Extravagant Generosity – September 24th, 2017

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Sermon Preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 24, 2017

Jonah 3:10-4:11; Psalm 145:1-8; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

Let us pray.

O God,
from your providing hand even the dissatisfied and grumbling
receive what they need for their lives.
Teach us your ways of justice
and lead us to practice your generosity,
so that we may live a life worthy of the gospel
made known through your Son Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.

One thing’s for sure: Jesus is no capitalist. The parable we hear this morning seems to fly in the face of everything we have ever watched on CNBC. The value of hard work, the importance of rewarding work fairly, the need to make every dollar count—all of these ideas are baked into the American cultural DNA and have been drummed into us practically since birth. We’re used to treating money as a scarce but vital resource that should be amassed and invested and saved and stretched as much as possible. Jesus’ story will only outrage us if we place ourselves in the shoes of the farmhands who have been working all day, honest, diligent laborers who are eventually stunned to discover that those who have worked for far less will be paid exactly the same amount of money as them.

But what happens if we change the way we look at the story—if we intentionally try to see things through the eyes of the laborers who arrive later and get paid the same? To begin with, they aren’t all lazy good-for-nothings. Some of them, the parable tells us, are not working when the landowner arrives simply because no one has hired them yet. They are ready and able and willing to work, but they don’t have the privilege of being first in line to do so. We don’t know why they weren’t at the marketplace first thing in the morning: perhaps they had parents to take care of or children to get to school; perhaps they had long commutes or lacked adequate transportation; or perhaps they—like some Assistant Rectors I know—merely have trouble getting up early. Whatever the reason, they still have clothes to buy and mouths to feed and houses to keep up. Why shouldn’t they receive pay that allows them to obtain what they require in order to live?

True, not every landowner has the resources to be as generous as the landowner in the parable, but money seems to be no object for the landowner Jesus depicts; this landowner can afford it. The real obstacle in the way of all laborers getting a substantial salary is not the availability of resources or the landowner’s willingness to pay, but a lack of imagination on the part of the laborers who have been working all day. They cannot—or will not—conceive of a world that transcends a tit-for-tat mentality, of a universe in which effort expended and resources allocated are not necessarily correlated one-to-one.

It’s important to note that the laborers who have worked all day are not harmed by the landowner’s revolutionary approach to compensation. They receive the same amount of money that they would have received anyway. Their grousing is motivated not by any fundamental need but by their adamant desire to feel superior to others and look down at them from a pedestal. Self-centered, greedy and resentful, they whip themselves up into a frenzy because they are convinced that these irresponsible, ignorant freeloaders are not worthy of being treated the same as decent, hard-working people like themselves. In a similar manner, Jonah would rather let 120,000 citizens of Nineveh die as convicted sinners than be seen as their equals.

I suspect that much of the division and unrest we are currently experiencing in our country can be traced to emotions like these. Open up your newspaper, turn on your television or scroll through your social media feeds and you’ll see a torrent of complaints about how everything would be better if only everyone behaved just like me. But I’m not convinced that in complaining about others we always genuinely want others to change. We say things like “illegal immigrants should respect our laws and wait their turn,” or “young people should put down their screens and talk to real people in real life,” or “Republicans should learn to be more tolerant and inclusive,” yet all of the groups we individually try to chastise and denigrate also serve as useful scapegoats that help us feel better about ourselves. I wonder what would happen if real change did occur and our illusion of moral superiority were to break down. Would we be happy? Would we even be able to accept it?

God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” For the Psalmist, this was a statement of praise to marvel at and rejoice in, but for Jonah this was a statement of lament to be angry at and annoyed by. The open and all-encompassing nature of God’s love and the lenient and flexible nature of God’s justice are comforting, yes, but also challenging. How can God overlook their faults and errors and care for them in the same way that God cares for me? They don’t deserve it! They’re not as good as I am! It’s not fair! Yet the same God who welcomes you and disregards your drawbacks welcomes others and disregards their drawbacks too.

In a few minutes, the choir will sing an anthem called “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy,” in which Frederick William Faber, a nineteenth century Roman Catholic priest, powerfully declares the scandalous scope of God’s love, a scope far greater than we can even begin to attempt to comprehend. Ironically, Faber’s articulation of this breadth was itself hampered by the limitations of the conventions of his time and context, so his expansive vision of God is illustrated with masculine language and other traditional terminology that may seem archaic to us now. But nonetheless his text comes closer than any other I know to capturing the extravagant generosity of God:

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in his justice which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows are more felt than up in heav’n;
There is no place where earth’s failings have such kindly judgment giv’n.

For the love of God is broader than the measure of man’s mind;
and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.
But we make his love too narrow by false limits of our own;
And we magnify his strictness with a zeal he will not own.

There is plentiful redemption in the blood that has been shed;
there is joy for all the members in the sorrows of the Head.
There is grace enough for thousands of new worlds as great as this;
There is room for fresh creations in that upper home of bliss.

If our love were but more simple, we should take him at his word;
and our lives would be all gladness in the joy of Christ our Lord.

From Revised Common Lectionary Prayers (Fortress Press).

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