God’s Agenda

God’s Priority List

Luke 4:16-27

At one time or another, I think we’ve all wanted something from God.  I think we’ve all had that one thing we wish God would do for us.  Or maybe even a list of things.  Or maybe in a moment of doubt we’ve just wanted God to show us some small sign to reassure us that God really is with us and on our side.  A lot of these wishes, especially the smaller ones, go unspoken.  But when we’re honest with ourselves—and with God—I think almost all of us have that something we’d like to see God do for us.

I suspect that there was something like that at work in the hearts of the people who came to hear Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth.  They had heard great stories about their hometown boy made good—stories about healings and exorcisms.  They had heard that he spoke with authority, eloquence and wisdom.  Some people were already calling him a prophet.  So when his hometown people came to hear him speak in his hometown synagogue, it was only natural that they brought their hopes and expectations—their unspoken wish lists—with them.  And when Jesus read the passage from Isaiah that starts with The Spirit of the Most High is upon me, it must have just heighted their expectations.

They knew that passage from Isaiah.  I’m sure many of them were silently saying the words with him as Jesus read them.  God has anointed me to proclaim good news to those who are poor.  God sent me to preach liberation to those who are captives and recovery of sight to those who are blind, to liberate those who are oppressed.  To proclaim the year of the Most High’s favor.  They knew those words.  And the way Jesus was speaking them, it sounded like a proclamation he was making about himself.  And then, as if to remove any doubt, the moment he sat down to teach he said Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

He owned the prophecy.  He claimed it.  

I can imagine a buzz of excited conversation in the synagogue.  People’s hopes were high.  Hard to believe this is Joseph’s son.  Remember that time he got separated from the caravan coming back from Jerusalem and his parents couldn’t find him for three days?  But look at him now!

Luke doesn’t tell us everything Jesus said as he was teaching.  But at some point he must have said something that they heard as a criticism.  Maybe he said something about their failure to fully embrace the kin-dom of God and help bring it about on earth as it is in heaven.  Maybe he criticized their lack of imagination or their unwillingness to take any risks on behalf of what God was trying to accomplish.  Maybe he criticized their hopes that God was going to fulfill their wish list, when Isaiah wanted them to understand that they were being invited to fulfill God’s wish list and that the Spirit could empower them to do it.

Somewhere in there, also, Jesus made it clear that the miracle shop was closed for the day.  He wasn’t going to do any exorcisms or healings.  It was the Sabbath, after all, and doing works of power—healing, exorcisms, that kind of thing, was better left to another day if wasn’t urgent.  It’s a bit ironic, really, because at other times in other places people got upset with him for healing and casting out demons on the Sabbath.  And isn’t that just human nature in a nutshell.  There’s always someone who’s looking for a reason to be upset.  

Jesus watched their expressions change as the shadow of disappointment and irritation fell across their faces.  He could see that his criticisms didn’t sit well with them.  He could see that they were starting to formulate their own criticism of him in response.  So he beat them to it. Of course you’ll all quote me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” and you’ll all say, do the things here in your hometown that we heard you did in Capernaum!  

We shouldn’t be too hard on the people of Nazareth.  I think we might have felt the same way.  Don’t we deserve a few miracles, too?  Come on, Jesus, this is your hometown!  We knew you when!  You’re one of us!

Jesus was a master at reading the human heart.  He could hear all the words that weren’t being said.  He could feel their sense of entitlement.  So he reminded them that neither he nor God were bound by their expectations.  He reminded them that there were times and stories in their own tradition when their prophets brought the power of God to others, to “outsiders,” even though there were needs and wish lists right here at home.  Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in their hometown.  But I speak truth to you all, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were closed three years and six months, and there was a sever famine over all the land.  Yet, Elijah was sent to none of them, rather to Zarephath in Sidon, to a widow woman.  And there were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.

That was the spark that set them off.  They felt they were being disrespected.  It was a slap in the face!  It offended their sense of privilege.  Jesus was one of them, after all.  If anyone had a right to experience his amazing works of power, they did.  They should come first.

And here’s the thing.  Jesus was not telling them that he didn’t love them or that God didn’t love them.  Jesus was not telling them that God wasn’t going to meet their needs.  He was just reminding them that God had already set an agenda, and that God’s agenda was his agenda, too.  He was reminding them that long ago God had spoken through Isaiah to tell them that those who were hurting the most would be attended to first.  He was reminding them that his mission was to proclaim good news to the poor, liberation for captives, recovery of sight for the blind, and liberation for the oppressed.   That was his first order of business.  

They didn’t like to hear Jesus so bluntly telling them that their wishes were not God’s top priority.  It confronted their sense of privilege, and they exploded in rage.  They shoved him out to the edge of town and were going to throw him off the cliff.  And that’s when he finally did a small miracle for them, though I doubt if they saw it that way.  He stopped them from doing something that would have scarred their consciences and damaged their souls for the rest of their lives.  He passed through the midst of them and went on his way, leaving them standing there as the anger and adrenaline seeped out of them.

