When Is Enough, Enough?
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 9/21/2014
Based on Matthew 20: 1-16
Dr. Charles Campbell, Homiletics Professor at Duke University Divinity School suggests a look at the story of the manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16:2-15), as helpful in understanding this morning’s parable about the Laborers in the Vineyard. So I thought I would share a part of his reflections as a spring board to mine.
Dr Campbell says: Out in the wilderness with Israel, God is creating a new people who will embody an alternative to the ways of Egypt, the ways of domination and submission, rich and poor, powerful and powerless. Central to the formation of that people is the gift of manna. The manna is nothing fancy or luxurious; it is basic sustenance, “daily bread.”
Most importantly, however, manna is a gift that cannot be hoarded. Indeed, when people try to gather more than their share, the extra manna becomes worm ridden and foul. With manna, everyone has plenty, but no one has too much. The leaders and the servants receive the same amount. The able and the disabled receive the same amount: plenty, but not too much – and it is all a gift. The story becomes an embodiment of the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.” Feasting on the Word, YR A, Vol4 pg93.
As we read this morning’s parable the most stricking conclusion seems to be that “there is an acceptance by God” of everyone. Those laborers who were hired early in the day could represent those of us who become followers of Christ early in age, busily doing the work of God, expecting a certain reward – heaven, for our loyalty and efforts. Then at the last hour of the day, those who have not yet found work are invited to work and because of their acceptance are given the same reward as those who accepted earlier. Seen in this light, it is a story of who gets “in” and possibly an implication that no one is left out. This is where some of us start to have problems with what Jesus is trying to say. My former mother-in-law use to say to me, “you know, most of us Christians are going to be very surprised at who we will see in heaven!”
This parable also relates closely with the story about the Prodigal Son, where the older brother who stays home and works, resents the generosity of his father. He resents his father, as well as his younger brother. So the resentment spoken about in our parable centers around the gift of “equal” which is given by the land lord. God treats everyone with the gift of equality – meaning it doesn’t matter when you start to recognize your relationship with God – God is going to give you the same gift of life.
This understanding of the parable makes sense if our understanding of relationship with God means that the reward is going to heaven. But what happens if our understanding of our relationship with God doesn’t mean going to heaven or the lack of our relationship with God means not going to hell? Another way of thinking about our relationship with God is to ask the question, “What does being a Christian mean?” Is “being a Christian” a basic insurance policy for getting into heaven and not going to hell, or is there another reason to be a follower of Jesus? The most prevalent understanding of “what being a Christian” in this country is based on a “heaven and hell” theology. Some folks “get in” and others get “left out.” Some are rewarded while others are penalized.
What I appreciated with Dr Campbell’s understanding of the manna in the desert story was his exposure of the domination system, the system in which Egypt operated under, making slaves of the Israelites. God, through the giving of the manna while out in the desert provides an alternative to this old system. It is a system of egalitarianism. A way of life, where everyone has enough, but no one has “too much”. It is a system where resources are available to everyone.
At the time that Jesus was telling this parable to his disciples, Rome was enforcing a domination system upon the Israelites, it was life being lived under the old order. In today’s world, we still are battling life as we live under the old order of Domination, only now days we call it “free market of Capitalism.” We have been conditioned to believe that hard work should be rewarded accordingly. Seniority gives priority to the newbie’s, both in pay and privilege. But ah! There lies the under meaning of this parable – equality. In a society where we base our self-worth on our “output” and “stored up wealth”, this story should be most unsettling to us.
Here we see a landlord, hiring workers to work in his field; an agreed wage is set with those first workers and they go out and start working their little hearts out. Periodically during the day, the landlord see’s others who need work and also invites them into the labor force; here we do not see a discussion upon wages being agreed upon, it seems that just the opportunity to work is enough. Then at the last hour of work, those who are still unemployed are also invited into the field to work. Everybody seems to be happy until it comes time to receive their wages for their work. Those who worked only for the last hour were paid first, in front of those who had worked all day long.
Seeing those who worked only an hour receiving a wage equal to what they had agreed upon by those who hired on in the morning, lead them to believe that they would receive a greater amount than what had previously been discussed. When they receive the agreed upon amount of wages, which was the same as those who had worked only an hour of the day, they became very resentful and were quite angry with the landlord for treating those last workers as equal to them.
Jesus, in using this parable, tries to help his disciples understand a new order of living – an order of life that is different than the old order of domination. God’s economy is one of equality and one of having “enough.” I so enjoy Gene Rodenberry’s “Star Trek”, as it gives a vision that is different than that of current cultural values. This series does not see humanity as being given the privilege to dominate creation, but rather where humanity is working at being a steward in God’s universe. One thing that I most noted in this series was the idea that people worked for the good of everyone else without the need of compensation of money. Everything was provided for your daily needs and enjoyment. This is the concept of God’s economy – there is enough for our daily needs. We pray this each week during worship, but do we really live it?
This parable also exposes the harm that happens to society when we operate in the domination system. What I mean by “domination system”, is a system that restricts the flow of resources equally to all. The accumulation by a few at the expense of the many. It is a system built on the concept of scarcity.
Dr Campbell again says: This parable painfully unmasks the deep presuppositions that all too often form the “air we breathe” and shape our lives to such an extent that we cannot even imagine alternatives. It exposes the fundamental metaphors that so often structure social relations: winners and loser, superior and inferior, insider and outsider, honored and shamed. It unmasks an order and often encourages us to pray, “Give me this day my daily bread,” rather than, “Give us this day our daily bread.”
This exposing lies behind the householder’s odd method of payment, in which those who worked the longest must watch everyone else receive the same as they do. Those who worked all day complain, bringing to mind the grumbling of Israel in the wilderness. Their complaint does not simply concern money; it goes much deeper, to what the money represents. The real issue is superiority: “you have made them equal to us.” Work becomes not simply the means for earning daily bread, but a source of division and competition, a means of reinforcing the categories of winners and losers, superior and inferior. Feasting on the Word, YR A, Vol 4, pg 95, 97
The issue for the church to understand is, that in the “domination” systems, there develops a theology of who “get in” and who is “left out.” We do this throughout our society, at all levels. There are restricted neighborhoods, there are restricted clubs. The church has lost a whole generation of people because it has become a group that also teaches that some are good enough to “get into heaven” and there are those who are “not worthy enough” to be let in.
This is a hard parable to accept, because it goes against the way we have been conditioned in our society through economics, and of competition that “capitalism” is based upon. We easily can fall into the trap of thinking that we deserve more while others deserve less, solely because we feel entitled and view others as not being up to “our” standards.
The other side of this coin is that we may feel that we are not worthy enough to deserve the gift and grace of God, which would keep us outside of the field and not enjoying the freedom to use the gifts that God has already given to us. This story is about the Love of God toward all of us! It is about how we are seen as equals in the eyes of God. Our challenge is to then look at each other and see what God see’s in each of us! Amen