The passage begins with a typical scenario. Things are not going well. Discomfort and now even fear has set in. The Israelites are convinced that Moses has led them not to the Promised Land but to despair. “Surely we are all going to die out here in this desolate wilderness!…And it’s all Moses’ fault!” Boy, how quickly things turn. Last week, they were celebrating that they had traversed the Red Sea and lived to tell the tale. They could taste freedom. But now they’re out in the desert and things are not what they envisioned they would be. It’s hot; it’s dangerous; and there is nothing to eat. They were convinced that they were going to starve to death. And so they blame their leader. If only…it is a familiar tone. In fact, it’s a pattern in the Bible and in life. (Chaos–Grumbling–Deliverance…) How quickly we forget! What happened to the initial excitement of actually being released from slavery? What happened to the exhilaration of being set free? (What happened to that excitement after the Resurrection when that tiny band of Jesus’ followers began to increase its numbers by multipliers that we can only imagine?)
But God steps in, promising that bread will rain from heaven. The Lord will provide. But there are specific instructions. This is not something that you go out and collect and hoard for the future. God will provide what the people need that day and for that day only. And on the day before the Sabbath, God will provide for two days. So implicit in this tale are several points. First, you should only take what you need. And it is a base assumption that you shall remember the Sabbath. The manna is a gift; it is also a test. God offers freedom. God provides. Do we really trust that? Do we trust it enough to know that it’s going to happen again and again in our lives?
There’s another point too. As the dew lifted and the manna from heaven was revealed, the people didn’t even know what it was. “What is it?,” they asked. It wasn’t what they had envisioned; it wasn’t what they planned. (Many scholars explain manna as a surplus secretion from insects. It’s sort of like honey, but loaded with carbohydrates and nutrients. Nutritionists would call it a “super food”.) But it wasn’t what the Israelites put on their menu when they were dreaming up dinner!) Perhaps that’s part of the story! I mean, what would you have thought if there underneath the dew was a seven-course meal—maybe starting with a choice between a soup or a salad and then ending with a vast array of extravagant desserts? Yeah, I think that’s sort of over the top too. Manna is as much about gratitude for what is as it is about just opening our eyes to see what God brings into our lives.
In fact, manna was downright surprising on every level—unexpected, undeserved, uncharacteristic. I guess that sounds a whole lot like grace! But this manna was so small, so minute, so fleeting. It was definitely an exercise in trust. It was an exercise in self-control. And it means that we have to believe that God will always provide what we need—at the very least until tomorrow!
Francis once visited a hermitage at Monte Casale, where the guardian reported that some thieves had just made off with a stash of bread. Francis said, “I must apprehend them!” So he took off down the road, caught up to them, and revealed he was carrying bread and a bottle of wine. “You must be hungry and thirsty, so here: eat, and drink, and come back to Monte Casale where there’s more.” The thieves, once they recovered from their shock, came with him, and became friars, friends of Francis and of Christ. (From “Small and White, Clean and Bright”, by Rev. Dr. James C. Howell, available at http://day1.org/3155-small_and_white_clean_and_bright, accessed 13 September, 2011.)
- What is your response to this passage?
- Why do you think this story is so significant?
- How good are we at being grateful for what is?
- So what lesson does this story provide for us today?
NEW TESTAMENT: Philippians 1: 21-30
Paul is writing this letter from prison and does not know whether he will ever be released or see the congregation to which he writes again. But he is not feeling a sense of despair but rather a real freedom. He knows that they are praying for him and regardless of what happens, this will all turn to abundance. In the letter, Paul turns toward the congregation and encourages them to live their faith. He tells them to “live their lives in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”
The Greek word that is translated “live your life” here is politeusthe, with the same root as polis, Greek for “city”, so the implication is the directive to “live as a free citizen.” Obviously, Paul’s meaning is the call to live in freedom within the order of God, rather than the order of Rome. And then he exhorts them to witness to that freedom by, first of all, showing a spirit of unity. He calls them to be strong, implying that the imprisonment that has been thrust upon him might be the same thing that happens to them in the future.
It is interesting to think of this possible suffering as a “privilege” when one talks about his or her faith. That notion is completely counter to what our culture thinks. But Paul is talking about a way of life that is completely counter itself. And in that way of life, it is indeed a privilege to call oneself a child and follower of God. The privilege is that we are given a faith so deep and so broad that it fills our lives in spite of any suffering that this world in which we live might thrust upon us. It is, according to Paul, a privilege to live a life that challenges and questions the pervading order of our world.
This passage obviously depicts Paul’s great and intense faith. But it is not a blind faith. There is nothing here claiming a God that will “fix things”. There is nothing here about God rewarding faithfulness with ease and prosperity. Instead, Paul has faith in the greatness of God, faith that God is beyond all we see and all we know, faith in a God that rather than blindly fixing or repairing our world leads us to a freedom from it, to a life that sees beyond to a life promised by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Paul recognizes that suffering will happen. It is a normal and even expected part of life. But we’re about something bigger. We have the privilege of believing in something more. And that, Paul would say, is worth sharing the Good News.
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- What is difficult about this passage for you?
- How do we look upon suffering in this world in light of our faith?
- What does it mean to you to say that we are “privileged” to belief in Christ? How does that call you to live your life?
GOSPEL: Matthew 20: 1-16
When I was little and started whining about something, it usually included the words, “That’s not fair!” No, it probably wasn’t. But often my mom would respond with the words (which, I will tell you, I hated at the time!), “Well, Shelli, life is not fair!” What kind of answer was that? I wanted pastoral compassion and I got shocking realism. Maybe that’s what Jesus is going for here.