We love to be told how much God loves us.  We love to be reminded of all the ways that God has provided for us and is looking out for us.  And we usually don’t mind being told that God loves others, too, although we sometimes bristle when we’re told that God loves and cares for people we don’t much like.  Anne Lamott said, “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

And that was part of the problem in Nazareth.  The god in their heads, the god in their hearts ran headlong into the God of their scriptures when Jesus began teaching them what that beloved passage from Isaiah really meant.  God’s favor does not privilege home or nation, but it does prioritize those who are hurting most.

There’s an old story about a little girl who was outside playing with her two brothers when she fell and scraped her knee.  Her mom heard her crying and ran outside, scooped her up and brought her in to the bathroom to clean and dress her wounds, and while her mom was sticking a big Band-Aid on her knee, the little girl asked, “Mom, which one of the three of us do you love the most?”  Her mom looked at her for a moment, then kissed her forehead and said, “Whichever one needs me the most.”

We all want to hear good news.  But the ones who need it most are the poor.  We would all like to be liberated from one thing or another, but the ones who need it most are those who are really held captive.  We all would like to see the world more clearly.  But the ones who need it most are blind in one way or another.  We all would like more autonomy, more real freedom and justice in one way or another.  But the ones who need it most are people who are actually oppressed. 

Over the past few years as protestors responded to the alarming number of incidents of black people being killed in circumstances that highlight the racism inherent in much of American life, the slogan Black Lives Matter began appearing at protests and on social media.  When that slogan, Black Lives Matter, first appeared, a lot of white people responded with All Lives Matter.  

All Lives Matter.  Well, yes, that’s true, of course.  But it’s beside the point.  All Lives do Matter, but it isn’t All Lives who are dealing with profiling and bigotry and discrimination.  It isn’t All Lives dealing with the heritage of neighborhood redlining that creates ghettos and a kind of economic bondage that perpetuates poverty.  It isn’t All Lives who need to have The Talk with their children about how to stay safe and come home alive if you get pulled over by the police because your tail light is out.  Saying Black Lives Matter is necessary because Black Lives have too often and for too long been treated as if they don’t matter.  We can’t say All Lives matter until we’ve made it clear that Black Lives are included in the All.

Many white people have reacted negatively to Black Lives Matter.  They have responded from the blindness of White Privilege, and it upsets them to have someone suggest that such a thing as White Privilege even exists.  They may be quick to point out that their lives don’t feel privileged, that they have had their struggles, too.  What they say is true, but it’s beside the point.  White privilege doesn’t mean your life hasn’t been hard.  It just means that the color of your skin isn’t one of the things that makes it harder.

When Jesus had finished reading that powerful passage from Isaiah, The Spirit of the Most High is upon me.  God has anointed me… he followed the reading by saying Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.  Those last three words are important.  

In your hearing.  Are we still hearing him?  He was announcing that he had come to restore vibrance and equity to our world.  He was announcing that he was going to start where his attention and love and transformative power were needed most.  If we are his followers, then we have the same mission.  In our baptism we have received the Holy Spirit, too.  If we stand with Jesus then we, too, should say, the Spirit of the Most High is upon us. God has anointed us to proclaim good news to those who are poor.  God is sending us to preach liberation to those who are captives and recovery of sight to those who are blind. God is calling us to liberate those who are oppressed.  God is calling us to announce that now is the time of God’s favor.  The kin-dom of God is within reach.

Now is the time of God’s favor.  Now is the time to change the world.  Now is the time for liberty and justice and fairness for all… starting with those who need it most.   

A Song of Defiance

Luke 1:46-56

Fortunate Son by Credence Clearwater Revival.  Blowin’ in the Wind by Bob Dylan.  The Times They Are a Changin’ also by Bob Dylan.  For What It’s Worth by Buffalo Springfield.  Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.  Get Up, Stand Up by Bob Marley and the Wailers.  Redemption Song, also by Bob Marley.  What’s Goin’ On by Marvin Gaye.  This Land is Your Land by Woody Guthrie.  Strange Fruit by Billie Holliday.  Brother Can You Spare a Dime? by Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney.   Imagine by John Lennon.  Born In The USA by Bruce Springsteen.  Talkin’ Bout a Revolution by Tracy Chapman.  A Change is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke.  Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell.  9 to 5 by Dolly Parton.  

What do these songs all have in common?  They’re all protest songs.  If you type “Protest Songs” into your search engine, you’ll find every one of these songs on at least one of the many lists that will pop up.  

