Pentecost 14: Are you envious because God is generous?

When God saw what they 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?" (Jonah 3:10-4:4)

[Jesus said,] "For 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."(Matthew 20:1-16)

I don’t know much about Diane, but I do know that she was a generous woman. She was homeless, living on the street in Washington D.C., but always found ways to give to others, even in her own need. My friend Keith tells the story of the day that Diane called him and told him to look out the window of his apartment to the street below. There, along the street, was Diane, a limousine, and an invitation for Keith to join her for a fancy dinner out to celebrate her new job and first paycheck. Diane was the sort of person to browse charities and give gifts to them on the behalf of others. You might receive a notice in the mail, thanking you for donating ten bicycles to an orphanage in Brazil, and you’d know that Diane was behind it. When Diane died, a young boy asked to speak at her funeral, and shared the story of how Diane had written a check every month to help this boy’s mother pay the mortgage. I don’t know much about Diane, but I do know that she was a giant of generosity.

And for those of us who have so much, do we not wonder about how this woman, who appeared to have so little, could give so very much?

Generosity always causes us to raise our eyebrows and ask questions. Because it is in our human nature to cling to that favorite phrase of economists and politicians alike: “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” Generosity makes us suspect. It throws us off because generosity is fundamentally lopsided. Generosity is pathologically unfair. Generosity depends upon tipping the scales out of balance.

Two weeks ago, we heard Jesus talk about the subversive practice of seeking out those who have wronged us, not for the sake of accusation, but for the sake of forgiveness. Last week, we heard even more about the relationship-restoring practice of generous forgiveness, of repairing the breach. Those gospels were both about the idea that the kingdom of God is precisely about not getting what you deserve...it’s about getting something far better. Today’s gospel is no different. It is an entire parable devoted to the idea that in God’s kingdom, we don’t receive blessing because we deserve it; we receive blessing because God is generous.

Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a vineyard owner who goes into the marketplace to find day laborers to pick grapes that had suddenly burst into ripeness. He goes early in the morning, hires the go-getting folks who are already up and ready to work, and promises them the usual daily wage. Later in the morning, realizing that there is more work to be done, he goes back to the marketplace, finding more workers who aren’t quite such early risers, but who are still worthy workers, and he promises to pay them “whatever is right.” Finding that the work still exceeds the workers, the vineyard owner goes back again at noon, and then again at three, picking up the workers who have slept in or been occupied with other morning business, still promising them a fair wage. Finally, at five o’clock, when there is still work left to be done, he goes to the marketplace one last time, hiring all of the unmotivated or unskilled or lazy or incompetent or weak or small workers who are still standing around, looking for work. He hires them for the last hour of the day and brings them to the vineyard.

At the end of the workday, the owner calls the workers in from the fields to be paid. He starts with the workers hired last, paying them the usual daily wage - the same usual daily wage he had promised the first workers he hired. At this, those hired first start smiling to themselves. If the vineyard owner is paying these guys the usual daily wage for one hour of work, how much more will he pay those who have been working for nearly twelve hours? Those hired at three step forward, and also receive the regular, usual daily wage. As do those hired at noon. And those hired at nine. And when those who were hired first receive, also, nothing more and nothing less than the usual daily wage, they begin to grumble and complain: “It’s not fair!” they say. “How is it that you have made the rest of these slackers equal to those of us who have been working our fingers to the bone for the entire day?”

The vineyard owner asks, “Friends, did I not promise you when I hired you that I would pay you the usual daily wage? Didn’t you agree to these terms before you came out to the vineyard? I have done you no wrong. Am I not allowed to spend my own money in any way that I choose? Are you envious because I have been generous?”

These grumbly workers would have been best friends with Jonah, our fish-bellied prophet from the first reading. God, in God’s infinite mercy, has chosen not to destroy the evil city of Ninevah. And this makes Jonah mad. Red-faced angry. Upset enough that his blood pressure rises and his eyes widen and he can’t manage to say anything that doesn’t come out loud and full of exclamation points: “This is why I didn’t want this assignment! Because here you set me up to risk my life preaching to a city such as Ninevah, and then decide not to destroy them! How dare you be a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love?? How dare you! Lord, in a world like this, it is better for me to die than live. It’s just too unfair!”

