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Surprising Generosity

September 19, 2011

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church

On the 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time, September 18, 2011

 

By The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary

Exodus 16: 2-15          Matthew 20: 1-16

Upon leaving Egypt and the oppressive rule of Pharaoh, Moses and the children of Israel wandered through the wilderness, and they grew hungry; so hungry that they began to crave the foods of Egypt. Better to eat the meager rations of a slave that starve in pursuit of freedom. Seeing their desperate need, God provided food for free, a soft, white substance upon which the people would feed for 40 years. They called the food manna, which means “What is it?” They would gather “What-is-it?” for breakfast and “what-is-it?” for lunch. God supplied their daily needs in abundance, but not for accumulation. Only as much as was needed for the day could be collected; any extra would be turned to worms by morning. As a reminder of all that God had done for them, God told them to collect an Omer of manna, which is about two quarts, and to keep it in a jar before the covenant. Later the manna jar was carried in the Ark of the Covenant, right beside the original Ten Commandments.

It’s a tiny story, popular in Sunday school, but with a huge impact throughout scripture. This free provision of daily food for each according to their needs, and never more, became the basis of biblical economics. The Sabbath finds its first concrete expression in the day of rest from food collection, a day on which freed slaves would not work as a sign of their freedom. Remembering the sign of the manna, later generations would craft Jubilee practices to curb the accumulation of property and possessions within Israel, and to regularly make restitution for loss, so that everyone had what they needed and no one had more.

In the New Testament, Jesus picks up these images of God’s abundance in his wilderness feeding of the multitudes, and in the passages of John’s gospel where Jesus refers to manna as “Bread from Heaven” and to himself as the “living bread which came down from heaven”. Jesus added that if anyone ate this bread, they would live forever.

Bread from Heaven. Manna in the wilderness. Enough for everyone. We are told in the book of Acts that in the early church “Every contributed according to his or her ability, and everyone received according to their need.” And everyone had enough. But that kind of sharing/generosity that grows up from within us because of the spirit at work takes time to grow.  It not something we understand or seem able to practice right away.  And it was the same for our ancestors in the faith. In this story, God is addressing a liberated people: a saved people, yes, but a people who had been enslaved and oppressed in Egypt for over 400 years; 400 years of living in an economy of scarcity, of fear, and of need. There is an old expression: it took 40 days to get God’s people out of Egypt, but it took 40 years to get the Egypt out of God’s people. Forming a people takes time.

I often refer to this story of manna provision and daily collection and use as ‘basic training’ in stewardship. Out there in the wilderness, through the rhythms of daily collection and weekly rest, of abundant supply and a daily check on our tendency to gather for ourselves and save up for tomorrow, God is training a generous people, a holy people, a people with the inner gifts and resources to care for one another as God cares for them. Stated simply: this story is about God’s abundant generosity which we are expected nurture in ourselves and practice with one another.

And Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” Now while Jesus’ parables are always complex stories that first tickled and then engaged the crowd’s questions, doubts, and hopes, this story too is told to nurture a response of gratitude toward our God whose justice, generosity and grace are beyond our understanding. But this is notoriously difficult to see because the parable is full of highly charges challenges to business as usual.

For example, our children are studying this passage upstairs right now. For our youngest children, like August and Jared and Leah, justice means fairness. “That’s not fair,” is something I hear at home almost every day. [And] Fairness for kids their age involves following rules, and reciprocal or equal exchanges. Generosity is understood as sharing things one has that others do not have. These kids will readily identify with the complaining laborers. They will struggle with this parable and will likely find the landlord blatantly unfair.[1] As do many of us. Jesus parable challenges us to think about how God’s generosity doesn’t follow any rules we easily understand, but still manages to provide for everyone what they most need.

Older children, on the other hand, seem to naturally enjoy practicing generosity. A recent Harris poll found that “over 80% of our third and fourth graders enjoy raising money, spending time helping others, and sharing their favorite things.”  They will readily identify with the landowner because he is free to do what he wants with what he has, but they may need help to see that the landlord’s generosity ensures that everyone who was looking for work in parable is able to put food on their table that evening. Seen in this light, the parable has less to do with charity and more to do with justice and the provision of basic needs.

On the other hand, and you will all understand this here in White Plains, land of the shopping malls, this same age group (our third and fourth graders), according to the Harris Poll, would also rather go shopping than just about any other kind of activity.[2] Jesus parable contains an important warning about our desire for material advantage, our tendency to compare ourselves to others, and our sense that what we have is either a reward for what we do or who we are.

A couple of months ago, one of our ruling elders brought this parable up in conversation. “I just don’t understand it. There is no fairness. This is no way to run a business. God is just unfair.”

