Thursday, September 15, 2011

September 18, Proper 20: When Good Things Happen to Bad People

(photo by Jane Barber)

Exodus 16:2-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-16

Our gospel lesson is called the Parable of the Vineyard. The Parable of the Vineyard is pictured in the stained glass window on the north wall, in the right-hand panel. You see the figure of a worker standing at a grapevine, and before him is the inscription from Matthew 20:4, “Go ye also into the vineyard.”

I have never seen this subject in a stained-glass window in any other church, and I would love to know why this subject was chosen, and if it was chosen by the Lott family, the old Brooklyn family who gave it. In 2002 the window took on new meaning for us after the accidental death of Alan Q. Hayes, an elder here. The bookmark in his Bible was at this parable, so that’s what I preached on at his funeral. His death was unfair. And the parable is about when our feeling of unfairness affects our belief in God.

A vineyard is harvested as quickly as possible, so that the grapes can be pressed all at once. As the day wears on, and if the crew is running late, you hire more hands. That’s expected, and you can pay the later workers less. But this owner didn’t pay them less—he was generous with them, which the early ones felt as unfairness instead of generosity. But it was fair, objectively, because the owner paid them what he promised them. But we resent the gifts that other people get when we don’t get them too.

In this parable Jesus does a couple things. He pictures how we are with the grace of God when we see it lavished on other people than ourselves. And he illustrates his own ministry, and why so many good people among the Jews found him offensive. It’s not that he was not loving and gracious with them. It’s that he was no less as loving and gracious to bad people as he was to good people. He is generous to everyone, not as they deserve it, but as they need it. Jesus does not give out points for good behavior. That means there is no point to be good, except just to be good. Being good has to be its own reward. And being good will not exempt you from suffering and sorrow.

Twenty years ago, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote that best-selling book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. I was always troubled by the book’s implicit assumption, that it’s okay when bad things happen to bad people. Jesus turns this upside-down. If Jesus wrote a book he’d call it, When Good Things Happen to Bad People. There’s a take-home for today: What is the distinctive message of Jesus among all the religions of the world? Answer: “When Good Things Happen to Bad People.”

The way of Jesus was the way of God in Israel. You see it in the story of the manna from Exodus. He that gathered much had nothing over, and he that gathered little had no lack. God blessed them as they needed it, not as they deserved it. God provides, God does not reward. You can’t impress God, you can’t win God, you can’t control God, you can only receive from God.

The children of Israel hardly knew this God. They’ll have been much more familiar with the gods and goddesses of Egypt than with this god of their distant ancestors, who had been silent for 400 years, this god, for all they knew, whose kingdom was the desert and whose palace was a mountain, where they have to go to meet him. Well, they were now his guests, in his realm, and as his guests they felt he was obliged to feed them. It was only proper hospitality that God should gave them manna. Moreover, they were purchased by blood from slavery to the pharaoh, by the blood of the Passover lamb, and now they belong to this god, and as his servants they have the right to proper rations. God is obliged to give them their rations as long as they’re on the march.

I think Moses is upset because of the way they asked for it, not asking in faith, but as complaining, insulting God, slandering the liberation God won for them. Ingrates! Well, they’re afraid. They are free, but they don’t know what freedom means, and freedom is scary. They don’t know what to expect from this god, and their years of slavery had trained them in distrust and resistance. Through the whole of the Exodus they are passive-aggressive, defensive, untrusting, unbelieving, always acting in victim mode.

People prefer the misery they know to the freedom they can’t predict. They would not have left Egypt voluntarily, despite their suffering there. The plagues were designed to force them out as much as to make Egypt let them go. The Red Sea was a barrier not only to Pharaoh’s armies but also against their going back. They were resistant to God’s grace and generosity. They are a microcosm of the human race. They are us. We all experience God’s generosity as unfairness.

The manna is a gift designed to train them in receiving grace. We need to be trained in receiving grace, because we are unable to receive it even when we need it and crave it, so God helps and trains us in receptivity. God was teaching Israel the discipline of receptivity by sending the manna six days out of seven, with double on the sixth day, and none on the seventh. It was an exercise in trusting and obeying, a training in receiving.

Why do we resist God’s grace? Maybe we sense how much it challenges us. Either, like the Israelites, we’re trained to be victims, or like the vineyard workers, we have a notion of  our own deserving and we don’t like to be treated out of generosity. Both of these are selfishness, the one developed as a survival strategy and the other the natural compulsion of self-regard. In either case, God trains us to get out of ourselves. God challenges the Israelites to look up, to look out into the desert, and there they see the glory of the Lord. They had to look up into what they were afraid of.

God trains us also in the patterns of receptivity. One of the reasons that Our Lord instructed us to celebrate Holy Communion frequently is because it is a very physical enactment and reminder of our need for receptivity. We have to come up to the table, and hold our hands out to receive, worthy or unworthy. You’re worthy only if you’re willing to be counted among the unworthy. It’s a gift to teach us the reception of God’s gifts. It’s another gracious circle. The gifts of God in particular are designed to teach us how to receive the gifts of God in general. We are willful people, and proud, and fearful, and the world is unkind and unfair, so we are reminded and rehearsed in the disciplines of receptivity.

A take-home here is that progress in the Christian life is not about getting better and better at being good. That way lies the temptation of merit and deserving. Progress in the Christian life is getting more and more receptive to God’s grace. It is learning to say “Thank you, God, thank you for your mercy.” Even while walking through the desert, and risking hunger and thirst. Do you want to be a better Christian? Don’t work on your performance. Work on your receptivity and gratitude.

It’s hard to say thank you when you feel like you’ve been suffering. It was suffering for the vineyard workers who had worked all day, and were hot and thirsty and exhausted, to stand on line for their wages, and watch the other workers get paid the same for much less work. Your suffering is watching others get a break when you don’t, and when, time after time, you get what you have coming to you, but they get more. Your suffering is to accept God’s providence which never provides you with what you deserve. Your suffering is to accept that merit is irrelevant. But so is faith. Your suffering is to accept with open hands your life as you are dealt it. And that’s what faith is too.

Your suffering is a worthy investment. It yields a life of confidence and joy. St. Paul says that it’s a privilege to suffer for Christ. St. Paul suffered double, as a Jew among the Romans and as a Christian among the Jews. He wrote Philippians from jail. The Philippians suffered by an allegiance to Jesus as Lord, which was illegal in a Roman military town, and they could be rounded up at any time. The privilege is not to seek out suffering, but to recognize the fact of it, and rightly to interpret it, and to regard it not as victimization but as a privilege. That’s what love does. You can clean toilets as a victim, or you can clean them out of love.

You suffer by living in-between, between the great huge gift way ahead of you, and the many small gifts behind you, and right before you the unfair, broken world which God has promised to save but hasn’t yet. You stay within it and you bear your part of it. Your suffering is in your receptivity, your awareness of incompletion, that things are not how they’re supposed to be, and you still believe, you believe in the goodness you have seen in your own life and in the gifts you have received, passing as they may have been, or as mixed with pain and grief, or as ordinary to the eyes as bread, but seeing it as bread from heaven with your eyes of faith and hope and love. The love of God trains us to receive the love of God.

Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.


Rachel Daley said...

I've missed this. Thank you.

Old First said...

Nagyon szivesen.