Mother Katherine’s sermon preached Sep. 20, 2020

Posted by on Sun, Sep 20, 2020 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The 16th Sunday after Pentecost

September 20, 2020

If we cannot explain our theology to a child, then we don’t understand it. Godly Play, the younger children’s curriculum we use, teaches us that objects often teach better than words. Children learn what a parable is by using a set of many nesting boxes with lids. The leader opens the largest outer one telling them it contains a parable, and then on discovering yet another box goes on to do this with all the nested boxes. In the tiniest one, the leader reaches in to hold up what appears impossible to see and says, “That is why people who loved parables very much put the unseen part in a box, so they could find it and even take it with them. They didn’t want to lose the parable. It was too precious.” The storyteller then explains that “The next people who came along also loved parables very much, but the parable box the other people made didn’t agree with them very well. They wanted one that one that was just right for them, so they made their own, and people kept doing this,” continuing for over a thousand years, until finally we come to the time of your parents, who also love parables. Yet the box their parents made was not quite right for them either, so they too made their own. I tell you this because over time there have been many interpretations of this parable. As we listen to what Jesus is saying to us today we grow, in faith and spiritual maturity. We may each carry away parts as most important, and that’s okay. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said, “You can disagree without being disagreeable.”

Classical interpretation held that each hour’s hirelings were of different and even opposing groups, each representing either one of God’s attempts to save Israel (the vineyard of course) through the ages, or the variety of people around them while Jesus talked; Pharisees, priests, fisherman, farmers, etc. Jesus makes no indication of any such differentiation in the workers, and we hear all are from the self-same marketplace. I’m happy to set aside this version aside since it implies God is the landowner who wields salvation as a reward one can earn, and who casts out those who complain and question.

We often hear this as akin to Jesus’ urging them ‘to be saved’ no matter how late, but we also hear it set in the context of what he has just been teaching about taking care of each other, being responsible in how we live, forgive, care, and love. This Jesus is more likely to ask what someone needs than if he or she’s working on salvation. The story aspect here is louder than the allegorical, and Jesus the storyteller taught continually how we are to love our neighbors and treat each other without judgment. In those times hiring day workers included customs about how long people worked, it commonly assumed feeding those who were working, plus the “usual daily wage” of one perhaps denarius—a silver coin that might cover food for a family for a handful of days. A good storyteller knows there’s no story unless there’s a conflict point where it strays from life as usual, and so it does. The householder instructs that they be paid in a certain order and that all get the same one-day-wage originally agreed upon no matter their hours. Curiously, the very thing that makes the longer-laboring workers angry and questioning, is the same thing that people have been wrestling with for ages; money, and money as a proportional measure of worth. Is the householder unfair or intentionally provocative for compensating them all with the same amount? That works if we consider the measure of money a measure of worth. What if it were food? The mealtime comes and they all stop to eat. Should some get more or less food? Watching hungry people come line up for the Issaquah meals that’s not what I see. No one is served by how hard they worked or how long they waited.

Interestingly, this is the same plot line of several ancient rabbinic parables which Jesus would likely have known. The common thread in them is learning that God’s actions are not necessarily what we think is most fair, rather God seeks for us what is more just. Fair is about quantity and equal exchange, yet what is right or just is about much more. Amy-Jill Levine, professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School, reminds us of what Josephus (a Jewish historian and general who lived in Jesus’ time and after), wrote; that in completing the Jerusalem Temple, over 18,000 workmen were in want, “and if any of them did but labor for a single hour, he received his pay.” If bounty allows, everyone has enough food. (Short Stories by Jesus; the enigmatic parables of a controversial rabbi, HarperOne, 2014)

Maybe we are being challenged to understand money not in terms of our worth, but as the vehicle by which we can pay for what sustains our lives. I know, why go to work early and work hard if there’s no distinction between all-day workers and those who get away with only an hour? We notice there’s no explanation for why some workers were only available for hire later in the day, and it makes me think of all the things that might make us arrive late. Farther to go, more responsibilities at home, a sick child, a lost sheep? They complain, “You have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day.” Again we hear the same internal conflict Jesus’ audience must have heard; equating money with people’s worth by the hour. In the way this parable is worded, working different hours means the people are equal ‘at the end of the day.’ Those complaining thought the last group paid should be worth more, by being paid more. “You have made them equal to us…”

When Jesus asks, “Or is your eye evil because I am good?” he’s giving them the benefit of pausing to reconsider. Ruth Bader Ginsberg once said, “Justices continue to think and can change. I am ever hopeful that if the court has a blind spot today, its eyes will be open tomorrow.” Fortunately this applies to us as well. Why else does Jesus tell parables if not to open our eyes anew?! If the last hour worker was their neighbor and only received a pittance, would the long-day laborer have been pleased to hear the family going hungry? Imagine the thoughts of each person in the parable as if they were you. Was householder excited knowing he was going to do this, saddened or angry when they complained? As one of those last hired who received a full day’s pay—are you perplexed? Suspicious? Overjoyed? Would you be hurt by the anger of those workers (perhaps your neighbors) who would begrudge you such a blessing, even though it cost them nothing? Could one instead be happy for someone who gets what they most need, even if it “isn’t fair” in a dollars-to-hours ratio? Our needs aren’t less because we are hired later, and anyone who has ever been unemployed can attest to that! What of those who come to Jesus’ ‘vineyard’ late and yet receive grace? Does that help us shift gears from ‘fairness’ to ‘justice

Hanging on the wall in Justice Ginsberg’s chambers is a piece of art hanging in her chambers; inscribed with a verse in Hebrew she loved. from Deuteronomy (16:20), “Tzedek, Tzedek, Tirdof” or, “Justice, justice you shall pursue…”

© 2020 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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