Interestingly, this may be exactly the response Jesus hoped to provoke. While our elder was objecting to the parable from the perspective of modern business and finance, think of the parable from the perspective of those Jesus first told it to, the peasantry of rural Palestine. It may have been similar to kind of responses made by modern farmworkers.[3]

Is the landowner really that good? In Jesus day, the Roman Imperial system impoverished local farmers who were often forced to sell their land to pay their debts. The landowner in our parable would have been part of the (new) rich elite among the overwhelmingly poor. In the hands of these new landowners, field of grain which had formerly fed the people were often converted into vineyards for the production of wine, a luxury selling for top dollar and often exported. Like my friend Lucas’ father who was forced to sell his family farm in Mexico a few years after the passage of NAFTA, many of the day laborers in this parable would have found themselves hired to work land they once owned themselves.

Is the landowner really generous? By paying everyone equally, he has certainly assured that each person seeking work would be able to eat that day. But “the usual daily wage” was by no means generous – it was a subsistence payment. And since employment depended on laborers gathering in marketplace before sunrise each day in hopes of being chosen for work, there is no assurance that they will eat tomorrow.

Further, as Alyce McKenzie points out, the vineyard owner believes that he is allowed to do what he chooses with what belongs to him.

This reflects the Roman’s idea of private ownership, contradicting the Torah’s insistence that God is the owner of the land. The Torah’s vision was that one’s blessings were given to one to share with the dispossessed in the community, not as a platform to exploit them.[4]

In fact, the landowners very act of generosity seem calculated to provoke the grumbling of those hired early in the morning against the latecomers, a classic tactic of pitting workers against one another in the age old practice of divide and conquer.

Is this how God acts toward God’s people? Is this how God provides for us?

We often use models from human relationships to think about God. The Psalter tells us “As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him” (Ps. 103:13), and God in Isaiah says, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you” (Isaiah 66:13). Yet in this parable we are teased into working out just how God’s justice, generosity and grace are unlike human models we know.  “God is nothing like an arbitrary landlord who pays meager wages, participates in keeping the poor divided and disadvantaged, and who distributes grace in ways to provoke resentment.”[5]

But clearly, Matthew intends us to see the landowner in a favorable light. So let’s try to read the parable with him. God has work for everyone to do, and those of us who have working faithfully for a long time should not resent the newcomers.  Jesus’ parable had a word of challenge and a word of comfort; challenge for those who have been laboring long and hard, assurance and welcome for those newly arrived. 

It may have been hard for his audience to imagine a generous landowner.  That was not their expectation.  And we have our expectations as well.  Here’s a real life parable from Immokalee Florida.

WINK News in southwest Florida decided to do an undercover investigative report on the conditions under which farmworkers labor, the sub-poverty wages they receive and the workers’ struggle to dialogue with their employers. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a community-based worker’s group, had publicly called for talks between growers and workers. A reporter and a producer disguised themselves as workers and joined the crowd of farmworkers waiting to negotiate a day’s labor and be taken in buses to the fields just before dawn. The reporters knew that the farmworkers were earning well below minimum wage–annually somewhere around $7500. But growers claimed the workers earned $16,000. The reporters’ plan was to go into the fields, pick tomatoes, look at what average workers harvested and report on their earnings while taping the experience. They did just that and their broadcast vindicated the farmworkers’ claims, underscoring the need for growers to negotiate with workers. At the close of the broadcast, the reporters explained there was one more story to tell. As they waited for the buses that morning, two farmworkers approached them. One man quietly asked, “Do you have any money?” Fearing they were panhandling, the newscasters said, “No.”  At which point the worker pulled out his wallet which contained only three dollars. “Here,” he said with a brief nod, and handed all three dollars to the newscasters. Then he walked away. 

Generosity awakens us to the humanity in one another.  At its base we are reminded in giving and receiving that all of us are part of God’s family, and all of us are valuable.  That we need each other to survive; that God created us for each other.  And so we hear Matthew’s message again: we all have work to do. Thanks be to God.

 

“God’s way is justice and extravagant generosity for all.”

 

© The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary, 2011

White Plains Presbyterian Church


[1] Insights from our church school curriculum, Feasting on the Word, for grades K-2.

[2] Insights from our church school curriculum, Feasting on the Word, for grades 3-4.

[3]See William Herzog, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed. WJK Press, 1994. Or Kenneth Bailey, Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke (Combined Edition) Eerdmanns, 1983.  Or better yet, get to know some farmworkers through the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (www.CIW-Online.org) or through Rural and Migrant Ministries of NY (www.ruralmigrantministry.org)

[4] Alyce M. McKenzie, The Parables for Today. WJK Press, 2007. p. 76.

[5] David Mosser. The Stewardship Companion: Lectionary Resources for Preaching. WJK Press, 2007.

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