Shuck and Jive

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Saturday, October 23, 2010

A "Generous" Man? -- A Sermon

A “Generous” Man?
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

October 24th, 2010

Jesus used to tell this parable:

Heaven’s imperial rule is like a proprietor who went out the first thing in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the workers for a silver coin a day, he sent them into his vineyard.

And coming out around nine a.m., he saw others loitering in the marketplace and he said to them, “You go into the vineyard too, and I’ll pay you whatever is fair.” So they went.

Around noon he went out again, and at three p.m. he repeated the process. About five p.m. he went out and found others loitering about and says to them, “Why did you stand around here idle the whole day?”

They reply, “Because no one hired us.”

He tells them, “You go into the vineyard as well.”

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard tells his foreman: “Call the workers and pay them their wages, starting with those hired last and ending with those hired first.”

Those hired at five p.m. came up and received a silver coin each. Those hired first approached, thinking they would receive more. But they also got a silver coin apiece. They took it and began to grumble against the proprietor: “These guys hired last worked only an hour but you have made them equal to us who did most of the work during the heat of the day.”

In response he said to one of them, “Look, pal, did I wrong you? You did agree with me for a silver coin, didn’t you? Take your wage and get out! I intend to treat the one hired last the same way I treat you. Is there some law forbidding me to do as I please with my money? Or is your eye filled with envy because I am generous?”
Gospel of Jesus 4:4-21

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 27, 29. Matthew 20:1-15.

You may have seen a series of commercials regarding a certain bank.

In one particular commercial a man is sitting at a children’s table with two little girls.

He says to one:
“Would you like a pony?”
She smiles and answers,
He pulls out a toy pony and gives it to her. She smiles. She is happy. She has a toy pony. To the second girl he asks,
“Would you like a pony?”
She also smiles and answers,
He makes a sound, clicking his tongue, and in walks a live pony. The camera stays on the first girl while we hear the man say to the second girl:
“Here you go this is for you.”
says the second girl.

The first girl says,
“You didn’t say you could have a real one.”
The man answers,
“You didn’t ask.”
While the camera stays on the first girl as she narrows her eyes, the narrator says:
“Even kids know it’s wrong to hold out on somebody.”
So is the man with the pony generous or is he holding out?

Technically, the guy is right. The first girl didn’t ask for a real pony. Not only that, she was perfectly happy with her toy pony. It was only when the second girl received a real pony that the first girl saw that it seemed unfair and gave the man the evil eye.

Only then was she filled with envy.
Only then did she begrudge his generosity.
She should just buck up right?
They are his ponies, after all.
He can do what he wants.
The first little girl is just greedy and spoiled.
She is self-righteous.
She doesn’t appreciate the grace and generosity of the man who owns the ponies.
Even kids know it’s wrong to hold out on somebody.
Is the owner of the vineyard generous or is he holding out?

Technically, the owner is right. Those who worked from 6 a.m. on did agree on the bargain they had made with the owner. They seemed OK with that agreement. He didn’t go back on his word. He paid them what they had agreed upon. It was only when they saw that those who worked less also received the same pay that it seemed unfair and so gave the owner the evil eye.

Only then were they filled with envy.
Only then did they begrudge his generosity.
They should just buck up right?
It is his vineyard. It is his money.
He can do what he wants.
Those who worked all day are just greedy and spoiled.
They are self-righteous.
They don’t appreciate the grace and generosity of the owner of the vineyard.

That is how we are supposed to read this parable. It is an allegory for grace we are told. God is as gracious to the deathbed convert who throughout his life ignored his religious duty and spent every Sunday morning in idleness, debauchery and pleasure as God is to the faithful church mouse who sat on a hard pew each and every Sunday morning after long Sunday morning, and always paid her tithe and always did the dishes after every potluck.

In the end it doesn’t matter. Everyone gets to heaven. God grades on the curve. Works are irrelevant.

It is all about God’s grace as David Buttrick in preaching on this parable writes:
Look, in God’s world everything is grace, amazing grace. You can’t earn grace, you can’t deserve grace, you can’t be moral enough to merit grace. Grace is handed out free to sinners, while the self-righteous who won’t accept “bleeding charity” take their pay and go." Speaking Parables, p.117
There you have it.
What looks like injustice…
What seems like injustice… only so because we are not looking at it through God’s benevolent and generous eyes. It’s not fair but it is the way God works, so just buck up. Hallelujah.

Even kids know it’s wrong to hold out on somebody.
Then we have this other complication. Not only does the landowner give the late hour laborers a little extra cash because he is generous, he does it in front of everyone, paying the late hour workers first.

What could possibly be the point of that except to make a point?
What is the point exactly?
That because he owns land he can do whatever he wants?
Does he do it to shame these first hour workers?
Does he do it to make a show of his generosity?

The owner says:
Is there some law forbidding me to do as I please with my money?
Actually there is. It is called the fair wage law. Of course, they might not have had such a law in first century Palestine, but they knew about fairness and wages. The Hebrew prophets talked about justice to the poor on a regular basis. Jesus did too.

The landowner says:
Or is your eye filled with envy because I am generous?
say the workers.
“It is not because you are generous that we are giving you the evil eye. It is because you are arrogant and a grandstander. You think it is fun to play with people’s lives. You make a spectacle of us. You devalue our labor.”
The owner might reply:
“Now wait a minute. I am concerned about the late hour workers and their plight. If it weren’t for me they would have nothing. I have been moved by compassion at their condition and I offer them more than they have earned. Out of my own pocket I put food in their stomachs. I have created a social safety net. Isn’t that what you left wing socialists are all about? Don’t hate me because I am a generous capitalist.”
And thus the question we have to answer.

