It is hard to read the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) without having our sense of fairness challenged. It is not fair that some only worked one hour and got the same wage as those who worked all day long. This week, it seems that the preacher's question is to ask what this unfairness and our reaction to it tell us about the kingdom of God and our participation in it. The parable is crafted to evoke an indignant response within us. How is Jesus using that anger at a perceived injustice to teach us about the way God works in our lives and in the world?
Forgive the brief review, but, during the season after Pentecost, the Revised Common Lectionary offers two different "tracks" for the Old Testament reading. Historically, Track 2 is more familiar to us. It is the one that pairs a thematically relevant first reading with whatever the Gospel lesson is. This week, the Track 2 OT lesson is Jonah 3:10-4:11, which touches on Jonah's indignant response to God's forgiveness of the people of Nineveh. These were wicked, ungodly enemies of Israel who repented at the last minute and were spared from God's wrath. Understandably, that made Jonah, the Israelite prophet, angry. In the RCL, the Track 1 reading is the newer option, which, in an effort to avoid supersessionist (i.e. the New Testament fulfills and thus replaces the Old Testament) implications, makes its way through large works of the Old Testament (e.g. Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, and Ezekiel) with no regard for the Gospel lesson. Sometimes, like this week, however, there's a connection between the Track 1 OT lesson and the Gospel that is too good to pass up.
In Exodus 16:2-15, the people of Israel begin to complain against the Lord and Moses for leading them away from Egypt, where they "ate [their] fill of bread," into the wilderness "to kill this whole assembly with hunger." Throughout the passage, as the NRSV gives it to us, the people complain and complain and complain. They complain against Moses and Aaron. Moses tells them that God has heard their complaining. He tells them to stop complaining at him and Aaron and acknowledge that they are really complaining against the Lord. This theme repeats itself throughout the reading. But there's a problem with a translation that uses the word "complain" to describe what the people did in the wilderness but uses the word "grumble" to describe what the laborers in the vineyard did in Jesus' parable. Other translations, like the ESV and NIV use grumble to describe the Israelites' dissatisfaction, while some like the CEV use complain to describe both the Israelites' and laborers' frustration. The point is that the congregation needs to hear the connection between the faithless grumbling of the wish-we-were-back-in-Egypt Israelites and the faithless grumbling of the I-want-what-he-got laborers in the vineyard.
Both stories are about faith, economics, and God's provision, and I'll suggest that the link becomes even clearer if we extend the OT lesson by three verses:
Moses said to them, "It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. This is what the Lord has commanded: 'Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.'" The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed. (Exodus 16:15b-18)Although the lectionary-appointed lesson includes the reference to God testing the Israelites to see if they will listen and only gather up as much as they need, the reading stops short of showing us what that means. You could extend the reading even further and include the worms that crawl in whatever amount was left over, but I think these three verses are enough to get the point across. Some gathered more. Some gathered less. But as long as they measured it with an omer--a day's measurement--everyone had just enough. Not too much. Not too little. Just enough. Isn't that the message of God's provision?
The parable of the laborers in the vineyard awakens in us a sense of unfairness because we believe that those who work more should get more. In an economy of limited resources, that is true. When we base the allocation of goods on a system of scarcity, people expect to get a wage in proportion to their efforts. But that's not how the divine economy works. There is no scarcity in God's kingdom. That's true of love and forgiveness, but it's also true of food and money and healthcare. In God's kingdom, everyone has enough. Each laborer received a day's wage, a denarius. That was enough to feed a family, pay the bills, and, thus, live an abundant life. In the parable, just like in the wilderness story, everyone gets enough. The point of both stories is that, when God reigns, everyone gets enough. That works because it is based not on an economy or theology of scarcity but one of abundance. There's always enough to go around.
Are we living in a world that mirrors God's kingdom? Certainly not. Could we? If so, we must start by believing that there is enough for everyone, that the richness of one's life does not depend on the amount of one's possessions. (Sound familiar?) Once we understand that enough is enough--that true freedom and wealth and abundance means that there is enough for everyone--only then can we begin to receive our denarius or our omer of manna without grumbling. When everyone has enough, it doesn't matter whether you have more than I do. But until we all understand what enough is, we'll never see it.