And the LORD said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

The vineyard owner asked, “Are you envious because I have generous?”

Have you ever stopped to think about how unfair this business of being a Christian really is? If someone asked you what the kingdom of heaven is like, isn’t the honest answer, “the kingdom of heaven is unfair?”

Because this is a kingdom based on lopsided things like forgiveness and generosity, which God gives us with little regard to our station in life, despite our best successes and worst failures. The Bible is full of sinners who God still loves. The Bible is full of screw-ups who Jesus yet died to save. The Bible tells the stories of God’s word coming to undeserving people, through the testimonies of imperfect disciples and letter-writers.

And Jesus was killed precisely because he preached the unfair message that God’s kingdom was not only for the pharisees and religious leaders, but also for the prostitutes and tax collectors. Jesus was killed precisely because he preached a message of God’s preferential option for the poor and lowly, rather than the powerful and high-achieving.

In our own lives, we know that God forgives lifelong sinners on their deathbeds. The church welcomes back members that have hurt or been hurt by the body. We know that God’s grace falls equally upon those who volunteer for everything and upon those who only attend worship and those who barely make it to worship on Christmas Eve and Easter. We know that God allows bad people to be successful. We know that lazy co-workers are considered for the same promotions as we are. We know that crazy drivers on I-88 won't always get pulled over by the police. We know that no matter how hard we work, there will always be time when we watch someone else receive extra praise.

And in the face of God’s generosity - to us, yes, but especially toward others, those who are precisely not us - we are cast us into a space where we are faced with a choice. Do we respond like Jonah and the early-bird workers, seeing in God’s generosity to others only what we perceive to lack? Or do we respond like Diane, seeing God’s blessings in her own life and inspiring her own generous heart? When we witness moments of unfair generosity, how do we choose to respond? With gratitude or with resentment?

Pastor David Lose says, “The killer thing about this choice is that it really is a choice as unavoidable as it is simple -- you just can't be grateful and envious at the same time. So which is it going to be?”

I want you to take your hands and place them out in front of you, palms up. Look at them. Into one of these hands, I want you to place your resentments, the grudges you hold, or the things you envy. Into the other one of your hands, I want you to place the blessings in your life, things for which you are grateful, the abundance that you have. Now slowly close your fists. In one hand, you hold your blessings, in the other, you hold your misfortunes. Both of your hands, physically, weigh pretty much the same. But spiritually, one of these hands probably feels heavier.

Be honest with yourself. In your life as it is right now, which hand is heavier? Which hand is fuller? Is it the hand in which you placed all of your jealousies and perceived injustices? Or is it the hand in which you placed your blessings and thanksgivings? Let the heavier, fuller, weightier hand sink a little bit. Only you know which hand that is. Think about which hand is heavier. Think about which hand you want to be heavier. Which of your hands is the way that you want to respond to God’s generosity in the world? How can you live your life to reflect this?

Now take your hands and open them up again. Bring them together, one hand on top of the other, into a gesture of begging, of openness, of receiving. There, in your cupped hands, are all of your joys, all of your blessings, all of your resentments, all of your frustrations and misfortunes. Into these very hands God will place the fullness and assurance of his forgiveness and grace as you receive bread at communion. Jesus’ body is given for you, for your resentments, for your joys, for your moments of generosity and your moments of selfishness. And into these very hands he commends his own spirit, giving you grace upon grace from a lavish and generous God who gives you not what you deserve, but what he freely offers out of love. Feel the weight of the bread in your hands and let the heaviness of God’s lavish blessings linger on your palm even after you eat. For this bread is more than bread. It is the generous promise of forgiveness and blessing offered to you by none other than our God who is both gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.

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