Grace that Can’t be Earned

Day Laborers of Today
Day Laborers of Today

A sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 21, 2014.  The lectionary readings are Jonah 3:10-4:11, Psalm 145:1-8, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-16.

A few years ago, a study was done with dogs. The dogs needed to know how to shake hands for the study, so after a few dogs were disinvited because they would shake, and one sheep dog was dismissed because he kept trying to herd the others, that left 29 dogs to be included in the study, a study reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (106:1, 2008).  [A parishioner subsequently told me of the capuchin monkey study and the TED talk that is in this video.]

The dogs were tested in pairs. They sat side-by-side with an experimenter in front of them. In front of the experimenter was a divided food bowl with pieces of sausage on one side and brown bread on the other. [A similar experiment, with capuchin monkeys, is discussed in this TED talk video.]

The dogs then were asked to shake hands and this was done so that each dog could see what reward the other dog received. When one dog got a reward and the other didn’t, the unrewarded animal stopped playing. When both got a reward all was well. One thing that did surprise the researchers was that — unlike primates — the dogs didn’t seem to care whether the reward was sausage or bread.

But the dogs had an understanding of what was fair and what wasn’t. Similar responses have also been shown in monkeys. And children. And, well….. all of us.

When I’m in a long line at the grocery store and another checker opens up and a person who just came in jumps into that line just in time to be helped— it’s not fair!

When I’ve waited patiently in the proper lane of traffic waiting to make a turn and another person zooms by us all and jumps in front—it’s not fair!

And most of us are probably right there in today’s Gospel, right there with the ones crying, “Unfair!.”

We heard the story: A householder needs work done, so he goes to hire some people. He makes a deal that he’ll pay them the day’s wage. And then three more times during the day, he goes to get more workers. At the end of the day, the workers are paid, beginning with those who only worked an hour. Even those are paid one denarius, the typical wage for a day of work. Well, guess who complains. Those poor folks who had worked all day— why should they, too, only be paid the daily wage. If those who have worked only an hour are paid the amount, how much more should those who worked longer be paid! But the landowner replies, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”

In the first lesson of the morning, the story of Jonah, God asks Jonah a similar question.

God has asked Jonah to prophecy to the Ninevites. Jonah does this and the Ninevites repent. God forgives them. But then Jonah feels like they’ve gotten off too easy. Jonah complains, and God replies that it is for God to forgive whom he chooses. Forgiveness, blessing, bounty, is God’s for the giving. God’s goodness is not restricted, even when we try to make God’s system fit into our own systems of what we think might be fair play.

The Gospel today asks in the old Revised Standard Version, “Do you begrudge my generosity?” or in the Message Bible, the manager asks simply, “Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?”

We can easily imagine that Jesus might be telling this story primarily for those who are a little self-satisfied, those who might feel as though because they have been faithful Jews, or because they have followed Jesus the longest, then they should gain special favor in God’s kingdom.

But those words of Jesus (Why do you begrudge my generosity?) can seem like an indictment to some of us who come to church. I wonder, if in talking about those who come at the last hour who get the fullness of the blessing, I wonder if Jesus doesn’t mean this story primarily as a story of welcome for the newcomer.

This parable that Jesus tells about the householder and the workers in the field is one of Jesus’s kingdom parables. Over and over again, Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven as more than we can possibly imagine, bigger than we might ever suppose. In the kingdom of heaven, loaves and fishes are multiplied so that everyone is fed. Water is turned into wine. Mustard seeds sprout into huge trees, and even a little, tiny bit of faith can move mountains. And the kingdom of heaven is also a place where Jesus says, “the last will be first, and the first last.”

The Gospel we proclaim this morning is Good News. We have all been promised the inheritance of eternal life in Jesus Christ. Is it ours as a gift of grace. It belongs just as much to the lifelong member of All Souls as it does to the person who might have just walked in from the street. We have not earned it by the hours we’ve put in at church. We have not earned it by the tears that have gone into our confessions. We have not earned by your money or our intelligence or even our faithfulness. God’s love, God’s eternal life, is a gift.

Today’s Psalm puts the words on our lips, “Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; there is no end to his greatness.”

In the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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