You might be surprised that some of these are regarded as protest songs.  9 to 5, for instance, has such an energetic, positive-sounding melody that it’s easy to just bop along to the music.  Yet because of the way its lyrics addresses the inequities of the workplace, it has become a kind of worker’s anthem, especially for women.  

If you don’t know the context, Blowin’ in the Wind sounds like just an innocuous 1960s folk song.  “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?” sounds like a universal philosophical question until you remember that when Dylan wrote this song, African-American men were marching in the streets carrying signs that said “I Am A Man” to assert their identity and humanity in a segregated and racist culture that discounted and diminished  them by calling them “boy.”  Suddenly that philosophical question has sharp edges.

Many people have a fondness for This Land is Your Land as an almost patriotic song, a piece of classic Americana.  They forget that Woody Guthrie, who wrote that song, was regarded as a radical leftist and blacklisted by the infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities.  One of the verses of that beloved song that gets overlooked and is almost never actually sung is about poverty and hunger:  In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people/ By the relief office I seen my people/ As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking/ Is this land made for you and me?

Some protest songs try to awaken awareness.  Some name and describe social situations and injustices.  Some are simply songs of lament for the way things are.  Some remind us of the ways we are failing to live up to our ideals.  And some invite us to imagine how things could be better. 

All of these protest songs moved people to one degree or another and made them think.  But none of them hold a candle to the Magnificat by Mary, Mother of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke.

This song that Mary sings in chapter one of Luke is a radical protest song.  In an Advent sermon in 1933, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings.…This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”

Archbishop Oscar Romero prayed the words of Mary’s song every day.  He drew inspiration from her song to continue preaching for justice and economic opportunity for the poor of El Salvador.  He heard Mary singing as one of the poor and, in a country where only 14 families controlled all the wealth, he proclaimed, “You have to be poor to really know the power of the good news.”

Poor and oppressed people throughout the world have been uplifted and empowered by Mary’s song, so much so that oppressive governments have banned it at various times.  In India, during the time of British rule, singing of the Magnificat in church was prohibited for fear it would encourage rebellion.  In Guatemala in the 1980s, the Magnificat became a favorite song among the impoverished masses, inspiring them to believe that God was on their side and change was possible, so the Guatemalan government banned any public singing or recitation of Mary’s song.  In Argentina, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo whose children had been disappeared during the Dirty War, placed the words of the Magnificat on posters throughout the capital.  In response, the military junta banned any public display, recitation, or performance of the Magnificat.  They saw how it gave the people courage and reminded them that God was on their side.

The poor and oppressed identify with Mary.  They don’t just see her as “holy Mary, Mother of God,” they see her as one of their own, a peasant girl, in difficult circumstances, but defiant and empowered.   Carolyn Sharp of Yale Divinity put it this way: “Don’t envision Mary as a radiant woman peacefully composing the Magnificat.  Instead, see her as a girl who sings defiantly to her God through her tears, fists clenched against an unknown future.”  Dr. Sharp goes on to say that if we can see her this way, “Mary’s courageous song of praise [becomes] a radical resource for those seeking to honor the holy amid the suffering and conflicts of life.”

God has shown the strength of God’s own arm;

and has scattered the arrogant in the intent of their hearts.

God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

God has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.

Mary’s song makes it clear that God is initiating a new social order, that the world is about to turn.  Her song announces that Christ’s coming is a world-transforming event.  Her song proclaims that Christ is coming to challenge the structures of sin and death, evil and oppression.  

Her song echoes the song of Isaiah 61 which her son, Jesus, will someday read in the synagogue to initiate his ministry:

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,

                  because the Holy One has anointed me;

         God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,

                  to bind up the brokenhearted,

         to proclaim liberty to the captives,

                  and release to the prisoners;

         to proclaim the year of the God’s favor,

                  and the day of vengeance of our God;

                  to comfort all who mourn;

         to provide for those who mourn in Zion—

                  to give them a garland instead of ashes,

         the oil of gladness instead of mourning,

                  the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

Mary’s song resonates with the songs of God’s liberation throughout the ages.  In Exodus 15, Miriam sings of God’s mighty acts in saving the people from Pharoah’s pursuing army.  In 1 Samuel 2, Hannah prophesies about God turning the tables on behalf of the poor when she sings, “Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.”  

Mary’s song rings with the prophetic reminder that God is at work in every age to rebalance the scales.  She reminds us that God will not allow oppression, injustice, negligence and inequity to go on forever.  The reign of God has been announced.  The vision proclaimed and described.  In a world where things have not been operating according to God’s plan, Mary has told us that change is underway and invited us to be on the right side of it.  And just so we know which side that is, she has given us a song.

*Image by Linda Donlin

And She Began to Serve

Mark 1:29-39

“He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up.  Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”  Two simple sentences.  And like so much of Mark’s gospel, a surprising amount of action in surprisingly few words. 

