September 24, Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost Year A

Andrew Suitter

This week as I have been thinking and reflecting on these scriptures and everything else that has been happening in and around this community, I was reminded of a scene in one of my favorite films, Wit, staring Emma Thompson.[1]  In one scene, Thompson’s character, Vivien, has come face to face with the reality that everything she fought for in this life, has in the end come to provide very little. All that she has put first in her life—her career, her academic pursuits and discipline—has left her alone. In her final hours, a former professor who was more like a mother to her, learns of her illness and comes to the hospital to visit. The professor curls up in the bed with Vivien and Vivien cries in her professor’s arms.  As Vivien lays there, the professor offers to recite Vivien’s favorite writer, John Dunne, to which Vivien utters a clear no.  So, the professor reads a book she just purchased for her grandson—a book Vivien also knew well as a child—the Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wisebrown.[2] 

Professor Ashford reads,[3]

Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away. So he said to his mother, “I’m running away.” “’If you run away,’ said his mother, ‘I will run after you for you are my little bunny.’” “’If you run after me,’ said the little bunny, ‘I will become a fish in a trout stream and I will swim away from you.’” “’If you become a fish in a trout stream,’ said his mother, ‘I will become a fisherman and fish for you.’”[4]

The professor pauses. “Look at that, a little allegory of the soul. Wherever it hides, God will find it.” [5]

“’If you become a fisherman,’ said the little bunny, ‘I will be a bird and fly away from you.’” “’If you become a bird and fly away from me,” said his mother, ‘I will be a tree that you come home to.’ “’Shucks,’ said the little bunny, ‘I might as well stay where I am and be your little bunny.’ “’Have a carrot,’ said the mother bunny.”[6] 

The professor tucked Vivien into her bed, kissed her forehead and blessed her as she left sure this was the last time she would see Vivien alive.  Being read to from that book was one of Vivien’s first memories and it would become one of her last. 

One can hope that such an experience might be one of justice.  Where the first is last, and the last is first. Where the forgotten again feels known.  The suffering, soothed.  These are the works of this gospel that we read!  It is the story of tiny resurrections in our lives that we celebrate, that we help bring about for one another, in the ways we care for and serve this world.  It is the idea that love has the final word—that our pain is not perpetual. 

On Tuesday afternoon, Kristin, our new friend Sister Kathleen, and I had the opportunity to go downtown to federal immigration court.  We went to support the fiancé and mother of a young man who was detained in Indianapolis and then sent to Boon County, KY as he awaited his case with the judge in Chicago.  Talking with this family, I learned a lot about the young man being detained. 

I learned that he came here before he turned 18 because he wanted to make a financial difference for his family.  Concerned for him, his mother soon followed.  I learned that after experiencing some hard times, he pulled himself together enough to apply and become accepted into one of the premier Engineering Schools in this country, and that he maintains a status on the Dean’s List.  I learned that he has three letters of support from leading faculty members about the promise of this young man.  I learned that he continues to support family in Mexico.  And I learned that he has continued to overcome setbacks with grace.  The family told me that the fear this has brought upon them has been profound.  The pain it causes them to see him locked up, to be separated, to see him in jail clothes, is becoming too much. They knew that no matter what happened, they would go where he was even if it meant uprooting their lives, too.

I have to admit, it was hard to sit through those cases.  It was hard to sit through them because whether or not one agrees with a reason one is being deported or not, it remains that there is yet another broken family and that justice seems farther away than ever.  It was painful to bear witness to families saying goodbye to loved ones on a screen for all to see, and to be unable to hug them and hold them even but for a moment.  We then went into a recess. 

This week, our lectionary brings us to the vineyard to a passage that is often read as a parable, as an allegory, for how God cares for the less fortunate.  A more common reading of this story highlights the generosity of the man, as the generosity of God—that God’s love and kindness extends beyond Israel to the Gentiles.  In other words, the man’s financial kindness is like that of God’s love.  The concern I have about an interpretation like this is, this seems to be at someone’s expense.  Stanley Saunders, Associate Professor at Columbia Theological, offers significant commentary to this passage and an interpretation I can appreciate.  He says,

We are tempted to see the landowner in God-like terms because he is powerful, he hires workers all day long and pays them all equally, and he declares his own goodness and justice. However, at the end of the day, the workers are all as vulnerable and powerless as they were at the beginning of the day, except that, we will see, they have lost their dignity, and probably their unity. The injustices are intensified, not overturned.[7]

Saunder’s perspective challenges us to not only consider the immediate solutions for the problems people face—but to consider how we can change the outcomes of a situation that seems dismal.

