XVI Pentecost, Year A
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, "If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger."
Then the LORD said to Moses, "I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days." So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, "In the evening you shall know that it was the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your complaining against the LORD. For what are we, that you complain against us?" And Moses said, "When the LORD gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the LORD has heard the complaining that you utter against him– what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the LORD."
Then Moses said to Aaron, "Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, `Draw near to the LORD, for he has heard your complaining.’" And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud. The LORD spoke to Moses and said, "I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, `At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.’"
In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, "What is it?" For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, "It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat."
When God saw what the people of Nineveh did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD and said, "O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live." And the LORD said, "Is it right for you to be angry?" Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
The LORD God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, "It is better for me to die than to live."
But God said to Jonah, "Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?" And he said, "Yes, angry enough to die." Then the LORD said, "You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?"
For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.
Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well– since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
Jesus said, "The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, `You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, `Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, `Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, `You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, `Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, `These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, `Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; 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?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last."
What is it that lies behind the resentment of the workers who have worked all day? It seems so obvious, but the obvious answer is so very misleading. Mimetic theory helps us move beyond the scapegoating of the resentful workers into an entirely different reading.
Begin with the resentment at having been paid the same thing. Mimetic theory suggests that mediated desire would mitigate against that. After all, we desire the same thing we see the other desiring, in this case, a day’s wage. An entire day’s wage. Mimetic theory might also suggest that we might desire to become a “model” to another, to wish the other to have “less” so that I might become a model of desire by having “more.”
What is missing here is the “model” for “more.” How might those who worked longer come to desire to have “more” than another unless they have had it mediated to them by another? Who is left in our parable to serve as a mediator?
Once again, the character in our text who first appears to stand in for God exposes our culturally conditioned notions of the identity of the one Jesus knew as Abba. This “owner” gives out of his great wealth. He gives because he has the “more” that the resentful workers have been led to desire. They resent what he has paid them because he could have paid them more, because he is NOT the God made visible as described in Ephesians 2.
Their resentment is perfectly justifiable in the world of the parable. It makes no sense at all in the world of Ephesians 2, the world of the God of kenosis, of self-emptying.
It is important to keep in mind the setting of this parable, among so many other parables whose focus is forgiveness. We have noted recently that “conditional” forgiveness is no forgiveness at all. Today’s reading would add “partial forgiveness is no forgiveness at all.” In the world of the parable, “more” forgiveness seems possible, as the “owner” is the “owner” of so much more than he has given to the workers. In the world of Jesus’ Abba, there is only forgiveness. Everything else has been relinquished as the Creator enters into the abyss (thank you Tony for these wonderful images and metaphors). In what world does the worker of the first hour complain about an “owner” who has given up ownership of everything but love, but forgiveness?
The “owner” who is our God “pays” to each of us the whole of what there is to give. It is not until we make God into another “owner” who behaves as we do that resentment might grow up in us.
The notion of a “generous” landowner in the First Century is still inextricably entwined with the accrual of land that makes a joke of the jubilary themes of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is long since time for readers to abandon the easy association of the “owner” with the God who inspired Jubilee.
This parable is not intended to chastise us or its first hearers for our lack of generosity toward those God forgives in spite of their late coming to the work of spreading the Gospel. This parable leads us to take another look, a much closer look, at our understandings of God.
If we preach a God who gives out of great abundance, rather than from the abyss, we will reinforce a model that can only inspire in us a desire for “more.”
If we preach the faith of Jesus, we will preach a God who is first among being last.