God Didn't Go to Business SchoolSeptember 18, 2005
Proper 20, Year A
St. John’s, OKC
When I was in college, the most popular course on campus was Econ 101, the required basic economics course for many degrees. It was so big, it was held in a 1000 seat auditorium, and you had to get there early if you wanted to get a real seat, and not be stuck on the stairs. My friends who took the course plotted graphs of supply and demand, created charts of wages and profits, studied business plans that worked and models that spectacularly failed.
It seems, however, in today’s readings, that Jesus missed taking the Middle Eastern equivalent of Econ 101, because the business plan he gives us in a parable in this morning’s gospel would get a failing grade from any self-respecting professor.
There once was a landowner, he said, with a vineyard. He went out at sunup to hire some laborers for the day, to be paid a denarius for their labor at the end of the day, just enough to live on, a normal day’s pay for that work in those times.
This would have made sense to Jesus’ audience. This was a business plan they could understand.
There must have been a lot of work to do, and urgent work at that, because the landowner himself kept making trips back to the market looking for labor, even as late as 5:00 in the afternoon. This would have been the first clue to Jesus’ audience that this guy failed business school. He clearly didn’t plan ahead or delegate the hiring to a manager.
At the end of the day, the landowner instructs his foreman to give those who were hired and only worked one hour a full denarius. And how excited the first workers would be. Surely they would be rewarded for the hours laboring in the full sun, the grinding heat of a day creating a vineyard in the desert. But they are disappointed to receive the same denarius they were promised in the beginning and no more.
Now the grumbling and complaining begins. That’s unfair! They didn’t do the same amount of work! Where’s our bonus for being first, for being hard workers? And Jesus’ audience is nodding along with them. What kind of landowner is this anyway? He’s going to be out of business soon if he pays all his laborers the same wage no matter how much work they do.
The author of the Gospel of Matthew has a specific purpose in mind by including this parable. He wasn’t trying to teach Vineyard Economics 101. Matthew’s community has a problem. Scholars believe, based on the writings of this Gospel, that his community was mainly made up of Jews who had become Christian, who faithfully kept the covenant, who were circumcised, and wrestled with keeping the dietary restrictions, and were persecuted by their neighbors who couldn’t understand why they had given up the faith of their ancestors to follow this messiah who had ended up crucified on a cross.
And then Matthew’s community started to experience another kind of Christian, those who had been Gentiles, those outside the Jewish community. Uncircumcised. Sloppy about what they ate and how they ate it. Ignorant of the law and the customs that went with it. There was grumbling and complaining. How could they be full recipients of the same grace and mercy? Weren’t we here first? Haven’t we been working harder longer? Isn’t there something that distinguishes us from these latecomers? They’re not keeping the Law, and you are making them equal to us who have observed it from birth.
The landowner’s answer is directed at all the listeners of this parable. “I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 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?”
Is it just Matthew’s community that wants credit for having been around longer? Are we churchy types any different? Aren’t we very good at grumbling and complaining? Don’t we cast a questioning eye over those who don’t quite fit the mold, who don’t look like everyone else on a Sunday morning? Aren’t those of us who are “cradle Episcopalians” susceptible to feeling just a tad superior than others? Aren’t we more willing to invite newcomers to potlucks than to be on the vestry? Are we really willing to accept that God has called everyone who walks through the door, laity and clergy alike to the same wage, the wage that gives each one of us life?
How freeing would it be to stop worrying about whether we’re getting more or less of God than anyone else?
God’s working on a different business model than the rest of us. God is working on extending new life to everyone. It’s God’s business who’s in the kingdom, not ours. We cannot achieve our own salvation. We are all dependent on God’s invitation to labor in the vineyard, and there’s endless room for more to labor beside us. Salvation is not a limited resource and grace doesn’t graph very well.
The truth is, we can’t grade God’s business plan because we have no idea whether we are first or last, whether we are laboring in the vineyard for days, or whether we are the last ones hired We can’t say whether we were early to class or are in the crowd on the stairs.. There’s no time to be envious of God’s generosity. All we have to rely on is a God who gives us grace and mercy through the Body and Blood offered for us here at the table, a foretaste of the wages we hope to receive, when we gather with all those who have gone before and those who will follow, at the coming of the kingdom.