Exodus 16: 1-8, 13-16
The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim…and came to the wilderness of Sin… on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. 2 The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness saying, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
4 Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. 5 On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days [so they can rest on the seventh day].” 6 So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 7 and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” 8 And Moses said…, “Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.”
13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing unemployed in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here unemployed all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’
8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
We have these two long, rich stories, each of which we could talk about and I could preach about for a long time. So, I’m going to focus on the intersections between these stories. I will highlight three things these stories tell us about God and then talk about human agency, our human action in response to God’s being and action.
So first, in both stories, we can say that God is the one who provides, unfailingly, what human beings need. This is clear in the Exodus story. It has been six weeks since the Israelites were freed by God from their slavery in Egypt and arrived in the wilderness. Whatever food they managed to take with them in their hurried departure is now gone. They are scared, tired, angry, and crabby. They don’t yet trust Moses or God. And in response, God doesn’t scold or punish them. God provides. Quail in the evening and manna in the morning. They don’t work for it or earn it. They just receive, prepare, and eat.
In the parable Jesus tells about the kingdom of heaven, we can say that the owner of the vineyard, the one who finds and hires and pays the workers, is God, and in this story too, God is the one who provides what is needed to live on. It is God’s vineyard. In the context of the whole Biblical story, to say that God provides is to acknowledge that God is creator. The earth, it’s fullness, its people are God’s. God’s creation is superabundant. There is more than enough for everyone to have what they need. God faithfully provides.
The second thing these stories tell us is that when God is directly in charge of the distribution of God’s provision, everybody actually gets what they need. In the Exodus story, people are instructed to take only the amount of manna that each person needs for the day, except, on the sixth day when they take enough so not to have to work on the seventh, the sabbath day. God provides a day of rest, a day to give thanks, and remember that God will provide. In the parable of the vineyard where all the workers are paid the same daily wage, no matter how many hours or under what conditions they worked, everybody gets what they need to live on. Nobody is getting ahead. And nobody is getting behind. When God is directly in charge of the distribution of what God provides, everybody has enough.
The third thing these stories tell us is that God intends that human beings would be mindful—all the time and through and through—that all that we have and all that we are begins in and flows from God’s gracious giving, God’s life, God’s love, God’s provision. And, God intends that as stewards of God’s gifts, when we organize our labor, engage in labor, and are responsible for the use and distribution of God’s abundance we will insure that every person has what they need to live.
All the time that the ancient Israelites spend in the wilderness is designed to form them in certain habits, virtues, values, knowledge, and ways of living and being in community, as one body created and gathered by God to receive, celebrate and share God’s provision. In the wilderness, they have no choice. No agency. No way to provide for themselves. They are not in charge. When they do have the choice, when they settle in the land God promises them, when they can work to provide for themselves, when they are “in charge, God’s desire is that they remember all they learned in the wilderness. As it turns out, they won’t be really good at making sure every person has what they need. And we’re not so good at it either.
Which is why Jesus tells this parable about life in the kingdom, the commonwealth of God, and invites us to think again about our agency and responsibility in relation to God’s abundant provision and God’s desires. “It isn’t fair,” say the guys who worked all day in the blazing sun then got the same pay as the guys who showed up at day’s end and worked one measly hour. It is fair in that the vineyard owner pays those who came earliest exactly what was promised. The owner doesn’t cheat them. But, if you are in an economic system that trains you to think that what you and others get depends entirely on what you have done to earn your pay—you’ve worked harder, longer, smarter, better, have more education, or do work that is judged more valuable than another person’s work—then the vineyard owner is totally unfair in paying folks who didn’t work all day the same amount as those who did. We live in this kind of economic system where merit plays a huge part in how we think about who should earn what.
If Jesus really is advocating for an economic system that works like this—everybody gets what they need, rather than what they think they deserve or what society judges they have merited—then Jesus is a crazy man. A socialist. A communist. An anarchist—turning our worlds upside down. That’s what we kind of think. And that’s why this parable is often taken to be, not about material economies, but about the economy of God’s grace. And it is about the economy of God’s love and grace. Jesus is saying: You need not earn, perform, buy, or pray your way into God’s grace, love, salvation, favor. It is given. Unearned. Unmerited. The whole protestant Reformation was born as an argument against having to merit God’s grace, love, salvation, favor. Come early. Come late. Work lots. Work little. It doesn’t matter because it isn’t about our agency. It’s about God’s self-giving love and provision. At Old Dutch we say “yes, and yes, and yes, and yes” to Jesus’ embodied proclamation of God’s utterly gratuitous, freely given love and grace!
And, at Old Dutch we say “yes and yes,” Jesus is also talking to us about the material economy that we live in. Over the last couple days I read philosopher Michael Sandel’s book, The Tyranny of Merit in which he offers a thorough assessment of how our free-market, consumer economy works. One of the chief values in our economy is that people should earn, people should merit their financial compensation. Sandel acknowledges that “an economic system that rewards effort, initiative and talent is likely to be more productive than one that pays everyone the same, regardless of contribution,” and that “rewarding people strictly on their merits has the virtue of fairness—it does not discriminate on any basis other than achievement.” But, the dark side of making “merit” one of the chief values of our economic system is that it falsely assumes that every person is equally “free to rise as far as their own efforts and talents and dreams will take them.” It doesn’t account for the circumstances we live in, the histories we come from, the advantages or disadvantages we inherit, the breaks we get, the contributions that others have made to our success, the impact of forces, good or bad, that are beyond our control. We do not all share an equality of conditions. None of us is wholly self-made. It is arrogant to think so.
God has some big crazy, upside-down ideas about economic systems and the values they are built on. God builds on love. We need to keep talking about what this means for how we live together as one body. But for today we affirm that God provides more than enough for every person to have what they need. We affirm, all that we are, and all that we have are God’s gifts to us. Being able to work, being able to use our abilities, being able to contribute to the common good of our larger community and our little church community is all God’s gift. In humble gratitude, we say “thank you” and we enter another week to live into the call to love our neighbors and answer the question: How will we offer the gifts that we are and the gifts that we have?