After preaching with authority in the synagogue at Capernaum, then casting out an unclean spirit from a man who interrupted him, Jesus is ready for a break.  So he goes to the house of his new disciples, Peter and Andrew.  It happens that Peter’s mother-in-law is sick.  She’s in bed with a fever.  They tell Jesus about her right away and Jesus goes to her.

And here is where the translation maybe is not our friend.  “He took her by the hand” sounds much gentler than what it says in the original language.  Kratésas it says in the Greek.  Kratéo is the verb.  It’s not a tender word.  It means to grasp firmly or strongly.  

And then it says he “lifted her up.”  Which is fine.  But again, something is lost in translation.  The verb Mark used is egeiro.  It’s the same word Jesus will use when he raises Jairus’ daughter from the dead and says, “Little girl, get up!”  It’s the same word the angel will use to tell the women that Jesus is not in the empty tomb because he is raised up—egeiro.  

So maybe this isn’t quite the gentle scene I had always imagined.  Maybe this is a scene full of strength and energy and power.  Jesus grasped her strongly, firmly by the hand and raised her.  

Then the fever left her.

And she began to serve them.

It’s tempting to get a little upset about that last part—she began to serve them.  After all, she’s just been sick with a fever.  And now here are all these guys who come traipsing into the house and because of the expectations of the society they live in, she jumps out of her sickbed to rustle up some dinner for them.  Oh, and by the way, does anybody care that it’s still the Sabbath?

Some commentators have pointed out that she would be happy to do this because in a culture where roles are clearly defined she could now resume her place as matriarch of the household along with all the social currency that comes with that.

But again, there’s something going on in the language that deserves a moment of attention.  It’s a little thing.  But, as I’ve been learning, Mark often uses these subtle little things to make big points.  In this case, it has to do with the word “serve.”  Here’s how Ched Myers explains it in his book, Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship—

“Peter’s mother-in-law is the first woman to appear in Mark’s narrative.  We are told that upon being touched by Jesus, “she served him(1:31).  Most commentators, steeped in patriarchal theology, assume that this means she fixed Jesus dinner.  However the Greek verb “to serve” (from which we get our word “deacon”_ appears only two other times in Mark.  One is in 10:45—“The Human One came not to be served but to serve”—a context hardly suggesting meal preparation.

“Mark describes women ‘who, when Jesus was in Galilee, followed him, and served him, and…came up to Jerusalem with him’ (15:41).  This is a summary statement of discipleship:  from beginning (Galilee) to end (Jerusalem) these women were true followers who, unlike the men (see 10:32-45) practiced servanthood.”

So here is Peter’s mother-in-law—sadly we don’t have her name—but Mark identifies her service with a word that implies that there is a sacred aspect to her serving, a holiness that springs not from her sense of duty, but her faith.  She is a deacon.  

In Mark’s gospel, the men surrounding Jesus are often argumentative and a little dense.  But the women, though not mentioned often, are astute and faithful.  

I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week.  This week we had a graveside service for Barbara, one of those astute and faithful women who have kept the ministry of Jesus alive and well in this world for more than 20 centuries.  As I conducted her service I was wearing one of the stoles she wove for me on her loom, and it made me think of Tabitha who we read about in the book of Acts.  She was much loved by her community in Joppa, and when they summoned Peter to pray for her, they showed him all the tunics and other clothing she had made for people.

I thought of the women mentioned in the Gospel of Luke who travelled with Jesus and supported Jesus and the disciples financially.  Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, Luke says, who provided for them out of their resources.  

These women came to be called the Myrrh Bearers because they were the ones who went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body after the crucifixion, but found it empty.

Mary Magdalen was known to be particularly close to Jesus and was regarded as an Apostle by many in the early church until patriarchy asserted itself, suppressed her influence, and sullied her reputation by spreading the story that she had been a prostitute.  But it was Mary Magdalen, according to the Gospel of John, who first encountered the risen Jesus.  It was Mary Magdalen who first proclaimed his resurrection, making her the first evangelist.

Another Mary who was part of this group of women disciples, was Mary, the wife of  Cleopas.  If tradition is correct, her husband was the brother of Joseph, Jesus’ foster father, so she was the sister-in-law of Jesus’ mother, Mary.  She, too, was a Myrrh Bearer and is probably the unidentified person traveling with Cleopas on the road to Emmaus in chapter 24 of Luke’s gospel, making her one of the first witnesses to the resurrection.

Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Chuza is someone we know a little more about.  We see her later identified in the letters of the Apostle Paul where he uses her Roman name, Junia.  Paul says she is prominent among the Apostles and that she knew Christ before he did (Romans 16:7).   In Junia we see someone remarkable, a woman disciple of Jesus who travelled with him in his ministry,  and continued in ministry as an Apostle, travelling as far as Rome for the cause of the gospel.