Is the landowner just and generous or not?
Before we go further with that, we should say a couple of things about parables. We tend to interpret them as allegories or as illustrations that make a moral or theological point. In this case, the landowner is a stand in for God and the moral of this parable is God’s amazing grace for the undeserving.

I suggest that parables in general including this one are not allegories. They are open-ended invitations to view the world differently than previously we have viewed it.

Whenever Jesus tells a story about landowners, judges, kings, and those with authority and power, we should be very skeptical that that character is a stand-in for God.

If we see this landowner as God, we will have to engage in a great many gymnastics to make sense of it.

We don’t have to see the landowner as God. The landowner could be just a landowner. The meaning, the empire of God, could be within the text of the parable or outside of it.

Is the landowner generous? He says he is.

However, a silver coin or a denarius a day will make no one rich. Whatever agreement he made with the workers you can bet it was for a subsistence wage. He apparently had plenty of landless peasants available to work his vineyard. If one won’t work for a denarius, ten more will.

Now we should start asking some questions.

Why are there landless peasants?
Where did they come from?
Who owns the vineyards?
Who profits from the harvest and the marketing and the taxation of this fruit of the vine?
Finally, who gets to drink it?

We don’t know.
We can be sure that Jesus knew and
his landless peasant audience knew, and
the vineyard owners who were listening in knew, and the
compromised religious authorities knew, and the
political authorities who eventually executed him knew.

You can bet that none of the landless peasants enjoyed the fruit of the vine. You can also bet that they all knew the words of the Hebrew prophets such as Micah who when speaking about the great day of the Lord said:
He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; (Micah 4:3-4a)
Everyone shall sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees.

That is the empire of God.

The empire of God is not getting a denarius a day if you are lucky harvesting someone else’s vine. That is the empire of Caesar.

In early first century Palestine, as Herod built his mini-empire he had to fund his projects. You don’t fund massive projects by dealing with individual people and their puny little vines. You bring in agribusiness. You find whatever means you need to drive those inefficient people off their land and give it to large landowners who can then turn a profit.

This is the context for our parable.

The parable is a fiction but the setting is a real as a hungry child.

The hearers of these parables would recognize a landless peasant hoping to get hired to work in a field that used to be his daddy’s.

At the end of the day what the landowner has succeeded in doing is to pit the laborers against each other. It is similar to the huge coal companies in West Virginia, Kentucky and Southwest Virginia who pit people against each other. They say the same thing all the time,
"Mountain top removal mining creates jobs."
That is not true of course. Mountain top removal mining uses far fewer workers than conventional mining. A small number of people have these jobs. Others do not. The people who live there are embattled and embittered against one another. Meanwhile, mountains are destroyed forever and billions of dollars flow into the pockets of energy companies.

I am starting to meddle, aren’t I?
I am not talking about religion anymore, am I?
Religion is about Jesus dying for your sins so you can go to heaven.

You know, Jesus talked about two things more than anything else.
These two things were NOT abortion and homosexuality.
They were economics and something he called the empire of God.
Money and Power.

The empire of God is not an empire anymore than the school of hard knocks is a school. The empire of God is a metaphor for a way of seeing actual empires. One of the things we need to see is the empire of Caesar in all of its manifestations.

Empire loves spectacle. It loves to demonstrate its power and to spin itself as benevolent power.

I think this is what Jesus is illustrating in this parable.

First of all, in Jesus’s world you give to charity without a big show. This is Jesus speaking just a few chapters earlier in Matthew 6:1-4:
“…when you give to charity, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so your acts of charity may remain hidden.” Matt 6:3-4
And yet in our parable the landowner has a big show at the end of the day in which he pays the late hour workers more than they deserved and then tells the early hour workers how generous he is. His point is to grandstand. He is demonstrating both power and phony generosity. He is giving away ponies to some and not to others.
Even kids know it’s wrong to hold out on somebody.
Just a few verses after today’s parable in Matthew 20:25, Jesus tells James and John who are fighting over power, about how things work in the empire and in contrast how they should behave:
‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you…”
In our parable, the landowner lords it over them:
“Is there some law against my doing what I please with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous.”
It reminds me of the television commercials for British Petroleum. The commercials are all spectacle about how great BP is. They show local folks working hard day and night processing claims. BP is creating spectacle. They are creating image. They want to be seen as generous, honest, and caring, when in fact, they are doing everything they can
  1. to conceal and downplay the destruction,
  2. to take the least amount of responsibility for it as possible, and
  3. to pay little as they can get away with paying.
BP is a corporation. That is what corporations do. We think it is all perfectly normal. Yet...
Even kids know it’s wrong to hold out on somebody.
I read this parable as Jesus exposing an unjust system shrouded in spectacle.

This spectacle of spin--this show of “generosity”--is what those who control wealth and power do all of the time. Jesus exposes this spectacle with this anti-Empire parable.

Where is the Empire of God in all of this?

As Jesus said elsewhere it is among you, within you, and outside you.
  • Perhaps it is in the discussion we have within ourselves and with others about justice, fairness, stewardship, generosity, and our daily bread.
  • Perhaps the Empire of God is about opening our eyes to how power works and how money works.
  • Perhaps the Empire of God is asking whether or not the way power and money works is the way it must work or should work.
Perhaps the Empire of God is asking how it could work.