Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
September 24, 2017
Imagine for a moment that you are a student taking an essential class, one that you are required to pass in order to graduate. You, along with many of your classmates have really struggled with the material, as well as with time management all semester. There are so many other needs you’ve been addressing, trying to balance life, in the midst of academia. As hard as you’ve tried, you haven’t done all the reading, and you’ve barely made it to class each day. You’ve often felt and been unprepared. You arrive to take the final, following a brief review session—and you know you are in trouble. You are woefully unprepared; while many of the students struggled with the material during the review, you felt totally lost.
Your neighbor across the aisle, on the other hand, is super-student. She gets all the breaks. She doesn’t have to work while going to school the way you do, she always gets all of her work done, she’s had all the time in the world the study, to get special tutoring if necessary, to be ready for today, and she seemed to have all the answers during that review. She seems ready to embrace this exam.
You dread what’s coming. It’s going to be Judgment Day. This test is going to separate the winners from the losers, the wheat from the chaff.
The professor explains that all the questions on the test are based on the reading, and students are responsible for everything in the reading. He then hands out the exam, face down on each student’s desk, with the instruction that you are to wait until everyone has their test, before turning it over.
When it comes time to turn the test over and begin, the students find that all the answers were filled in! A note on the bottom says, “This is the end of the final exam. All of the answers on your test are correct. You will receive an A on the final exam. The reason you passed the test is because the creator of the test took it for you. All the work you did in preparation for this test did not help you get the A. You have just experienced Grace”.
Just imagine for a moment how you, the student-in-need-of-Grace feel in that moment. Imagine the relief. Imagine the joy. Imagine the gratitude. You experience transformation from fear and dread, to hope and gratefulness for this gift you have been given.
Not all of the students feel the same way, however. Take your across-the-aisle neighbor, for instance. She has worked hard at this class, crossed every “T”, dotted every “I”, checked off each item on the syllabus, fulfilled every requirement, read every word of each reading assigned, and always gotten her work in on time, fully applying herself to the coursework in order to get that A. She isn’t exactly feeling grateful. She is feeling as though she’s been gipped.
While many of the students who had felt unprepared for the exam feel relief and gratitude, like the 11th hour workers in our this parable – the ones sent out into the vineyard at 5 o’clock, others, who were prepared feel furious. How can it be that they, who had worked so hard the entire semester long, get the same passing grade as those who probably hadn’t prepared at all? How could they, “the deserving,” receive the same reward as those who just showed up? Why should they all get As? It’s scandalous! It’s just not fair!
“Are you envious because I am generous?” asks God.
The thing is, Grace is like that test grade. It is scandalous. It is unfair. It doesn’t follow the rules. It makes fools of all of us.
At the same time it is this scandalous grace that is God’s greatest gift to all of us. It is God’s greatest expression of love for us, because the truth is, as Martin Luther wrote, “we are all beggars in the presence of God’s mercy.”
God asks, “Are you envious because I am generous?” and our emphatic answer might well be, “Darned right I am!”
God’s generosity is radical. God’s grace does not take into account what we have done or not done, only what God has done for us.
We often read this parable through the lens of this seeming disparity. We focus on the aspect of the story that deals with what we so often get caught up in - the who-is-right and who-is-wrong, and what, by our human viewpoint, is fair?
The problem is that our human focus on equity and equality is limited; it’s measured by human standards. Therefore, most of us see ourselves as the first workers. Because look at us, we are here today, aren’t we?
Most of us have devoted a considerable amount if not our whole lives to being part of a worshiping community, to belonging to a church, to doing our homework, hoping against hope that we will be prepared when that final exam, the Last Judgment, comes along. Because isn’t that what we are supposed to do?
It’s easy for us to make judgments of those we don’t deem worthy of Grace –those who aren’t here every week like we are, those who are altogether unchurched, those who don’t play by our rules, or came too late to the game. We do it all the time.
“Are you envious because I am generous?”
Gospels like this one can feel like a smack in the face, or a punch in the gut. How could God grant the same Grace to one who hasn’t devoted their entire lives to the church, hasn’t dotted all the “Is” of faith, hasn’t crossed all the “Ts” of the rules?
American novelist and non-fiction author Anne Lamott writes, “I do not at all understand the mystery of Grace – only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”
What do we do when God acts in ways that don't meet up with our expectations, when we don’t understand the mystery of Grace?
Funny thing is, I don’t think this parable is about idleness or preparedness, or number of hours worked, or being prepared, or being the first to show up versus the last.
I don’t think it is about laborers or who got up early and who was given work near the end of the day. We make this parable about those things because they are the things that matter to us. They are our own obsession, not God’s.
Because if we truly could see God for the awesome one who is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” then perhaps instead of pushing back against the concept of what is fair and what is not, we would instead embrace this parable for the beautiful illustration it offers of God’s extravagant, all-encompassing love.
We are all on the receiving end of God’s abundant generosity. Through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and by his life, death, and resurrection we are all the recipients of God’s grace. No matter how we interpret this parable, if we are to be honest, we are the ones who get way more than we deserve.
Jesus’ healing and compassionate love for all, most especially for the least, the last, the lost, the little and the lifeless. Jesus cares about the ones who come early, come late, or don’t even come at all.
While we judge one another as deserving or undeserving, Jesus has been clear that it is God’s purview to judge, and not ours. And God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
So, while we jostle for position, gossip about one another, tear down rather than build up through the choices we make, although we ignore those most in need of our love, compassion and forgiveness, God asks challenges us with this question – “are you envious because I am generous?”
Do we see God’s generosity as radical when it applies to us? God’s grace is not measurable. It is a mystery that is both perplexing and wonderful. It covers you and me as much as it covers our neighbor, as much as it covers the stranger, as much as it covers our enemy - and we are as much in need of it as they are.
Every time we are tempted to size up who is idle and who should be on the receiving end of generosity (God’s or ours or others), we need to consider this parable. We need to remember that, truth be told, we’ve gotten not what we deserve, but what God has so generously, extravagantly, radically, and foolishly given: Grace, mercy, forgiveness and salvation.
We each come to the font and have water sprinkled on our brow and hear the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit;” By God’s Grace. Each one of us hears the words of absolution spoken to us following the confession, declaring that we have been forgiven; by God’s Grace.
Together we come forward to this table, regardless of what good or bad we have done during the week, regardless of what terrible thing has happened in our past. We stretch out our hands, undeserving beggars that we are, and in the mystery of God’s Grace we hear those amazing words, “Body of Christ, Given. For. You.”
We each receive the same bread, the same wine or grape juice, the same immeasurable and undeserved forgiveness. That is the scandal of God’s Grace. That is the scandal of God’s love lived out for us every single time. That is the way God loves us, and it is not based on our goodness, success, good works, righteousness; it is based on who God is and how much God loves us, and what, out of that love, God has done for us.
Our response, our only response is, Thanks be to God!