Priscilla and her husband Aquila are mentioned six times in the New Testament.  Priscilla is mentioned first four of those times, and it’s clear that she is a full partner in their work together for the sake of the gospel.  Tradition includes them among the 70 that Jesus sent out on a mission in the Gospel of Luke.  Priscilla, also called Prisca, her more formal name, has always been considered one of the first women preachers in the church.  We read in Acts 18:24-28 that she, along with Aquila, instructed Apollos in the faith.  There is even a theory that she is the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews.

Phoebe was an overseer and deacon in the Church at Cenchreae.   St. Paul referred to her in Romans 16 as a deacon and a patron of many.  This is the only place in the New Testament where a woman was referred to with both those titles. Diakonos kai prostateis.  A chief, a leader, a guardian, a protector.  St. Paul had such trust in her that he provided her with credentials so that she could serve as his emissary to Rome, and deliver his letter to them—that letter we know as the Epistle to the Romans.

Lydia of Thyatira, was a wealthy merchant of purple cloth, who welcomed St. Paul and his companions into her home at Phillipi and became a convert.  In doing so, she helped to establish the church at Phillipi, the first church in continental Europe.

In that church at Philippi were two women, Euodia and Syntyche who were serving in positions of pastoral leadership.  At some point they got into a disagreement. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul urges them to “be of the same mind in the Lord” so that their disagreement doesn’t split the church.  In calling them to unity, he notes that they have “struggled beside me in the work of the gospel.”

Jesus took Peter’s mother-in-law in his firm grip and raised her up.  And she began to serve.  She became a deacon.  She began making sure things got done.  Making sure ministry happened.  And it’s the women who have been making sure things get done and ministry happens ever since.

Fifty years ago, our denomination began to ordain women to the ministry of Word and Sacrament.  To be pastors.  On the one hand, it seemed then—and to some people it still seems—like a bold and progressive thing to do.  But when you look at the witness of the New Testament itself and what we have learned about the roles that women played in the earliest years of the church…well let’s just say that it was shamefully long overdue.

I think of the women I’m indebted to in my ministry.  I think of all the women teachers I’ve had, like Dr. Martha Ellen “Marty” Stortz, professor of Church history who opened my eyes to the rich goldmine of our heritage.  I think of the women scholars and writers I turn to for thought-provoking insights in theology and biblical studies.  Women like Debi Thomas, Barbara Brown Taylor, Rachel Held Evans, Roberta Bondi, Nadia Bolz-Weber, and Amy-Jill Levine.  I think of my women clergy colleagues who are so amazing and indispensable as we puzzle our way through the week’s texts and the week’s issues, and life in the church.

I think of the women in our congregation who make things happen.  Without whom things would not happen.  The Tabithas, the Junias, the Priscillas, the Marys, the Pheobes. The Myrrh Bearers.  The Apostles in our midst.

I think of them all.  And I am so grateful.

Jesus has grasped them by the hand and raised them up.  And they have served.  Showing the presence of Christ and proclaiming the kin-dom of God.  And we are all richer for it. 

The Right Thing To Do

Matthew 20:1-16

  “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.  After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.  When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace;  and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.  When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.  And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’  They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’  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.’  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.  11And 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.”

There’s something about this parable that makes us nervous.  Most of us, anyway.  If we’re honest, we really don’t like the idea that the workers who were only in the field for an hour or two got paid the same as those who had “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”  It’s not fair.  It offends our sense of justice even if it is Jesus who’s telling the story.  As Barbara Brown Taylor says, this parable is a little like the cod liver oil that mothers used to give their kids: you know it’s good for you, you trust the one who is giving it to you, but that doesn’t make it any  easier to swallow. 

We have a built-in sense of fair play and fair pay and when they don’t go the  way we think they should, we tend to let people know how we feel about it.  Here’s an actual letter written to the head of a government relief agency: 

Dear Sir:
It seems worthwhile to call your attention to what is going on in nearby Hoboken relative to “relief”…True relief is approved by the people of the USA but merely making loafers out of individuals who don’t want to work is definitely to the detriment of the country and is disastrous to the taxpayers of the country. If the situation as it now exists is not soon changed the voters of the country will give the present administration a thorough cleanout next November. 

Yours truly, [1]

That letter was written in 1934, during the depths of the Great Depression, to Harry Hopkins, head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration.  The writer of that letter didn’t feel that workers on local WPA projects were being required to work long enough or hard enough for the money they were receiving.  He didn’t think it was fair that his tax dollars were paying salaries to people he saw as “loafers.”

A sense of what’s fair and what’s not may be built into us.