The story, of course, has elements of exaggeration, but maybe the shock value is intended to get us to look at life differently. This is really a very ordinary setting. A landowner goes out early to hire workers and contracts with them for work that day in his vineyard. You know, we can easily put this story in our own context. Let’s say a person goes out early to hire workers and contracts with them for work that day replanting our dying grass in our yard. About mid-morning, the person sees others standing near the property. Well, it’s logical that the more laborers you have working, the faster the work gets done, right? So he puts them to work. More workers are added to the ranks around lunchtime and again in the middle of the afternoon.
When evening comes, the work is done and the yard is planted. The owner calls all of the workers together and begins handing out paychecks. He starts with those that had been hired last. They receive a nice wage, a full day’s wage, in fact. The workers who had been there earlier become excited. Wow! I bet I’m going to receive a bonus for being here earlier. This is going to be great!
But the owner paid everyone the same. After all, that’s the wage to which they had agreed. The owner can be as generous as he or she wants to be to whomever he or she wants to be. And even those that came to the setting last received the same generous spirit as those that came first. Now the owner could have alleviated a lot of the problems and consternation between the workers if he had just paid them beginning with he first hired. Then they would have gone off happy with their day’s wages and never have known that the latecomers got the same thing. But then they would have missed the lesson. The point is not that the owner treats some better than others. The point is that he treats them all the same.
We often have struggled with this story. Barbara Brown Taylor says that this parable is “a little bit like cod liver oil: you know it must be good for you, but that does not make it any easier to swallow.” After all, for us, it’s a question of fairness. But remember, “life is not fair.” In fact, God never promised fairness. God promised unconditional and infinite mercy, and compassion, and justice. God’s grace is there for those who have been righteous all their lives. And God’s grace is equally showered upon those who have messed up their lives. And, if you really think about your own life, would you really want God to be fair? Thank God, God is not fair.
But this parable is a question of fairness. And the answer is that life is not fair. You see, when you think about it, fairness is pretty subjective. I mean, very few people will shout “unfair” when they are on the winning side. What is “fair” to us may not be “fair” to others? We need to reframe our reading of this passage and at the same time reframe our reading of life with a different set of values, the values that God’s Kingdom holds. People are treated according to their needs, not according to what they deserve. And for that, I am very thankful!
Life is not fair. We know that all too well. But Jesus told this parable to shake us out of our complacent view of a neatly ordered life based on what we think we deserve. This parable jolts us into remembering what is important. This question of fairness is answered by God’s promise of justice and mercy for everyone. And once we realize that, no matter what our own circumstances, we cannot help but be motivated to change the world or, at the very least, to begin to look at it differently.
The parable challenges Jesus’ disciples in their spiritual arrogance. It challenges Matthew’s Jewish Christians who oppose the entry of Gentiles into the blessings of the kingdom. It challenges us today in our churches as we begrudge the joy of the gospel to those whom we deem less industrious, less committed, less worthy of it than we are.
The character(s) with whom we identify when we read a story tells us a great deal about ourselves and our self-conceptions. I suspect most of us identify with the workers who started out early in the morning and, on grounds of economic fairness, feel uncomfortable with this parable. What if the truth was that we ought to identify with those who started last? Only when we shed our spiritual arrogance can we experience the good news of this quirky parable, rather than being offended by its economics.
This came home to me when I was asked to perform a funeral recently. It was the funeral of Bill, the father of a church member. I knew his daughter and her husband and family but had only met Bill a couple of times at social gatherings at their home. He had been a vital man with a good sense of humor. He had been a successful salesman and made an excellent living, enjoying his retirement and frequent golf games until he had been stricken with Alzheimer’s two years before. Since I had not known Bill well, I asked if I could meet with the family and find out what their loved one had been like firsthand.
So I sat around a kitchen table one Saturday afternoon with Bill’s three children and their spouses, his niece, and nephew. I began by asking, “If you could express in one sentence what you learned from Bill, what would it be?” Nobody had to think about the question very long. “Give without counting the cost and without expecting a return,” one of them said quickly. And that sentiment was echoed all around the table.
Then they started giving examples. “He put me through school,” said his niece. “I didn’t even ask; he just knew my folks couldn’t do it.” “He bailed me out of jail,” said his son. “He never gave up hope in me,” said his nephew. “He gave me the gift of somebody believing in me.” Example after example of a man who knew how to give without counting the cost, without expecting a return. “He always made sure his children’s needs were met,” his daughter said, “but sometimes, I admit we felt jealous when he would give time and money to people who weren’t in our immediate family. Now I realize that his example of giving was his greatest gift to us.”Do you think that someday all of us who find this parable objectionable will say the same thing about Jesus? (From “Sheer Grace: Reflections on Matthew 19:27-20:16”, by Alyce McKenzie, available at http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Sheer-Grace-Alyce-McKenzie-09-12-2011, accessed 14 September, 2011.)
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- What is difficult about this passage for you?
- What, for you, is the difference between justice and fairness?
- Why do we have such a hard time distinguishing between these two meanings?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God…We must not…assume that our schedule is our own to manage, but allow it to be arranged by God. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
Our inner happiness depends not on what we experience but on the degree of our gratitude to God, whatever the experience. (Albert Schweitzer)
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? (Alexander Solzhenitsyn)
O give thanks to the Beloved, and open your hearts to Love. Awaken! Listn in silence for the Voice of the Counselor. Sing praises with glad voice, and give witness to the truth with your lives! Glory in the radiance of the Beloved; let the hearts of those who call upon You rejoice! Seek the One who is Life, your strength, walk harmoniously in Love’s Presence! Remember that you are not alone, for through Love doubt and fear are released; O people of the earth, ever bear in mind the unity of diversity in the Divine Plan! Amen.
(From “Psalm 105”, in Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness, by Nan C. Merrill, p. 217.)