It seems odd that a parable about labor relations would come up in our lectionary on this tumultuous week in Reynoldsburg. I don’t think there is much here for our Board of Education and teachers to use in their ongoing negotiations, except the encouragement in all things be generous. It is really not a tutorial about management and labor , rather it is a lesson to help us get our head around God’s generosity.
Personally, I struggle with generosity from others. At the moment I receive it, I celebrate. But, after the dust settles I begin to poke at it, demand of it, expect more of it. Paige’s parents gave us generous amounts of money at Christmas while I was in seminary. They were unexpected gifts. No explanation was given or comment made, like this is to support you in seminary. Neither were we told how to use the money. They just came at Christmas one year and continued for the next five years.
And then they stopped when I graduated and began being a pastor in Circleville. Honestly, we were caught by surprise. We had already made plans for spending the money we thought we were going to get. Her parents still gave us money and it was actually the largest gift we received from anyone that year, but since it was substantially smaller than it had been it seemed…stingy. It was a generous gift, but with shame I admit being disappointed, worse even questioning their generosity.
Many of us have trouble with generosity, so we end up putting it in a box we understand. It wasn’t a gift. I earned it. I deserved it. I do this action and I get this reward for it. I deserve this inheritance because I took care of my mother when she was sick. I deserve the special love of my grandmother because after all I am the only grandchild that calls her regularly. I deserve a heaping portion of fries with my meal at the restaurant, because after all I go there every Wednesday for dinner, sitting in the same seat. I deserve this generous Christmas gift because after all you have the money and I am a great son in law. When we make generosity about our just rewards, our wages, we stop recognizing it as a gift that we never deserved, but gladly received.
This happens for us in our relationship with God, too. Instead of faith being a joyful invitation from a God who loves us for no discernable reason. Faith becomes a contract we make with God. I will love you God by following your rules and going to church and you will love me, by getting me a good job, a good wife, and kids that don’t drive me crazy too often and in the end get me into heaven. God’s generous grace becomes something I have earned because of my faithful life. To this sinful understanding of God’s love, Jesus gives us this parable.
It is a great story that nails all of us, rich and poor, believer and atheist, first century Palestinian peasant and twenty first century middle class American. We all can imagine standing in that line at the end of the day. Being the last laborer hired who receives that unexpected generous gift! Wow. For an hour’s worth of work, I got paid for a whole day! Can you believe it? This guy has lost his mind.
We can picture ourselves as the second and third laborers in line as the first get’s paid. Did you see what that guy got paid? I worked four more hours than he did, just think what I will get paid. I worked eight more hours than he did, just think what I will get paid! We can feel the disappointment of the second laborer, kind of like that Christmas in Circleville for me, still a generous check, but…We can understand the anger of the last guy who gets the same amount as everyone else, even though he toiled all day in the sun. The other two got paid extravagantly, and I get this? You cheated me!
At the time Jesus told this parable a similar story existed told by another rabbi. In the other parable, when the first laborer complained about the pay the guy hired at the end of the day received, the Lord told him that that guy worked so hard in one hour that he deserved to get paid for a full day. This is a lot different story, isn’t it? The point of the other parable is that we receive the pay from God we deserve. Over some Roman temples were inscribed these words, I give in order that thee may give. This is the relationship that many of us believe we have with God.
Thank God, this isn’t the God Jesus revealed. Our God, gives us blessings that are completely divorced from the good works we have accumulated. Our God, is excited to get us out in the field working, serving, and loving the creation whether we start at sunset or sunrise. Our God, not only threw the clock away, God is just as foolishly intent on throwing the wealth of His love away, too. Our God, doesn’t love anyone of us more than another, but loves each of us extravagantly and abundantly.
And after all, isn’t this how true love works? It is not conditioned by clocks or deeds, but rather freely, generously, vulnerably given away. Can you list the reasons you love your spouse? Your son? Your neighbor? Or is it just because you are made for love and they are made to be loved.
There are two Nolas in my life. I love them both extravagantly and abundantly. One of them, made hundreds of meals for me and never expected me to make one for her. She held me until I stopped crying when I was in the third grade. I was embarrassed because I had knocked over a cup of Kool Aid on my cousin’s birthday cake and everyone was mad at me. She took my great great grandfather’s Civil War tick, a family heirloom, and used the feathers and stuffing within it to make a special pillow for me. When I told her I was marrying Paige, she smiled and said, I love Paige, what great news. One Nola is my grandmother and she was born in 1902 and died in 1993. I love her extravagantly and abundantly.
The other Nola has never made me a meal, but I have fed her slowly and patiently many meals already. She has never stopped me from crying but I have stopped her from crying many times. She has never given me a gift, but has received many trinkets, toys and clothes as gifts from me. She has never told me she loves me, but I tell her I love her often. This other Nola is my granddaughter, born to my son Nathan and Catherine in December of 2012. I love her extravagantly and abundantly. One came at the sunrise of my life, the other in what I hope will be the middles of my life, but my love for them is the same.
At the end of the day, who does God love more you, me, her, him? God’s got enough love for all of us and then some. Don’t ever begrudge God’s love on someone because you don’t think they earned it. Just be thankful you never had to earn it yourself and celebrate that you have received it.