In 2003, Psychologists Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal did an experiment with female Capuchin monkeys.  They trained the monkeys so that each time they did the “work” of bringing them a granite pebble they got “paid” with a slice of cucumber.  The monkeys really like cucumber, so they learned to do this “work” very quickly.  Then one day Brosnan and deWaal gave one of the monkeys a grape instead of a cucumber slice as payment for her pebble.  Capuchins like cucumber, but grapes are their absolute favorite food.  All the other monkeys saw this and there was suddenly much excitement.  Wow!  Grapes!  But when the next Capuchin came to redeem her pebble and instead of a grape she got the usual slice of cucumber, she went ballistic.  She threw the cucumber back at the handlers and started shrieking at them and violently shaking her cage.  After repeating this experiment several times, the monkeys went on strike and wouldn’t bring their pebbles at all any more unless they got paid in grapes. 

 Not too long ago the Governor of Massachusetts was on a radio talk show outlining plans to provide temporary, safe assistance for some of the thousands of unaccompanied migrant children who had been crossing our southern border.  One woman who called in asked,  “Why do we have to spend our money to take care of somebody else’s children?”[2]

A lot of people would ask that same question.  A lot of Christians, concerned about immigration issues, would ask that same question. Why should we take responsibility for this?  Why should we take responsibility for a lot of other things?

Why should I have to wear a mask?  What about my personal freedom?

Why should I have to take responsibility for standing against racism?  Why do I have to learn to recognize white privilege and other systemic and cultural factors that have made life difficult for persons of color?  What does that have to do with me?

Why should we be concerned about income inequality?  

I think the short answer from Jesus, especially as we see him in Matthew’s gospel, would simply be we should do it because it’s the right thing to do.

For Jesus and for his followers, fulfilling righteousness, or, more simply, doing the right thing is a central theme in the Gospel of Matthew.  It starts in chapter 3 when Jesus is baptized.  John the baptizer says, “This is all wrong, you should be baptizing me!”  And Jesus replies, “Let’s just do this for now ‘so that all righteousness may be fulfilled.’”  In other words, it’s the right thing to do.  

In chapter 7, after telling us to treat others the way we would like to be treated, Jesus reminds us that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”  In other words, those who do the right thing.   

This theme of doing the right thing is expressed with crystal clarity in chapter 25 where Jesus uses the metaphor of separating the sheep from the goats, the righteous from the unrighteous.  The ones who enter the kingdom and inherit eternal life are the ones who feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome to the stranger, heal the sick and so on.  They’re the ones who do the right thing and in doing it they minister to Jesus, himself.

The parable in today’s gospel is another example of a “do the right thing” story even though our gut reaction to it is that the landowner is doing the wrong thing. 

We usually call this story The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.  The problem with that title is that it puts our focus on the workers and the vineyard, the place where they’re laboring all day in the hot sun.  That means that we’re going to have a tendency to be  thinking about this from the workers’ point of view.  But what happens if we call this story The Land Owner and the Marketplace? 

The story starts with the landowner and ends with the landowner, so let’s keep our focus on him.  He goes to the marketplace at 6 in the morning and hires all the laborers he needs for the day.  He goes back to the marketplace at 9 and sees that there are still workers who haven’t been hired.  Now if we’re Jesus’ original audience listening to this, we have assumed that he doesn’t really need any more workers—a smart landowner, and you don’t get to be a landowner without being smart—would have hired all the workers he needed the first time out.  But he sees workers who haven’t been hired by anyone else, so he hires some of them. He goes back at noon and it’s the same thing so he hires some more.  Then again at 3 and finally again at 5, almost at the end of the work day.  

One has to wonder, of course, why those workers are available.  Why are they “standing there idle?”  It’s tempting to make up stories for them, but there’s no need to and it doesn’t really suit the purpose of the parable.  They’re there because, as one of them puts it so succinctly, “No one has hired us.”  There are more laborers than there is demand for labor.  End of story.  

At the end of the day it’s time to pay them.  The landowner had agreed with the first workers he hired that he would pay them each a denarius, the usual fair rate for a day’s labor.  A Roman silver denarius would feed a family for 3 to 6 days depending on the size of the family, so these first-hired workers are happy to make the deal.  It’s decent pay.  When the landowner hired the others later in the day he simply said he would pay them “whatever is right.”  

The landowner pays the last-hired workers first, and it turns out that his idea of “what is right” is a denarius;  a full day’s pay for an hour’s work.  The workers who had been hired first see this and think they’re in for a huge bonus, but when they only get paid a denarius, in keeping with their contract, they’re upset.  “They began to grumble against the owner of the estate, saying, ‘These last worked but one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’”

We sympathize, but the landowner has a point when he replies, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Did you not agree with me to work for a denarius? Take what is yours and be gone. I choose to give to this last man the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or are you envious because I am generous?’

Okay, so fair enough.  A deal is a deal.  Still, it all seems kind of unfair to those workers who were out in the vineyard all day. So what’s going on here?

