the scandal of generosity

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The parable at the heart of my sermon this week is one that has been read a number of different ways. Here’s how it hit me this week.

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Many years ago, I was on a Southwest flight from Dallas to Houston. It was back before the TSA required us to run a gauntlet of security to be able to board. In fact, in those days, Southwest had a cash register at every gate; you walked up, handed the gate agent your money, and got on the plane. The route was so popular, they had hourly flights that went back and forth between the two cities, and they had many regular customers.

I was on a flight one evening where the flight attendant stood up to give the speech that hasn’t changed since Orville and Wilbur Wright took to the air—you know the one about how to fasten your seatbelt and what to do if an oxygen mask drops down. The flight attendant said the first few words and then interrupted herself.

“How many of you have been on this flight before?” she asked, and most of us raised our hands. “How many of you know the speech?” We all raised our hands. “Good. Just say it over in your head and pretend I did it.” And she sat down.

She comes to mind because I feel like almost every time I begin a sermon where I have to start by reminding us that we are dropping into the middle of the story. None of the excerpts the lectionary designates is as free-standing as it may seem. So, though most of you have been on this flight before, and yet it is a reminder worth repeating.

The parable we read this morning is a part of a conversation—well, a sequence of events—that goes back two chapters, when the disciples asked, “Who is the greatest in the God’s realm?” Jesus began by picking up a child and saying, “You need to look at life like this little one to really get what God is doing,” and then he went on to talk about how we reconcile with and forgive one another—the passage we looked at last week. Then, after Jesus played with some more children, a person who is traditionally named “The Rich Young Ruler” came and asked what it took to have eternal life. The man asked mostly to have his assumption verified that following the letter of the Law was fine. Instead, Jesus told him he needed to give his wealth away. All of it.

Matthew said the young man walked away because he was too rich. Jesus then reminded the disciples that things get turned upside down in God’s economy: the first will be last. And then he told the parable we read this morning—and it has a lot of moving parts.

When Jesus began a parable with “the kingdom (or community) of God is like . . . ,” he wasn’t necessarily assigning the lead role to God; parables are not allegories. He was saying, “This is how God’s economy works,” or, “This is how God created us to live together.” That means we have lots of ways to find ourselves in the story. We can put ourselves in the place of the farmer or the day laborers, or we can stand outside of the whole thing and try to take it all in.

My mind’s eye took me to the corner of the market where these folks had gathered in hopes of finding work for the day. In most cities, there are those places where people hang out—maybe in front of a convenience store or near a construction site—hoping someone will drive up and offer them work. It’s a hard place to stand because it is a place with few options. You are at the mercy of your circumstance. You have to wait for life to happen to you.

When the farmer showed up the first time, early in the morning, he chose a handful of folks and offered them a silver coin for a day’s work. A fair wage. At that point, they didn’t say anything about the others who were left behind. They had work, which meant they would have money, which meant they could survive another day.

We don’t know if they were aware that the farmer went back four more times—at nine, at noon, at three, and right at five o’clock—to get more workers. We know that the last two times the farmer wasn’t specific about the wage, he just said he would be fair. No one in any of the groups hesitated.

When it came time to get paid, the farmer started with those who had barely broken a sweat, and he gave each of them a silver coin. Then he went on to hand out coins to everyone who had agreed to work his fields that day. When the ones who had been there since sunrise protested, the farmer said, “Are you jealous because I’m generous?”

What a great question. And it is not answered. Jesus ended the story there. He made the disciples imagine how the workers responded, and then he said—again—“Many who are last will be first, and the first will be last,” words full of grace and hope unless you were one of those who was counting on being first, which describes the disciples. No sooner had Jesus finished the parable than James’ and John’s mother came to him and said, “Please tell me my boys will sit on either side of you when you rise to power.”

Though Matthew doesn’t make mention of it, I picture Jesus doing a face palm at that point.

Why is generosity controversial?

Why is it difficult for us to see others benefit, even when it is not at our expense? The joy of this parable—and the joy of God’s economy—is the farmer’s generosity. Had the farmer not come by to begin with, everyone would have stood on the corner all day for nothing. Instead, everyone worked, and everyone got a fair wage for the day. It wasn’t a competition, or even a comparison.

I also love that the farmer is so straightforward about it. He is transparent in his payment. He beings by paying those who started last so everyone else would see what they earned. As far as he was concerned, they were all worthy of the wage they received. It wasn’t about timecards; it was about showing up.

The only ones who complained were the ones who clocked in first.

Teddy Roosevelt is credited with saying, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Whether or not the words came from his mouth, they are still good words—and comparison steals more than joy, I think. It steals our ability to be content, as well as some of our compassion because it leads us to believe others are getting what is rightfully ours.

The ones who were first on the job were content with what they were earning until they saw what others were making. The farmer didn’t take money away from them to pay those who were hired later. The ones who went first were not penalized in any way. They made a fair wage for their labor, but they couldn’t see what they had for worrying that others had it as well.

When the mother of James and John showed up and asked Jesus if her boys could sit on either side of him when he became king, the other disciples got bent out of shape about who was going to sit where. They completely missed the point of the parable, so Jesus tried again:

“You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around, how quickly a little power goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great—whoever wants to be first—must become a servant. That’s what I came to do: not to be served, but to serve.”

I wonder if the truth Jesus spoke is any easier for us to hear?

We live in a culture driven by statistics and competition. We are constantly measured against one another. Christ calls us to choose a different way of being together. Christ calls us to celebrate rather than compare, add seats to the table rather than jockey for position. God’s love is not pie; we are not going to get any less of it because God loves someone else. Let us celebrate all the ways in which the love of God sustains every last one of us—without comparison.

We are at our best when we live in gratitude together. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

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