September 28, 2014
Calvary - St. George's Church, Manhattan
September 28, 2014
Calvary - St. George's Church, Manhattan
Audio link here: ...Or Are You Envious Because I Am Generous
Last week's gospel lesson, the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, reminded me of the parable of the Prodigal Son. In that story there are two sons. One is reckless and doesn’t care about his family; the other is unswervingly dutiful and all about what’s fair. Many of you know how the story plays out. The prodigal becomes broke, starts sleeping on the side of the road, and ultimately returns to his family and his father (maybe not even all that repentant.) But the father is overjoyed to see this son who had earlier wished him dead. The father not only receives his son, but gives him a robe and his ring, and throws a lavish party. And, if you read a lot of Christian literature, you might think the story ends there, only it doesn’t. For the parable of the Prodigal Son is actually a story about 2 sons. When the prodigal's older brother, the unswervingly dutiful and fair son, finds out that his brother has returned and has received a hero’s welcome, he is upset. This isn’t fair, he thinks. So he refuses to join the party; he refuses to join his family. The father hears about his older son, and leaves the party to find him. When he does finds him he tells him to join the family, join the party. But the older son objects. He says I have served you unswervingly all this time and here you go and throw a party for your decadent son who deserves nothing more than for you to disown him. I will not come into the party… At this, the father says "‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” The parable ends with the invitation to the older son to join the feast, to join the family, but we aren’t told what the older brother chooses to do. As we read the parable, we find that we—the readers—are being confronted with the question. We, the older brother type—the unswervingly dutiful; those who are all about what’s fair—are posed with the question, “If the undeserving are invited too, will we join the feast?” Or are we envious that the Father is generous?
Last week's parable was very similar. We were told the story of a landowner who went out to hire laborers for his vineyard. At the beginning of the day he found laborers and agreed to pay them the usual daily wage for their work. Then at 9 am he found more and agreed to pay them the same. At noon the landowner finds more. Then at 5 o’clock—the end of the day—he finds laborers standing around and invites them to work in his vineyard. Evening comes, and the laborers are paid, the late arrivals first, the early birds last. When the early birds finally come to receive their pay, they are upset. For despite the fact that they had agreed on receiving the daily wage they assumed that they’d be paid more than the people who came after them. More especially than those who came at 5 o'clock. They cry out in protest, “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.” At this the landowner replied, “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?”
Did you notice the similarities between the two parables? Dutiful sons and laborers who are invited to the feast who are envious because the landowner—the Father—is generous. Although the laborers had received the wages they had agreed to from the very beginning they are upset at the generosity of the landowner. They are upset by his radical generosity. They—like the religious elite the parable is addressed to—are upset by what the kingdom of heaven looks like.
And if you are tempted to think that you and I wouldn't be too, hearer beware. In his book The Death of the Messiah, internationally regarded New Testament scholar Raymond Brown wrote concerning these parables and others that “The Gospel portrait implies that Jesus would be rejected by the self-conscious religious majority of any age.”---“That Jesus would be rejected by the self-conscious religious majority of any age!”---Think about it. Through a parable about workers in a vineyard, Jesus tells the religious elite of his own day that they are no better than anyone else. In saying, as he does, that “the first shall be last and the last shall be first,” Jesus is showing the religious leaders that the religious playing field has been leveled. He is proclaiming to the elite that they have no special claim on the generosity of God. He is showing the “first” that they are indeed included with the “last." Remember their complaint, "You have made those who've worked for one hour equal to us who have borne the burden of the day."
And if last week's message wasn't offensive enough to the self-consciously religious of Jesus’ day, this week's gospel lesson from Matthew only intensifies what was said last week. For this week's gospel lesson takes place in the Temple--the home turf of the religious elite. And once again Jesus provokes the “first” of his day with a parable. Once again we return to a vineyard. Once again there is a father and two sons. In this parable, the first son is the personification of the “last,”--the "tax collectors and prostitutes"--and, against all the odds, this son is shown as doing the will of his Father, while the second son, the personification of the "first,"--the religious elite--despite every advantage, falls short. Here, on their home ground, Jesus tells the self-consciously religious that the despised “tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God before them.” He tells them that in accepting the message of John the Baptist, the tax collectors and prostitutes have readily recognized their “last”-ness, their need for radical generosity, while they, the religious leaders, have proven themselves too proud--too put together in their own eyes--to receive the gift. Once again we have a parable where the first have found themselves last, and the last first.
In all of three of the parables I've talked about this morning, God is presented as radically—almost recklessly—generous. And the righteous, the ones who have their act together, can’t handle it. The "first" in these parables believe that they have mostly earned their dues, that they have mostly merited their place at the table. And for these people, and for the self-consciously religious of every age, this good news for the "last" is no good news at all. They are envious because God is generous. They are upset because this means that they are not first. This means they are indeed included with the last.
The way the author of Matthew presents these last two parables suggests that if these stories do not warm your heart, if they are not good news to your ears, then you don’t get it. You don’t get Jesus, you don’t get the kingdom of God, and you don’t get yourself. For the message of the gospel, the message Jesus came to bring is good news for all, because none are righteous. Not the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son, not the laborers who began their work at the beginning of the day (for they had indeed received what they had agreed upon), not even those who dwell in the Temple itself. The message of the gospel is that no one has earned their dues, no one has merited their place at the table, but that God is in the business of accepting sinners before they have their act together. He’s in the business of justifying both bad people and “good” people. He’s in the business of announcing that the playing field has been leveled, that all are in need of his generosity, that all are indeed last.
Maybe you’re a prodigal younger brother, tax collector, prostitute-type and this gospel is instant balm. It’s too-good-to-be-true and yet it is. The crucified and risen Lord bids you, “come to the feast.” Or maybe you’re an older brother, hard working, religious-type and this news seems unfair. Maybe you’re thinking to yourself that you're okay, that you’ve mostly got your act together, and that you’ve no need for radical generosity. The crucified and risen Lord bids you the same, “lay down your pride and come to the feast, for I came for sinners both the obvious ones not so obvious ones. For bad people and for good people.”
If you’re in the latter camp this morning, and this just happens to be the camp many churchgoers fit into, the Lord bids you to come and die to yourself. He invites you to receive the gift for the good news that it is. Or will we refuse because we are too envious of the Father’s generosity? Are you angry that the Lord would pour out everything for those people. Like at the end of the parable of the prodigal son the answer is left to the reader, to the hearer, to you and I this morning. Are we envious because of his generosity, or will we accept the fact that we do not merit his generosity. That we do not have our act together. That we and everyone else we have ever known is in fact last and not first, but that that is good news because as Jesus says the first shall be last and the last shall be first.
The Lord whom we serve is radically, recklessly generous, even to tax collectors and prostitutes, and this is good news for all, because that includes all of us. Thanks be to God.