Once the recess ended, we were called back into the courtroom for our case.  After reviewing the paperwork, the judge seemed impressed by the support this young man had through the present family members and religious community—but also through the support of his prestigious school.  After speaking quite honestly to the young man about the concerns she had for him, she also pointed out to the injustice it would be for him to forego the career he has begun as a student in one of the top engineering programs in the country.  Perhaps it was grace.  Perhaps it was her heart—but it was an act of justice to let him finish the work he had begun to then really make a difference in his life and in the life of his family. The judge sent this young man away with another chance to finish what he started, to really make his life better, and agreed to reevaluate in another year his status as being able to stay in the country. 

She made a way for him to try, once again, to live the dream he came for despite some hang-ups along the way.  She chose to maybe see the greater story in this young man—that his church, his family, his school supports him.  To waste his talents, to send him away, might not be helpful to his overall situation in this life.  It was a step in restoring dignity, value, purpose, and self-worth to a young man caught in the crossroads of a life he’s fighting to live. 

Of the parable we read, Sanders says, it is a “limited, and thus false, form of justice. We can tell it is false justice because it produces envy and division, rather than wholeness and healed relationships. It is a harsh reminder that there is no justice, no kingdom of heaven, when we end up alone in the world.”[8]

For all that we live through, whether it is a life of solo pursuits like Vivien, or a life of struggle all in the name of a better life like our friend from Indianapolis—God’s justice is to never to leave us alone or to leave us unchanged.

God’s justice comes in second changes to do things the right way. It comes in being a friend to the ones who are hardest to understand.  God’s justice comes when a young man is offered another chance to finish an education he has fought for and is given the opportunity to afford his family a future they never dreamed of having before. God’s justice comes when a dying woman’s last memories are of being held and not forgotten by a world she often separated herself from.  Justice can come in the final hour.

This parable or allegory, asks us to evaluate several things in our lives.  It asks us to consider those who are really hurting in our life. It asks us to consider what in our power we can do to make a way of justice for someone today—and for their entire life. As theologian Karoline Lewis says, “this parable pulls back the curtain on the way our own world works.”[9] 

Beloveds, we are the detainee, we are the harsh professor, we are the judge—we are the landowner.  Sometimes for reasons beyond our control we aren’t the most social—sometimes life has dealt experiences that have all but leveled us.  Maybe we have fallen on hard times and didn’t get the break we needed. 

As a community of faith, I hope we can work to find and share together, in ways of justice that meet both current needs and change long term outcomes for those among us.  So many of you are already doing this kind of work in your professional lives and you see the ways in which God’s justice can roll like a mighty river. 

As we walk this path together, may we be as gentle as the professor who holds the suffering, as generous as the landowner who pays all his people well, and may we be so bold as to pave new paths of justice in loving and healing this world. 



[1] Wit, 2001, HBO film starring Emma Thompson, based on the stage play entitled Wit, written by Margaret Edson, 1999.

[2] Wisebrown, M. (1942). Runaway Bunny. New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers. (Pictures by Clement Hurd (omitted)).

[3] Evelyn E.M. Ashford, Wit, film, performed by Eileen Adkins, HBO films, (2001); Based upon Margaret Edson’s stage play, Wit (1999).

[4] Wisebrown, M. (1942). Runaway Bunny. New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers. (Pictures by Clement Hurd (omitted)).

[5] Evelyn E.M. Ashford, Wit, film, performed by Eileen Adkins, HBO films (2001); Based upon Margaret Edson’s stage play, Wit (1999).

[6] Wisebrown, M. (1942). Runaway Bunny. New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers. (Pictures by Clement Hurd (omitted)).

[7]Commentary on Matthew 20:1-16, by Stanley Saunders, Associate Professor of NT Columbia Theological Seminary Atlanta, Ga., 2017, from Working Preacher (online; accessed 9/21/17)

[8] Commentary on Matthew 20:1-16, by Stanley Saunders, Associate Professor of NT Columbia Theological Seminary Atlanta, Ga., 2017, from Working Preacher (online; accessed 9/21/17)

[9] Sermon Brainwave Podcast, for Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, commentary by Karoline Lewis, as found on, accessed 9/21/17).