Lord we’re sorry we whinge and whine, we’re always the same…. It’s song I wanted to play but didn’t have a good enough version of it.
We’ve just listened to the whinging and whining of the Israelites in the desert in Exodus and the workers in the field in the Gospel. It’s true that we all do it from time to time when life doesn’t go the way we think it ought to. And often it’s quite shallow and totally self-centred.
Moses had just saved the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt using the most amazing demonstrations of God’s power and care with the plagues and the dividing of the waters and the pillar of fire by night and the cloud by day. They are now in the desert and find they are short of food, but after what they’d been through, you ‘d have thought they’d trust God!!!! But no, they were complaining and saying things were better back in Egypt when in truth they were not.
In the Gospel, we have another interesting little story which ends in folk whinging and whining.
This one is easy to understand on one level but at a deeper level, challenges our view of grace and what is fair.
The story is told in the context of rewards for those who are disciples of Jesus. Peter has just asked Jesus,
‘Look we have left everything and followed you, What, then will we have?
28 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. Matthew 19: 27-30
After this Jesus begins a parable which describes the Kingdom of Heaven and finishes with a surprise reversal of the little wisdom piece, ‘the last will be first and the first will be last’.
As in all parables which are making a point, the scenario spoken of here is one that Jesus’ listeners would have known. People who work for a day make enough to feed themselves and their family for the day, they are socially extremely vulnerable and poor and they do not look for work, but rather, make themselves available for employment when the landowners are looking for day labourers at harvest time.
In the story, the landowner goes out early in the morning, then at 9 o’clock, then midday, then 3 o’clock and then finally at 5 o’clock, and each time he employs who-ever is waiting for work. The first group are promised the usual daily wage, the second third and fourth groups were promised whatever is right [which technically would be less than the usual daily wage], and he made no promise to the last group [who probably expected only a very little].
The Jewish day begins at sunrise which is about 6am and finished at sunset which is about 6pm, so essentially the landowner went out when the day started at 6 and then every few hours during the day except the last hour was an hour before the end of the day.
This is where it all gets tricky; at the end of the day, the landowner says to his manager, get the workers and pay them, the last ones employed first and the first ones pay them last.
[if you have a sense of justice even that sounds unfair, imagine having worked 12 hours, having to stand back and watch those who’d worked 1 hour paid first.]
Still, the landowner paid those last guys a full day’s wage. Just imagine how happy they’d have been. Unexpectedly, they had enough to feed their families. God is good and the landowner is wondrous for his goodness.
The folk at the back began to imagine that they might get more because they had done more work! And as the pays were going through the ranks of the labourers you might imagine their disbelief. This is not fair, we worked all day and you’re paying us the same as those who worked only an hour!
I know what I’d do. Tomorrow I’d go out at 4.30pm to ensure I get employed at 5pm! It’s only fair.
A couple of little stories around this that speak into our sense of justice or what is right.
The first is about an airplane flight which for the first time had the internet on. After a while, there was a hitch with the internet and it went off- the people on the plane complained bitterly about the failure of the internet even though before the flight started, they hadn’t expected internet to be available. They had never had it before, but now they had it and it became their right to have it. Get that word right.
Second story: a little girl is complaining to her grandfather, because she looked at her friend’s bowl of ice-cream and saw that her friend had more than she had. Her grandfather responded, ‘you should never look into another person’s bowl except to see if they have enough’. And then of course you should be willing to share.
Of course, the point of the parable is that we are not in control of the one who rewards us and he will give us what he will give us.
It’s true at least in our sight, that the folk who worked only one hour did not deserve a full day’s wage. That’s grace; being given something not deserved. It’s also amazingly generous towards those who are the most disadvantaged.
Our problems in life come, because we believe we are deserve the privileges we enjoy and we take them for granted most of the time, so we complain when we lose them and sometimes we judge others who don’t have them.
Many of us assume we know the mind of God, we assume that our sense of justice reflects the way God works, but as Christians we are a people of grace. That means, what we have received from God, is totally gift.
Let’s pause and think about that for a while.
The workers were all given a day’s wage, they were all provided with enough to care for their families. The Israelites were all rescued from slavery and cared for and supported by God in the wilderness.
We have been given everything from God, that being the case what should our response be; complaining that they have more than I have! How do you know anyway? They may have a lot of material things, they may be smart, but maybe they lack family and love. A person who complains and is never satisfied is ruled by law not grace. Grace realises that what they have is pure gift, undeserved and unmerited.
When you understand this, life is joyful free and happy of burden.
If you are dissatisfied with your life today, then what is it that leads you to believe you should have more!
Don’t you see God’s grace in the abundance of what you have!
We forget that the whole of creation is God’s not ours, we are simply stewards, caretakers of what God provides for us and workers in his field. We can reflect the grace of God or we can be burdened by law- the belief that we deserve more than we have.
A person who knows how much grace they have received will give grace to others.
The landowner said to the disgruntled worker.
‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
The Greek word translated as envious here means evil eye. ‘Do you give me the evil eye because I am generous?’ Because of the goodness of the landowner, the evil eye has no power. But in Jesus’ day an evil eye, that look of envy, was believed to be extremely dangerous, and so people took many precautions against it. It’s interesting that in the teaching following this story, Jesus predicts his death on the cross.
The point of the story is in the same line of the previous couple of weeks. It is about Christian character and community. What we do and our attitudes reveal who we believe God is.
The stories and teaching have made it clear, that we are to be inclusive and forgiving and aware of all that God has done for us, and to be willing to allow God to do not only what he’s done for us, but even more for our brothers and sisters, if it is his will.
Again, we are reminded that we do not have control over God and what he says and does, we must simply live our lives open to all he gives us and to be grateful and generous to both him and each other, as God is.
So, we need to live with an attitude of gratitude, thanking God for his grace and love every moment of every day. Amen.