Since the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008, we have heard repeatedly the mantra of economic growth: growth in housing construction, recovery of the jobs that evaporated overnight, and expansion of the stock market. These exhortations to grow assume that there will always be more: more oil, more gas, more jobs, more training, more food, and increasing profits from market investments – an assumption not every one finds convincing. And yet the hope for a prosperous future seems baked into the nation’s DNA. After all, America holds out the promise that if you work hard, follow the rules, and catch a couple breaks you will enjoy a good measure of success. It’s difficult, then, to imagine shortages in gas, food, and medicine; difficult to imagine limitations to our mobility and advancement. Isn’t there always more where this came from – whatever this might be?
To our 1st century ancestors in the faith, however, the dream of growth was utterly incomprehensible. Indeed, for Mary, Jesus, Paul, and everyone else who lived in the ancient world, everything was limited in quantity: there was no upward mobility, no market that would transform investments into greater earnings, no infinite amount of land or harvest, no notion whatsoever that there would always be more. The world of Jesus was marked by limited goods and one’s career path was determined by your father’s occupation or your mother’s role as child-bearer and keeper of the household. You see, everyone believed that everything had already been distributed in society prior to the day of one’s birth. The best one might do was to conform to that reality and work within the parameters of one’s predetermined role.
Thus, no one would dream of asking the vineyard owner for a job – they had already been given away – and it would be considered shameful to ask for work since the job seeker would be depriving the owner of what was rightfully his. It would be a good thing, however, indeed a gracious thing, for the employer to offer work to those in need which this owner does throughout the day. And so we arrive at the land holder’s odd payment practices. Did you notice that to those hired first, he offers “the usual daily wage,” but to those who are hired throughout the day, he promises to pay “whatever is right”? The American worker, the union boss, might be wondering skeptically: “Whatever is right? what does that actually mean? A higher or lower wage?” But, then, you and I have entered into a world where a vineyard owner, a merchant, or a city administrator is not only an employer but also a patron: that is, a person who freely chooses to treat others as members of his own household; a person whose sense of generosity is expansive rather than miserly; a person who risks relationship with a stranger; a person who sees in the other a potential friend, rather than a competitor or potential enemy.
To those hired early and paid “the usual daily wage,” the generosity of the owner is scandalous. It is simply unfair in their eyes, something the owner notes in their demeanor when he asks, “Are you envious because I am generous?” But that’s not what he actually asks, for in the original Greek of Matthew’s gospel, he says, “Is your eye evil?” That is, are you giving me the evil eye? Are you placing a curse on me because of my generosity to others? Are you silently hoping for my death because you find my liberality too much to bear?
For that is the heart of the matter, is it not? Jesus is not talking so much about economic relations as he is revealing the generosity, the graciousness of God, and doing so in a way that gives offense to hard working people. For you see, the God we worship here, says Jesus, is indiscriminate in his, in her, generosity. This generosity is not hemmed in by limitations or the vagaries of the market. Indeed, coming to church, being baptized, living a good Christian life (whatever that might be), receiving communion, treating others respectfully, reading the Bible – none of this gives any of us an edge, a special measure of God’s generosity, for as the vineyard workers and we with them discover, grace cannot be earned. Indeed, God’s loving regard for all that God creates, for you and me, is present before, before we even think of it, long for it, or experience it. And this, of course, is a most challenging insight when the human impulse to measure out generosity with conditions great and small is how we imagine God’s relationship with you and with me.
The simple yet challenging dynamic of our Sunday worship is this: we are called to live as we worship. If we worship a stingy god who places many conditions on love and grace, will we not act in the same way with each other? Will we not find over the top generosity offensive, insufficiently rational, prone to misuse, and a catalyst for laziness? On the other hand, if we are drawn into relationship with the God of immeasurable grace and love for all people – the hard-working and the not-so-hard-working, the lucky and not-so-lucky – will you and I not be drawn to see each other and those we encounter in daily life through the lens of God’s abundance?
And wouldn’t this perspective prompt us to ask how the generous treasures of God’s creation might be shared with greater equity, greater justice, among all of us? Would we not rush to the phone or computer and urge our President and Congress to send far more than 1700 beds to West Africa and send them with more than adequate medical support simply because it benefits the Ebola-stricken people of West Africa rather than keeps at bay a disease that provokes fear within us?
Each and every Sunday, our Lord Jesus – through the gifts of vineyard and fields – gives himself to you and to me freely, without charge, regardless of our worthiness or unworthiness, regardless of any spiritual vitality or confusion we might experience. We say Amen as we receive bread and cup; Amen which means let it be so in my life. Is that not an Amen to generosity, a living into the generosity that daily surrounds us and can animate us in ways we have not yet imagined?