By Linda Sue Harrison, MDiv
St. Hildegard's Church, Arlington, VA
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 16.2-15; Psalm 105.1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1.21-30; Matthew 20.1-16
Grace – God’s grace. It is unfathomable and ineffable. The more we attempt to talk about the grace of God, the more tongue-tied we get. Even the parables attempt to describe God’s grace using metaphor. Matthew’s Jesus introduces a parable about grace with the words, more appropriately translated as, “The domain of heaven is of the same nature as…”. It is of the same sort, similar to, the same nature as …but not exactly the same. How could it? It is of God.
I find myself using examples from my life, or others’ lives, to explain God’s grace. It is of the same nature as the ballet teacher who told a parent not to withdraw his child from classes because family finances prohibited payment. The classes would be offered whether his child attended or not, so why not let the child attend?
God’s grace is like the continual support of the Lamb Center – a walk-in facility for the homeless in Fairfax. They have no budget for food, but the shelves are over-flowing with good things like canned fruit, beans, brown rice. Daily lunch trays come in from area churches filled with homemade casseroles and stroganoffs, fresh fruit salads and pasta salads. I heard one guest of the Lamb Center say that meals at the facility were as good as those of five-star restaurants he once was able to frequent.
God’s grace is of the same nature as a ten year old daughter who tells you how much she loves you after you admit that you have forgotten what was a very important appointment to her. She also tells you to “let it go, Mama, it’s in the past.”
God’s grace is of the same nature as the tens of thousands of dollars collected within days after Hurricane Katrina, and the amount just grows. The grace of God is like the people who opened their homes to shelter those who lost everything in that storm.
What did any of these recipients do to deserve the outpouring of love, acceptance, and help? Nothing.
Yeah – that is God’s grace for you. Unearned, unmerited, offered daily and without restriction. It is beyond our description and comprehension. We only have stories and metaphors to describe the grace of God, like the story from Exodus and the parable from Matthew.
The Hebrew children tasted God’s grace in the wilderness. They toiled for generations in Egypt. Fear, oppression, anxiety accompanied their daily bread – bread they sweated to earn. Then in the wilderness, a desolate and empty place, a place of starvation, the Hebrew children ate their fill in peace. They feasted on the bread and quail that God provided. There was no more oppression, anxiety, or fear. They toiled and sweated no more. Once upon a time, the Hebrew children were threatened and beaten, and then “rewarded” for their coerced productivity. They were exploited as slaves, and knew only distress connected with bread. Then God provided rest and manna in the midst of their grumbling and complaining – grumbling, no less, in freedom. Talk about undeserved
Same with the laborers in the vineyard. Does the worker who got to the vineyard for an hour’s work really deserve a day’s wage? Certainly not by human standards. It rankles our sense of fair play, doesn’t it? Can you imagine a major corporation paying its employees on that model? If your employer promised a yearly salary so long as a new hire showed up by mid-October or November, how would you feel about that? You: who have been there since January and worked your tail off through September when this new policy was announced.
It is absurd to take this parable as a directive of how we should live our lives here and now, or run our businesses. We certainly have plenty of admonishment on how to behave and interact with our sisters and brothers in both Hebrew and Christian scriptures that we choose to ignore already – so let’s not add this impossible parable to the list. No, this is clearly a metaphor concerning God.
Both the Exodus and Matthew texts this morning challenge our understanding of ourselves and of God. On the one hand, we do not want to think of ourselves as petty bean counters, keeping score of what is deserved and who is deserving. On the other hand, we do not want to think that God would really love and grant grace to those who have harmed or oppressed others, or who come late to the job. It is just not fair! It is not fair according to our rules of polite and civil society. Both texts tell us that God plays by very different rules; and neither text expects these rules to be directives for our daily lives. We are to accept God’s rules of grace and the business of running God’s dominion as God sees fit to run it.
Is that all there is? Just accept that some racist or homophobe will receive as much grace as me? Or, just sit back, unconcerned, and enjoy all that God-given grace? Score keeping or cheap grace: is that the response God expects from us?
What is our response to this rule-breaking and radical grace? What is our response to the good news that God is egalitarian in God’s love – and thank God for the equal distribution of love and grace, because there are times I’m not sure I’d receive any of it if it were not for God’s radical rules.
Look at the appointed psalm for today. It is a jubilant psalm of praise and thanksgiving for all the grace God has shown to Israel. It is a witness to God’s radical grace. Israel never forgot what God had done, and Jews sing about that grace still today.
What about the laborer hired at 5:00 pm? If we Christians were into midrash, I am sure there would be a lovely story about that laborer’s response. Do you really think he would have kept quiet about the wonderful landowner whose concern was more for the laborer than for profits or crops? The landowner was motivated by the need of the laborer for work. The laborer’s response to the landowner’s motivation would be similar to the song of praise by the Israelites: a witness to radical grace.
Our directive isn’t to do acts of radical grace – the point of these stories is that only God can work such grace. However, we are called to share that grace in other ways – human ways, by the very human examples of sharing what we have with those in need, by lending an ear or offering an encouraging word, by witnessing to all that God has done for us.
God’s rules change everything: barrenness becomes life giving; one hour of work deserves a day’s wage; life out of death. God’s rules turn this world topsy-turvy. God’s rules change the world. Our response to God’s rules breaking our rules should be shouts of joy from the rooftops and hymns of praise on street corners. Yes, God breaks the rules we humans make. That’s God’s business. Our business is to tell everyone about it. I can’t think of a better way of bringing about the domain of heaven, not just something that is “of the same nature as”.