PENTECOST 15 – September 20, 2020
Matthew 20:1-16 – Justice and Generosity
Over the last couple of weeks we have become keenly aware of the plight of the natural environment. It’s that acrid wildfire smoke, blown northward from the lands of our American neighbours. It partially blocked the sun and irritated our eyes and our lungs.
The most immediate tragedies are the personal losses: dozens of lives, thousands of homes, countless jobs and livelihoods. But it’s also a reminder of another tragedy: climate change. That’s already upon us and making an impact. While we’re considering that plight, let’s not forget the COVID-19 pandemic, for this, too, is a function of our human involvement with the natural world around us.
The church is aware of all this. Beginning with the Orthodox Church in 1989, church bodies around the world have been marking the Season of Creation from September 1 to October 4. Our Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada is now emphasizing this, too. The Season of Creation is a time to reflect on God’s gift of creation and our stewardship of this good Earth. To date, I confess that I haven’t drawn your attention to it, but it’s not too late. Let us take action wherever we can. That starts with each one of us. For more information, visit https://elcic.ca/SeasonOfCreation/default.cfm.
Here’s a prayer that we can pray in this Season:
All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe and in the smallest of your creatures. You embrace with your tenderness all that exists. Pour out upon us the power of your love, that we may protect life and beauty. Fill us with peace, that we may live as brothers and sisters, harming no one. Creative Spirit, enlighten our hearts and remain with your world. This we ask through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Prayer of the Day
Almighty and eternal God, you show perpetual lovingkindness to us your servants. Because we cannot rely on our own abilities, grant us your merciful judgment, and train us to embody the generosity of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord. Amen.
Are we primarily just or generous? And is it possible for you and me to be both?
I’m asking because of the experiences of a landowner in a tale that Jesus tells. And there’s an even bigger question that’s even more important: Do we want a just God or a generous God?
The landowner first went out at 6:00 am, the beginning of the workday, and hired labourers to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius, the usual daily wage in that time and place. It was a subsistence wage, an amount on which a peasant labourer and his family could barely survive. Peasant life was not at all generous, and rarely was it just. But at least this landowner was offering work to peasant labourers who would otherwise have no work and would starve.
About three hours later, around 9:00 AM, he went out again and saw others standing idle in the marketplace. So he told them to go into his vineyard, too, promising to pay them “whatever was right.” He went out three more times after this: once at noon, once at 3:00 pm, and once more near the end of the workday. Each time, he found men standing around. Each time he hired them to work in his vineyard, presumably promising all of them what he promised the second group: “whatever is right.”
At the end of the day, the landowner paid all the workers the same amount. Beginning with those whom he hired last, he paid each labourer the usual daily wage. When the labourers who had toiled all day found out about this, they grumbled. They thought that they should have received more, because they had borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat. They said, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us.”
The landowner was puzzled by their grumbling. He replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
Literally translated, the last thing he asks is this: “Is your eye evil because I am generous?” Up to that point, the landowner has been trying to find some cause within his own actions for the grumbling – trying to find some injustice in his own actions which would explain the behaviour of the group of workers that he had hired at the start of the day. But he can’t find a reason. He paid them exactly what he agreed to pay them. And he paid the others what he thought was right.
But precisely what is right? He thought it was right for him to pay whatever he chose to pay, as long as he paid at least what he agreed to pay. The landowner thought it was acceptable to be generous to whomever he wanted. But that’s not what the first group of workers thought. They thought it was unjust. So they grumbled.
Justice and generosity. That’s what we’re exploring today. So consider this: What is another possible response that the first group of labourers could have made when they learned that the group that hired on at the end of the day were paid just as much as they? How about this: “Hurray! Good for you! What a windfall! How lucky for you! Come over to our house and we’ll throw a big party for you, at our expense, in celebration of your good fortune!”
But the first group of labourers didn’t say anything like that. They couldn’t say anything like that. Why not? Why could they only grumble? Why could they only resent the generosity of the landowner and the good fortune of others? Strictly speaking, it’s not because of the money. It’s something that cuts far deeper. Listen: “These last have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”
You have made them equal to us. That’s what they resent! The labourers in the first group are jealous of those who came later in the day but still received a full day’s wage. They’re jealous because they compare themselves with others without any independent sense of their own value or identity. Their only way of establishing their own identity and worth is through comparison with others, involving in this case the amount of work they do and the money they earn.
