... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

PENTECOST 14 Year A, Message Sept 18th, 2011

Divine Rules for Relationships

Text: Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16
Text: Romans 15:10-28

Over the past several weeks the lectionary readings have been directing our contemplations towards an understanding of right relationships. From the theoretical to the practical we have seen how God has set for us an example of faithfulness and trust as the foundation of any lasting and meaningful relationship. We have been led to understand the Law and how agape love supersedes the Law inviting us to treat neighbours as self. As part of the understanding of this type of relationship we must try to balance a notion of equity and justice in all we do and in many ways have altered our society to reflect these understandings. And just when we think we have a handle on things; just when we seem to be somewhat secure in our comprehension of what God is calling us to do, we get brought up short by today’s readings.

What at first reading appear to be four unrelated passages, on closer inspection become caveats on relational behaviour. Having seen how we ought to treat neighbour as self and in that treatment have an understanding of equality and justice, God shows us a totally different concept of those attributes based on divine love and grace.

Most of us are fairly comfortable with a concept of equality and justice: equal pay for equal work, equality between men and women in the work place etc and we take pride in trying to accomplish this in all aspects of our lives. And now along comes God and throws a monkey-wrench into our understanding. What we see as equality and justice and what we have accomplished along these lines God now tells us that we are on the wrong track and that there is an alternative way and meaning to equality, equity and justice and that this way is based not on a system of merit or reward but on a system of grace, trust and love. While we might think we have these in our relationships most often what governs us is a system of merits and demerits, a tally sheet of gains and losses, or a score card of successes and failures. Even within our families this particular phenomenon seems to play an important part of relational dynamics. In the dating game for example, prospective mates measure each other up according to what is desirable for future happiness whether it be physical characteristics, earning capabilities, family pedigrees, or social class. What’s missing God informs us is grace. And as the story from Exodus and the parable of the labourers in the vineyard attempt to elucidate for us is that grace adds a different dimension to an otherwise flat portrait of human interactions.

Traditionally the parable of the labourers in the vineyard has been interpreted as an allegory about the relationship between God and humanity and about human interactions. While this bears a great deal of merit, it still does not go far enough into what Jesus was teaching. At the very outset we are told that this is a parable about the Kingdom of Heaven and not just human dynamics. To help us comprehend the parable in a deeper way an appreciation of the Old Testament readings from Exodus and Psalm 105 will provide a lens to see the parable in a different light.

In the Exodus story, we see God’s grace attempting to create a new people and an alternative way of living in a nation just out of an Egyptian culture where domination and submission, power and weakness, rich and poor was the norm for societal functioning. In God’s alternative society the manna is a central aspect demonstrating God’s mercy and grace which provides and not human endeavours which earn. To God’s view all humans are equal and each receives the ‘daily bread’ in equal allotment. As the story tells us, it did not matter how much manna anyone tried to gather, there was only enough; no more, no less; to meet each person’s need. Any extra was superfluous becoming worm infested and useless. The leaders received the same as the complainers and each received plenty but never too much. It also did not matter as to the work one did or did not accomplish. Each received what was required to fulfil the requirements for life.

Likewise Psalm 105 is a reflection on God’s grace recounting how the people experienced joy and wholeness despite their complaints and their railing against God. God was faithful and provided what was necessary for the long term plan for Israel’s growth survival and prosperity.

We too are being called to reflect as a people and to see how Jesus was calling the disciples to an alternative way of existence and living in the here and now as exemplified by the Kingdom of Heaven. Unlike many of the other parables, this one was directed specifically at the disciples who were supposed to be in the ‘know’ and yet struggled to comprehend their relationship to God, to the Kingdom and to humanity in a framework of the ‘present’. In many ways we like those disciples are ‘those in the know’ and we face those same struggles.

As an ‘inclusio’ between two statements of the first will be last and the last will be first, the parable gives an image of what an alternative order might look like. This new order would be radical and offensive to many especially around the human senses of propriety, equity and justice. In this new order each would receive the daily bread and everyone would be treated in solidarity as equals. In such a society the people work together as a unit for the good of the whole and toward the common objective as equal members. There would be no winners over against losers, no superiors versus inferiors, no outsiders pitted against insiders or honoured above shamed. The image is that every human would be akin to every cell, tissue, or organ working together as part of the organism.

Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, this ideal- this reflection of the Kingdom of Heaven- remains in the realm of the unachievable. Our societies are based on competition or winning and on coming in first. In such a system if you don’t come in first you get left behind and are counted as a loser. In such a system people become self-absorbed, work for self betterment, for the sake of getting more or to put others down. The result of such behaviours is that there abounds greed, jealousy and, covetousness with the subsequent results of stealing, deceptions, con-games, or worse. On the flip side in a society where all are equal and all receive the necessities as a whole, human innate fear sets in and dictates that there will be those who take advantage and become parasites on those who do do the work.

But this is not what the parable is about. The parable is about the Kingdom of Heaven and how divine rules govern all relationships in God’s kingdom. Such rules put human rules to shame. What we need to appreciate is that the market place in the parable is liken to a labour exchange where those seeking work and those seeking workers might find mutual success. The first labourers are given a contract for a day’s wage but the other workers are only offered ‘whatever is right’ which we find out later is the same as that given for a full day’s work. This sets up two dynamics of relationships, one between the two groups of labourers and one between the landowner and the first group of workers. The first group of labourers might represent the children of Israel, the early Christians or those in the know and who have been accustomed to the earthly societal systems. The second group are those in the ideal kingdom and have implicit trust in the faithfulness of their employer. The real objective of the landowner is the harvest and its success. In that regard all receive as the harvest succeeds.

As an illustration, at the end of the WWII no one counted who fought longer or harder than the next. Each soldier was honoured and everyone celebrated. When these veterans became Legion members there was no competition or win loss credit sheet. Each one was accepted on equal footing because all had helped in the effort.

In many ways this is the ethos of the Kingdom of Heaven each person has equal merit in the eyes of God and each has equal standing before the throne of our Creator. Nobody can earn his or her way into heaven or into God’s favour. It doesn’t matter how many toys or pieces one has at the end of the game, you cannot take them into or beyond the grave. Life is too short to concern ourselves about competitions, about winning or losing, or about how much wealth you can accumulate. Life needs to be about right relationships and promoting the Kingdom of heaven or risk falling into the realm of Satan and hell.

Imagine, if you will, working for a company where each gets paid according to one’s work but where all the profits are shared equally. You might be a janitor or a secretary or a CEO but at the end of the year, when the profits are declared, each person gets the same percentage or same dollar amount. That would be radical and to many offensive. But in some companies especially in Japan that was a common practice and every person in that company considered him or herself as a family member of the company. Can you now imagine what commerce would be like if that were done globally? What would societies and nations look like if everyone accepted this as normative? What would life be like in general where the final pay whether you worked 100 years or 1 month, whether you were a CEO or a starting apprentice was an equal share in the profits or successes of the kingdom? Would that not be worth more than all our quibbling? God’s grace surpasses all that we could ask or imagine: we cannot earn it, we cannot compete for it, we cannot bribe it. We can only learn to receive it gracefully and to enjoy it fully celebrating each with the other as equal children of the One God.

May we and all humanity come to appreciate God’s grace and what God offers for our lives and our relationships in the here and now!