Fr. Bill Carroll – The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 24, 2023
Or are you envious because I am generous?
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last week, I invited you to spend some time in prayer with Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son. The painting (a copy of which can be found in Guild Hall) provides a powerful image of God’s forgiveness. And, like the parable it portrays, it transforms our vision of God. Today, we hear a similar parable from Jesus. (Maybe it’s Matthew’s version of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.) It is all about the scandalous mercy of God. The mercy of God will shock us. It’s not what we expect.
Whenever this lesson comes up, I remember a scene from my childhood. On a street corner, there were dozens of men—probably from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador. Many of them were undocumented. They were standing around—waiting for work. And then, a truck pulled up. A guy pointed at two of them, and he said something in Spanish. And they jumped in the back. This continued until there were no more trucks–no more work for anyone today.
Aside from the truck, this scene would have been familiar to first-century Jews. The Romans were building large buildings throughout Judea. Jesus’s own father was a carpenter that was helping them do some of that work. Even today, though, we still see something like it. Jesus is talking about day laborers. These are the people who pick our crops and build many of our homes. They live a precarious existence on the margins of our society
But it’s not just them, is it? Temporary and contract employees have become more and more common. Fewer of us can expect the kind of long-term commitment that our parents and grandparents knew from their employers. After his military service, my dad worked for one company his entire career. That’s almost unheard of today. Now, people seem to move from one gig to another. They never seem to put down roots for very long.
Like the other parables, this one comes with a shocking twist at the end. Notice the behavior of the boss. Real bosses aren’t always like that, are they? But this one keeps coming back. He wants to hire all the workers who stand idle in the marketplace. He hires them right up till the end of the day, when the work is almost through. He hires people he doesn’t really need to get the job done.
And then, at the end of the day, he pays everyone the exact same wage. That’s the scandalous part to Jesus’s audience. Those who come first get the same exact amount as those who come at the last possible moment. No wonder they grumble. It’s not fair. Those who got there last (but were paid the same) are lucky that they don’t get robbed or killed.
Jesus wants us to feel the unfairness of it all. That’s because he’s teaching us about the scandalous mercy of God. He is teaching us about how God does business. In God’s Kingdom, we get more than we deserve. God is prepared to reward our work out of all proportion to its value.
It’s a lot like the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Remember the grumbling of the older brother, who wonders why his father throws a party for “this son of yours.” He cries out on behalf of the responsible ones among us–the people who pay our debts on time, hold down jobs, and mow our lawns. To us, it looks unfair. And, in a sense, it is. But, when we relate to God, it’s all about mercy and forgiveness. It is about God’s generosity and not what we deserve.
As we confess in a prayer that we use at this service every week: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.” Or, as we sing in a beloved hymn: “Just as I am without one plea, save that thy blood was shed for me and that thou bidd’st me come to thee, O Lamb of God, I come.”
All of this because God is more than our Lord. God is our Savior and our Redeemer.. We are God’s children, made in God’s own image and likeness. And we’ve been given a piece of the family business—with all its risks and rewards. God never treats us like an employee. We are God’s family. And people (above all, people) are God’s only bottom line.
In today’s Gospel, God reminds us servants that we are also children—that we are invited to share in God’s mission and all the blessings of God’s household. God loves us like children. God wants us to flourish, and to bear fruit. Why are we envious, when God is generous? Why do we obsess with what our brothers and sisters are getting—rather than giving thanks to God, who gives generously to us all.
These two parables, the Prodigal Son and the Laborers in the Vineyard, belong together. In the Fifth Century, St. John Chrysostom put them together in his famous Easter sermon. Celebrating the gift of new life in Jesus, this is what he said:
Let all of you enter into the joy of your Lord. Receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold a high feast! You sober and you heedless, honor the day! Rejoice today, both you who have fasted, and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; let all of you feast sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go away hungry.
At God’s table (by God’s grace), we always get more than we deserve. We come to God empty-handed—or we do not come at all. God gives us life and hope and forgiveness. Out of pure goodness, God gives us Jesus, his Son.
Jesus lives and dies for all of us. And he puts the same precious gift into our hands. No matter how long (no matter how hard) we have worked, he gives us himself—freely. And that makes all the difference.