Our society has come a long way in terms of equal rights for people who are vulnerable because of their identity or position in society. This includes ethnic minorities, women, and those who suffer disability.
But it’s still true that some people in our society must work harder than others in order to win and hold jobs that have traditionally been given to white males. And if they do gain employment, it might not yield the same pay. Most employers try hard to be fair. But a few are just plain mean-spirited; all they want is cheap labour. I believe the church should advocate the cause of people who suffer dangerous and dehumanizing conditions in the workplace. I believe in justice.
But look: the landowner in Jesus’ story has not been mean-spirited. Nor has he been unjust. He has honoured all his contracts, including his agreement with the workers who began working in his vineyard early in the day. He paid them what he agreed to pay them. What causes that first group of workers to grumble is not injustice, nor mean-spiritedness. Rather, it’s the landowner’s generosity that makes them grumble.
You don’t have to visit the workplace to learn about this. Every parent with more than one child has suffered the perplexing experience of having a child come and complain that he or she has not been treated as well as another child in the family – that sister or brother didn’t have to work as hard, or received greater reward or favour.
Lorraine and I treated our two children equally … but we didn’t necessarily treat them the same; for God created them individuals who are not necessarily the same as each other. And we love our two children – and now their spouses and our grandchildren – as individual human beings.
Well, that’s life at home. Try managing your company or business according to generosity and you may find yourself in trouble, not only with your employees but also with the law. In order to restrain evil, we must certainly work for justice … and in societies ancient or modern we may have to content ourselves with justice and nothing more. For generosity seems to bring out the evil eye; generosity provokes resentment.
And what about you? Are you interested at least in justice, and are you willing to devote yourself to its cause? Beyond that, can you celebrate generosity given for the benefit of someone else? Or do you establish your own worth by comparing yourself with others, especially in terms of reward? And therefore do you find yourself resenting the good fortune that others enjoy? Do you grumble enviously? Do you get angry?
At this point, I guess we can all see why the cross is inevitable. God sent the only-beloved son to forgive sin. And that’s what Jesus did. But he did so according to his Heavenly Father’s generosity. That’s precisely what angered the people of his day. They did not want God among them on the terms that God appointed in the Divine Son, Jesus Christ. They wanted a God who is just according to their systems of right and wrong.
God persists. By the cross and the resurrection – by divine generosity! – God creates us anew. God removes from us our evil eye – our envy, our resentment of the blessings enjoyed by others, our blaming of God. Together with the resurrected and exalted Son, God raises up new creatures – creatures whose worth cannot be measured by any comparison, creatures who know who they are by God’s grace.
And precisely because of God’s lifesaving generosity, we will respond first of all by striving for justice in an unjust world. At the very least, we want all people to have the same access to significant and meaningful work, to fair and equal reward for their labour, to personal dignity in the workplace and the mall.
Is that too much to ask? I don’t think so. Our society has advanced significantly, but such matters will always require vigilance. Because God in Christ has saved us and given us new life, at the very least we want justice for all. That’s what I call a “proximate goal.” It’s how we enact faith for the sake of this old, broken world, in this time between God’s promise in Jesus Christ and God’s fulfilment at the end of the ages.
And beyond that – precisely for the sake of faith in the promise – we will proclaim Good News. We will tell our neighbours, our co-workers, our classmates, our family members, and our friends that God-in-Christ forgives the sin of all. God claims us all and makes us children of the holy family. That’s not a question of justice. That’s a matter of divine grace – God’s generosity.
God’s grace will activate our tongues, mobilize our feet, motivate our hands, vitalize our hearts, and redirect our bank accounts, for the sake of the world that God loves so dearly. Because of Jesus Christ, we will be generous with our personal energies and our personal resources. Because we see our neighbours’ needs, we respond not with evil-eyed resentment, but with cross-eyed love.
This is the work of the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit produces in us the fruit for which God has been striving all along in God’s vineyard: new lives that are unreasonably, scandalously, joyfully generous.
Hear the Good News! Take it to heart! Breathe it. Proclaim it. Live it.