“Character of God: Comfort, Compassion, Generosity”

Matthew 21:1-16

Dr. Robert J. Anderson

September 21, 2014

  

God is about creating new people and an alternative way of living.  “Behold!  I am doing a new thing!” said God.

Our passage from the book of Exodus is after God led the people out of Egypt, and they are in the wilderness between Egypt and The Promised Land.  In Egypt, the Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptians.  They were dominated and their way of life was domination.  The Egyptians were the masters, they were the slaves and their role was submission.  The Egyptians were rich and the Israelites were poor.  The Egyptians were powerful and the Israelites were powerless.  The people grumble out in the wilderness that they didn’t have food, and why did God let them come to the wilderness to die when they could’ve died in Egypt?

 

The main point to this Exodus passage is the gift of the manna.  The manna isn’t fancy or luxurious; it’s basic sustenance—daily bread.  More importantly than the idea of daily bread is the idea that the manna is a gift—a gift that cannot be hoarded; a gift that everyone has what they need, plenty but not too much; everyone receives the same: leaders and followers, rich and poor; those that work all day and those who have little to do.  The disabled receive the same amount as the able bodied.  It is a gift to everyone!

The parable in Matthew continues the same theme—God is creating new people and an alternative way of living.  The people of Israel struggled in the wilderness to understand the reign of God and what God was doing.  Jesus speaks to his disciples who are struggling to understand the reign of God within the old framework of the world—a world of the rich and poor; the powerful and the powerless; superior and inferior.  The parables of Jesus interrupt the old understandings of how things are with the introduction of something new.  Jesus envisions a new divine order and reveals the deadly spirits of the old order.

Let’s look at the parable in some detail.  It is about a landholder who hires day workers throughout the day to labor in his vineyard promising to pay them a day’s wage or what is right.  The day laborers’ parable has a similar theme as the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

There is one question that is always in our hearts—or at least not too far away—“What kind of a God would offer the same reward to those who have earned it and those who have not?  The elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son was angry because his wayward, irresponsible brother got a party while he, who stayed home and worked, didn’t get anything.

God calls everyone to work in his vineyard and shows no partiality.  Everyone is equal in deserving to work in the vineyard.  Or, you could say that everyone is equally undeserving to work in the vineyard.  Everyone deserves an opportunity to work in the vineyard, and everyone will be rewarded equally.  In God’s economy, each person’s reward doesn’t come from individual merit—not the quantity or the quality of their work—but from the gracious agreement offered by the one doing the hiring—God.

Ideally, God’s people will work in the vineyard, because it is a good thing to do and not because they hope to earn merit.  The Israelites in the Exodus passage grumbled against God.  “Why did he bring us out here to die?”  Time and time again the Scriptures call the people of God to readjust their glasses and see God’s mercy as a gift.  God’s mercy is a gift, and we should strive to be worthy.  John Calvin put it this way.  If you serve God only because you wish to avoid punishment or to obtain payment, you do so in the manner of a servant.  But, if you see working in God’s vineyard as a gift labor without coercion, you do so as a child who love and want to please their parent.  And, you are dedicated to the parent’s work.  Those, in the parable, who worked all day, must be reminded of the master’s generosity in letting them work in the first place.

There is often grumbling when new people come into the family of God—isn’t there?  That’s really what was going on in the parable when the last hired was paid the same wage as those that worked all day!  When new people come in with new ideas, they are often met with “We’ve never done it that way before.”  Or, we’ve always done it this way!

One of my favorite stories is about the family Christmas Dinner that happened the same way each year.  The main course was a roast large enough to feed the burgeoning family.  It was carefully cut in half and roasted in two separate roasting pots.  One of the new additions to the family wondered about this when it was his and his wife’s turn to cook the Christmas Dinner at their house.  Clearly he and his wife had a roasting pot big enough to accommodate the roast uncut!  But, they cut it in two none-the-less!  Various family members, over the years, ask why the roast was cut in two when it would fit into one pan.  No one knew the answer, but repeated the procedure year after year!  The new husband wanting to know the answer tracked through generation after generation until he found the answer.  It seems that in the very beginning, the tradition of having a roast began with a family that didn’t have a pot big enough to put the large roast in; so they cut in half and roasted it in two pots—which then became the family tradition!

The gospel lesson reminds us that a competent leader will reward those with the persistence to make themselves available for wherever their gifts are needed.  We quickly find in Scripture stories of how God utilizes newcomers to redirect the people of faith.  Ruth, the Moabite wife of a Hebrew, becomes a model of fidelity.  Amos who was “neither prophet nor the son of a prophet but a herdsman” becomes a trumpet for social justice.  A Canaanite woman becomes the exemplar of faith.  We are forever in the debt to Saul of Tarsus who went from ‘violent persecutor of the church to now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.  God uses new people to redirect the people of faith.

We have images of “day laborers” in our minds.  We see them at the “day labor” offices around town.  The introduction of “The Gritty Life of a Day Laborer: The Story of Fidel Antonio” provides a glimpse of the men who come to this country, whether legal or not, and have a willingness to work.  “Day laborers are pretty much taken for granted, as they wave at cars passing the sidewalk where they look for work near Home Depot or the local lumberyard. What road brought them to their street corners, far from their families in Mexico and Central America? (http://www.eastbayexpress.com/oakland/the-gritty-life-of-a-day-laborer/Content?oid=3810328).  These are men and women who want to work and feed and clothe their families.  In our community I hear that the “day laborer” gets the daily wage and uses it to pay for the motel room.  It is really a daily wage.  Day labor is often long days of menial work.

We can envision the “day labor” scene in our parable today.  People showing up wanting to work and some are hired first off.  The parable leaves us with a lot of questions such as where were the others who were not there first thing in the morning.  Did they go to the “day labor” office after finishing things at home?  Had they been hired elsewhere and when that job was finished came looking for more?  The parable doesn’t care about these questions.  All it is interested in is that the landholder wants workers and comes repeatedly to get more and more.

Before we look to askance at “day laborers,” let us remember that we all have been temporary laborers at one time or another in our lives.  Maybe it was a temporary job while we were in school.  Maybe you’ve gone to an employment agency, took several tests including typing and transcription and then went home to wait for the telephone to ring.  Substitute teachers also wait for such a telephone call.  On-call nurses, nursing aides and other health-care professionals also wait for such telephone calls.  There is a wider picture of the laborers in the parable besides our stereotypical view that they were either lazy or people who were simply down on their luck.  The people in the parable are people who want to work—at least they go to work when given the opportunity.

God calls people to work in his vineyard—many, many people!  Those who labor in God’s vineyard are called at many times in a variety of ways.  God’s people are those that work in God’s vineyard from the moment they are called until their time for reward.  Some are especially blessed to hear the car early on, but if they experience this labor as a burden, the gift is lost on them.  Some hear the call just before it is too late and, for them, the burden seems light and their reward comes before they grow weary.

God is a God of comfort, compassion, and generosity.  The Kingdom of God is open to all, and God comes again and again to the market place to find more people to bring into it.  Another parable speaks of when the invited guests don’t come to the wedding, the king’s servants are instructed to go out and bring anyone and everyone to the wedding feast; so that the place is full!

The Kingdom of God is open to all.  There is no pedigree required.  There is no secret password.  There is no secret handshake.  There is no time limit on when someone can join.

God’s character is displayed in the landholder—God is a God of comfort, compassion, and generosity.  God’s call is a gift—whenever it comes in life!  Rejoice and be glad.  Jesus said, his yoke is easy and his burden is light!

God’s call is a gift.  Don’t let it be wasted because you see working in God’s kingdom to be a burden.