Well to really understand this we have to go all the way back to the beginning of the parable where Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven is like…”  Those words are our clue that Jesus is telling us a story about kingdom values, God’s values.  And it’s important to remember when we think about these values that Jesus isn’t just talking pie in the sky in the sweet by and by.  Jesus was announcing that the kingdom was enngiken, arriving, obtainable, drawing near, within reach.  Jesus was expecting us to embrace God’s vision and then to work to make it a reality “on earth as it is in heaven.” 

Amy-Jill Levine in her book Short Stories by Jesus says that this is a parable about economics and righteousness—this world economics and this-world righteousness as God would like to see us practicing them.

Why does the landowner go out repeatedly to hire more workers when he already hired all he needs with his first visit to the marketplace?  He hires the others because they need jobs and he can afford to hire them.  It’s that simple.  

In hiring them, even the last ones hired, he gives them the dignity of earning a wage so they don’t have to beg.  He provides for their families so they don’t have to rely on the charity of the community, and thus he preserves the community’s resources.  He honestly meets the terms of his contract with the first ones hired and he generously goes beyond the expectations of those hired later.  He performs both an act of righteousness and a mitzvah, an act of generosity.  He is focused on the needs of the community more than on his own needs.  He voluntarily distributes his wealth so that the community is more stable.  

At the end of the parable when the early workers imply that he is being unfair he asks them, “Are you envious because I am generous?”  That, at least is how it’s translated.  What it actually says in the Greek is, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”

It’s a reminder that how we see things is vitally important.  

Years ago when a number of players for the Yankees were renegotiating their contracts there was scuttlebutt that a number of them were unhappy with the terms they were being offered.  A reporter happened to catch Yogi Berra as he was leaving the owner’s office and asked him if he was happy with the terms of his contract.  Yogi replied, “I’m gonna get to play baseball again next year for the Yankees, and would you believe it, they’re gonna pay me besides!”

We live in a time that’s ripe for change, Kairos moment, and so much of what happens next depends on how we see the world.  Is our eye evil because God is generous?  Or can we see God’s astonishing generosity and learn to emulate it, to copy it, to practice on earth as it is in heaven?

In our rite of baptism and in our affirmation of baptism, we have vowed “to proclaim Christ through word and deed, to care for others and the world God made, and to work for justice and peace.”

In other words, we vowed to be like the owner of the vineyard, to see the world with God’s vision of generosity.  Because it’s the right thing to do.

In Jesus’ name.

[1] https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu

[2] Paul Santmire, Preaching On Creation, https://lutheransrestoringcreation.org/sunday-september-18-24-year-1-santmire/

Make a Wish

Make a wish—

If you could make one wish, not for yourself, but for the world, what would it be? If you could make one wish for your significant other, your spouse, your kids, your grandkids, all your friends and neighbors and family, for your town, for your state, for your country, for the world—what would it be? What would you wish for?

How many of you would wish for Peace? That’s a pretty good wish. I think that’s what most people in the world want. Almost everybody wants to live in a world where we don’t have to worry about violence erupting around us at any moment. There aren’t too many people who actually enjoy conflict, and those who do usually end up getting some kind of professional help or incarceration, whichever comes first—although some seem to go into politics. A good debate is okay. Fighting not so much. Sometimes opposition can help us sharpen and clarify what we’re thinking or planning, but opposition can be friendly. It doesn’t have to disintegrate into aggression. Competition has it’s benefits. It can bring out the best in us, it can even be fun when you know it’s part of a game. But it’s pretty destructive as a lifestyle. Debate, opposition, competition, they all have their place but they can all too easily degenerate into conflict if we don’t learn how to rein them in. And we have to rein them in if we’re going to have peace.

What does it take to make peace? What does it take to remove the seeds of conflict? If you’re going to wish for peace, aren’t there other things you need to wish for first?

If you want peace, wouldn’t you first have to wish away greed? Wouldn’t you have to eliminate coveting? Wouldn’t you have to find a way to short-circuit the human tendency to always want more, even if it means that someone else gets less? Wouldn’t we have to find a way to fill that endlessly hungry place in the human heart that never feels like it has enough? Wouldn’t you have to remove the desire to keep score by means of money and possessions and status symbols? Wouldn’t you, in fact, have to eliminate the desire to keep score at all? And wouldn’t you need to find a way to take away the fear of running out of money before you run out of life?

And what about Tribalism? Wouldn’t we need to wish that away if we’re going to have peace? How about our tendency to be fiercely territorial? Wouldn’t we have to tone down nationalism? Wouldn’t we need to develop a healthier kind of patriotism, pride in our country that’s rooted in a deep respect for all that’s good and reveres the price that others have paid to create and sustain and maintain that goodness but at the same time a patriotism that isn’t blind to our faults and defensive about our shortcomings? And wouldn’t we need to open our eyes to what’s good and worth celebrating in other countries and cultures, in other histories? Shouldn’t we wish for all that if we’re going to wish for peace?

