Bryan Cones - Pentecost XV, September 21, 2014

Matthew 20:1-16, Exodus 16:2-15

Today’s gospel passage puts me in mind of a friend and fellow spiritual traveler from my home parish of St. John’s. She’s a lifelong Christian, someone who is really at home with the Bible, struggled with it and been faithful over her many years. Despite all that, she admits there are some passages of scripture she will never understand, and today’s gospel is the first on that list. “It’s just completely unfair,” she says. I swear she told me she even “hated” it.

Does any American Christian like this story? Does anyone who has to work for a living like this story? It’s bad enough that the laborers who put in an hour make the same as those who worked for twelve hours. Nowadays we might ask why even those who were hired first got paid the same. Did that all work equally hard? Did they get comparable job performance reviews? Surely there was some worker in the vineyard who did the equivalent of checking email all day, never getting anything done. What kind of business owner is this vineyard keeper anyway?

It may not seem obvious, but the first reading about the manna and quail is no less at odds with the way we think about the economy of things. Manna, if you’ll remember, just falls from the sky, a resource that appears equally everywhere, like sunlight or rain. There are rules restricting its use: Each family can only collect what they need for the day. Anything more than that rots and becomes full of worms. It can’t be kept overnight, except in preparation for the Sabbath. It can’t be canned or pickled or frozen or dried for further use. You can’t cultivate it, you can’t turn it into a commodity, and you can’t package it into mutual funds, or put it into an IRA. If you live on manna, you will have to depend on God as long as you live.

Wages without work, food without farming: Welcome to God’s economy. Another name for it is grace. And if we want to know what experiencing grace is like, these two stories are places to begin.

Imagine being one of those grumbling Israelites in the desert, so hungry for the “fleshpots of Egypt” that you’d rather be a slave. You were on board when God was defeating Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt, but now the food is running out, and you are starting to wonder if you are going to die out here with your kids and everyone you love.

Then in the evening comes a flock of quail, and then in the morning food so unusual, that the people name with a question, “What is it?”—a play on the word “manna.” And it all returns, evening after evening, morning after morning. Imagine the feeling of surprise and relief, of gratitude and wonder.

That’s how God’s grace sometimes feels.

Or place yourself in the shoes of that laborer hired a five o’clock. You've been hanging around all day, hoping someone might hire you, so that you can take whatever you earn and buy food for the evening. As the day goes on your hopes start to fade and you wonder what your family will eat tonight. You had just about given up when someone hires you with only an hour left in the day. You know the wages won’t be much, but might be something to take the edge of off your family’s hunger. After your short hour, you are surprised to be called first for pay, then even more surprised to get paid for a full day, for the other 11 hours you didn’t work. You know you haven’t earned it, and you probably head home as fast as you can before the owner catches his mistake. Everyone will eat tonight.

That’s how God’s grace sometimes feels.

It’s tempting to judge those workers hired in the morning, as if they are the butt of the parable. But let’s come alongside them, too, and imagine we showed up with the crowd of laborers, a lot more workers than work, most likely. In a stroke of luck you are at the right place at the right time, and you and your buddies make a deal with the landowner, for the “usual wage”—this owner drives a hard bargain—but it’s better than nothing. You work all day long to make sure you get the full wage, and get curious when these other workers show up. You’re a little irritated when those last few get paid first, but you get your hopes up when they get the full day’s wage. Maybe this guy is not so tight with his money after all. Maybe this is your lucky day. But by the time he gets to you, his generosity has evidently run out. Why can’t I catch a break? you think to yourself. And why did this rich dude have to shove it in our faces? He could have just paid us first, and we never would have known he was so “generous.” What a jerk.

That’s how God’s grace sometimes feels.

God’s economy: The surprising nourishing gift, the surprising unearned gift, the surprising unfair gift. Perhaps we've all experienced each of them, and the feelings that go with them.

Those feelings might be a clue that God’s grace is right in front of us. And if we notice a feeling like that: gratefulness at the abundant sunshine, the rain, the love of your family that nourishes you everyday; or that hard-to-name feeling when you benefit from something you know you haven’t earned or don’t deserve, perhaps a time you’ve really screwed up but find forgiveness instead of consequences; even the resentment that sometimes comes with someone else’s turn of good luck, especially when our work seem to go unrecognized. When we notice feelings like that, they might be signals that God is passing by, bearing gifts.

And when we notice that grace, how might we respond, knowing that grace, like manna, has to be used or lost, that the opportunity pass us by before we know it? How might we reflect that moment of grace, magnify it, pay it forward, multiply it? How might we, as those who receive God’s grace, turn around and give grace as well?

Perhaps, like that vineyard owner, we might recognize the needs of others, invite them in, give them a share of what has been given to us. Perhaps we might discover a hunger to share generously, to give up our attitudes about what’s fair or who deserves it, even if our generosity scandalizes or offends some. Perhaps we might discover in ourselves that our capacity for receiving God’s grace grows as we learn to give grace as God gives it. Maybe we could become partners, producers, job creators in God’s economy, givers with the Giver, as well as receivers.

That is also, after all, how God’s grace sometimes feels.