has virtually disappeared. The resolution is not to stress the extraordinary acts of God one more time but to keep God linked with everyday blessings. It’s by discerning the presence of God in connection with daily needs that we are able to confess again: Yes, Yahweh is the one who brought us out of Egypt; God indeed.’

Second Lesson: Philippians 1:21-30
Readings from Philippians provide the Second Lessons from now through Oct. 14, four weeks. No one doubts Paul wrote Philippians, but some think it’s a composite letter, with fragments of two or three letters to the community. The possible fragmentation does not appear in this section, however. Note the use of imagery from athletic contests (27b-28). (Always looking for routes in to children’s sermons!) This selection of verses, 21-30, is usually outlined as belonging to two parts of Philippians: 1:12-26, Paul’s current interpretation of his life and ministry, heavy on implicit modeling for the Philippians, and 1:27-30, where he turns his attention explicitly to them. It’s unclear who the “opponents” of this community are. Maybe they’re traveling Christian missionaries who have a different “take” on the Gospel than Paul; maybe they’re people within the community. Note that suffering with Christ is specified to be a privilege graciously granted (v.29).

Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16
This parable appears in Matthew only. When Jesus told it, perhaps he was interpreting to critics his conduct of eating with outcasts and sinners (Reginald Fuller, Harper’s Commentary). When Matthew retold it, maybe he was addressing Jewish Christian discomfort with the new mission to the Gentiles (John McKenzie, Jerome Commenatry), or chastising church leaders anxious about rewards for their efforts and scratching for privileged positions (Robert Smith, Augsburg Commentary).

When we hear it and tell it, what resentments will the Spirit address? The thing that catches me most about this story is the landowner’s searching question, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (NRSV; lit. “Is your eye evil because I am good?”) I confess I am evil, envious, covetous, sometimes, when God is good. I have watched certain colleagues preaching in celebrated public settings, for example, preaching very awesomely well, and I have struggled with resentment that they had been invited to this role and not me. Resentment. It can creep in in so many places. It can crash in in so many places. At the basis of my resentment seems to be lack of trust in God’s abundance. My friends at the Portland L’Arche communities say that “No scarcity/Abundance” is one of the basic beliefs a community has to have to live cooperatively. You have to stake your life and your practice on the fact that there will be enough of whatever–food, love, money, time–for everyone’s needs to be met, for everyone to live well; that God will provide.

The anxiety that arises when people fear “there isn’t enough for me” and they begin to manipulate, fear, or resent others, and start hoarding, blocks community. The people at one end of the line (we assume it is the “front” of the line, though in the world of this parable, the world of God’s reign, the front ends up being the back) had trouble with the landowner; they didn’t think he was fair. As they said, pleading their case, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” A terrible thing, to have “them” out there made “equal to us.” It occurred to me (from observing my own resentments) that it’s quite probable that the people at the other end of the line (the “back” which is in God’s eyes really the front) also had trouble with the landowner and–especially earlier in the day– didn’t think he was fair either. They too had families to feed, but due to the economic system of the time (and not just their time) they had to sit around all day without being chosen. “When’s my chance? When does my joy begin? When do I stop being robbed by this system, cheated, exploited? When’s it my turn? Why me?”

Note our assumption that God understands lines. We are sure that God invented lines and operates by the Protestant Work Ethic–God understands the version held by those at one end of the line (the front? the back?) (“I’ve paid my dues, I deserve reward”), and God also understands the version held by those at the end (beginning?) of the line (“I didn’t have a fair chance, I deserve compensation”). God, we believe in our heart of hearts, will honor us for our years of loyal service, on the one hand, or will pity us for our years of deprivation, on the other. God knows that we deserve more than what we have right now. Life can seem unfair no matter which end of the line you are on. It’s natural, inevitable, that we’re going to blame God and appeal to God right from where we are standing. The thing the landowner breaks with is this “deserve” mentality. It’s not what we deserve, or think we deserve, based on what we do or don’t put in–It’s what we NEED TO LIVE, “the usual daily wage,” that EVERYONE deserves. “The emphasis is on the behavior of a large-hearted man who is compassionate and full of sympathy for the poor” (Jeremias, who calls this story “The Parable of the Good Employer” rather than “The Laborers in the Vineyard.”). “Such is God’s goodness, and since God is so good [said Jesus], so too am I.” Am I envious of God’s goodness, fearful that God’s abundance will not stretch? If I am entitled to anything, SO IS EVERYONE WHO IS IN THIS VINEYARD/ ON THIS PLANET. If it is needed for life, it is not mine to hoard. No one is here who is not early or late dependent upon that householder, that landowner God, for employment and life. No one is here who is not a creation of that householder. This puts my faith–my relationship with God and my relationship with life, myself, and others as it flows from this relationship with God–on an entirely new footing. I did not ask to be born, but a day’s wage is a day’s wage. I receive my life as a gift from God, not as earned. And “God who began a good work will bring it to fruition.” I haven’t noticed that I can just stop feeling resentful. But I believe I can be transformed, changed, filled, nurtured by the Gospel of “God’s grace is sufficient for me”–“whether I live or die, I am the Lord’s.” I am a beggar for this grace, this change, this transformation. That is why I pray. That is why I read the Bible. That is why I come to the Lord’s table. Because “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe or come. . . BUT the Holy Spirit calls me by the Gospel, enlightens me. . . ” This is also a potent social message, a whole new economy, a whole new way of living, a whole new way of being in the world. Everyone deserves a day’swage! “Give us this day our daily bread.” The landowner in Jesus’ story answered that petition of the Lord’s Prayer for all who came to work for him, early or late. How is it within our power to become or provide an answer to that petition with our fellow human beings?

The stand-up comedian said, “The place you want to be, the place everybody wants to be, is not first or fifth or tenth or last in line, but NEXT in line.” The stand-up comedian actually went on, “And here’s a great thing–you can let somebody go in line in front of you, or even cut in line in front of you, and still be NEXT.” That’s the spirit of this Gospel.

Joan Hunt Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Portland, Oregon


EHS addendum – From Joan’s study stuff,a Crossings matrix:

Diagnosis–The Bad News

D-1 Surface. Begrudging God’s generosity (God’s mercy-justice) by not practicing it ourselves in daily life.

D-2 Deeper. Not trusting mercy-justice. Committed (in the heart) to equity-justice. Call it law: trusting that you get your just desserts for effort rendered.

D-3 Deepest (the pits!) Getting equity-justice from God. “Take what is coming to you and go . . .” out of my vineyard forever.

A New Prognosis–The Good News

P-3 The Big Good News to cope with D-3. The Parable-teller, the Vineyard Messiah (vineyard = kingdom = God’s Management-by-Mercy operation in Jesus) takes what equity-justice bestows, the just desserts of the faithless workers (us all), and brings God’s own equity-justice system to an end. Easter says that. Then he offers the vineyard right smack back to all the generosity-begrudgers: “Here it’s for you after all. Trust me.”

P-2 Better yet (for replacing D-2): Trusting, not begrudging, the mercy justice of the Parable-teller (ex post facto Good Friday and Easter) puts people back into Vineyard opertion (MbM). To be in this vineyard is to “be in the right place with God” (=fundamental meaning of “Blessed”).

P-1 Best of all (contra D-1): We work (out in our repsective worlds) as God’s generosity-vineyard laborers. Confronting the conflicts we will indeed have with folks enslaved to just-desserts with an eye to getting them to switch rather than fight. I.e., join the vineyard crowd.

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