For peace to happen, what would we have to do with religion? Wouldn’t every religion have to dial back their tendency to insist that they’re the only ones—that we’re the only ones—who get it right, who understand God, who really get Jesus? Wouldn’t we have to learn to find some peace in our own ranks with the idea that our voice is a valuable and important instrument in the symphony, but it’s not the only instrument playing the music of heaven? Wouldn’t we all, for the love of God in whom we live and move and have our being, for the love of God who is among us and within us and beyond us, for the love of God who transcends all knowing and yet is more intimate with us than our most dearly beloved fellow passengers on this earth—shouldn’t we learn, for the love of God, to practice some sincere humility in our God talk? Shouldn’t we wish for understanding and cooperation between religions if we’re going to wish for peace?

To have peace, wouldn’t we have to first get rid of every last vestige of racism so that nobody feels put upon simply because of their color? Wouldn’t we have to acknowledge the existence of our own latent or not-so-latent bigotries?  Wouldn’t we all have to purge ourselves of all those lingering internal voices and habits and conditioning that want to assert that some people are better or even more human than others simply by virtue of the color of their skin?  Wouldn’t we have to acknowledge that some of us have blithely and blindly lived lives of privilege simply because of the color of our skin while others have had to develop stringent habits of caution for the same reason in another color?  Wouldn’t we have to take a hard look at the painful history of racism and not simply suppress it deep in our collective psyche if we want to be healed of it? If you want to have peace, wouldn’t you have to wish away all those ugly words we have used to describe each other when the other doesn’t look like us? To have peace, wouldn’t we have to wish for something the opposite of color blindness—a what?—a celebration of color? a gratitude for color? a love of color in every shade of humanity? Shouldn’t we wish for that if we’re going to wish for peace?

If we really want peace, if that’s our deepest, truest wish, wouldn’t we have to first wish away sexism and paternalism and patriarchy and every other ism and archy that wants to maintain systems in which half the human race has more value, more power, more rights, more freedom than the other half simply because of gender, as if that’s some kind of accomplishment? If we really want peace, doesn’t it mean that we have to discard archaic and primitive structures of our societies and cultures and religions that not only have outlived their usefulness, but that were, in fact, never really useful at all, structures that evolved simply because one half of humanity was generally more capable of physically dominating and subduing and forcing its will on the other half? Isn’t it time, for the sake of peace, for us to take a step above our cousins the chimpanzees in this particular matter? If we really want peace, should we not wish first for real parity between the sexes?

And doesn’t our endless focus on differing sexualities undermine our quest for peace? Doesn’t the fact that someone is always ready to hate or censure or exclude or diminish someone else because of who they are attracted to or who they love or even because they are still trying to understand who they are kind of get in the way of peaceful coexistence? Aren’t we all children of God even if some have different love interests? Just because some men wandering through Judea 4000 year ago found certain things distasteful, are we bound to their prejudices forever? They also didn’t care for shrimp, barbequed ribs and pulled pork and we seem to have got past that okay. So wouldn’t it be a step toward peace if we could all just stop worrying about sexuality and realize that in God’s creation it seems to come in a variety of flavors?

If we’re going to wish for peace, wouldn’t it make sense to also wish that there would not be so many weapons at large in the world and that they were not so readily at hand?

If we’re going to wish for peace shouldn’t we first wish away hunger and homelessness? Don’t people fight for food and shelter?  Wouldn’t you be tempted to if you didn’t have it? If we’re going to wish for peace shouldn’t we first wish for health and healthcare? And should we not wish for equal access to systems and medicines and technologies that heal and sustain life? If we’re going to have peace, shouldn’t we eliminate the possibility of people ruining their financial health just to maintain their physical health?

If we’re going to wish for peace, shouldn’t we first wish for justice? When the people are chanting “no justice, no peace” in the streets, isn’t it more than a slogan?  Isn’t it a prophetic voice calling us to make the rough places plain and the crooked straight so that peace has a straight and easy pathway to our hearts, our homes, our communities, our nation and our world?  If we’re going to wish for peace, don’t we first have to wish for equity and fairness and level playing fields? If we’re going to have peace, don’t we first need to eliminate injustice and replace it with restorative justice? In fact, isn’t justice the one word that encompasses everything we need to have peace?

Of course, there is another way. You can simply eliminate everyone who doesn’t see things the way you do. You can eliminate everyone who doesn’t look like you or think like you or worship like you or vote like you or love like you or contribute as much to society as you think you do, or isn’t the same sex as you, everyone who you think is competing with you simply because they want the same basic necessities that you want. In the end, if you’re really diligent, you would, in fact, eliminate everyone who is not you.

How peaceful would that be?