Exodus 16:2-15; Matthew 20:1-16
Chris McDonough, the chair of the classics department at the University of the South, addressed last year’s graduating seniors with these words:[i]
“[T]here was a time in our country, once, when our schools had programs of free and reduced meals that were predicated on the idea of hunger. Children couldn’t get enough to eat. In the past few years, that program has had to be re-structured to account for a different sort of problem. It is not that children cannot get enough food to eat, but rather that they cannot get enough nutritious food to eat.
“We are no longer dealing with want, in other words, but with obesity. And in a similar fashion, those of us in education are learning likewise to provide an education that does not presuppose a lack of access to information but rather too much. We are needing to think about an education, in other words, that confronts mental obesity. All of which is to say that you who are about to graduate have grown up amidst tremendous technological sophistication, yet what has ultimately been rendered is a universe of information absurdly arranged, a sumptuous banquet of mentally empty carbohydrates.”
McDonough’s right. We know abundance. And we feel as if we’ve earned it. But we are glutting ourselves on it.
It’s not a question anymore of whether we can give hungry children food, but whether we are willing to give them healthy food. It’s not a question anymore of whether or not we can afford a TV, but whether we ought to limit somehow the thousands of channels available at the push of some buttons. It’s not a question anymore of whether today’s generation is receiving an education—indeed, there is more information readily available at our fingertips than ever before in the world’s history!—; but how to focus all this information into some cohesive structure.
In our food, in our entertainment, in our education we have become unhealthy, even obese. We are not viewing our manna, our day’s wages, our daily bread as sufficient. We want more. We hoard. And we think it’s unfair when someone less talented or less driven has more or seemingly better stuff than we have.
Over in Exodus today we hear the story of manna from heaven. God has raised up a new leader, Moses, for a new day in Israel’s history. Through Moses, God has freed Israel from the oppressive hand of Egypt, dramatically, with the parting of the Red Sea. Now the chosen people are out in the wilderness—and what are they doing?—complaining!
Complaining? Didn’t God just deliver them from the hand of slavery? Didn’t God just answer their collective prayers in undeniable ways? Didn’t God just promise to lead them into a land flowing with milk and honey? And they’re complaining? Already?
Well, um, yes, they are, already, complaining. “We don’t have enough to eat out here,” they say; “but back in Egypt we had plenty of meat and bread. We’re hungry!” The whole congregation, in fact! Despite God’s demonstrated generosity! And despite God’s promise to continue in this generosity!
So what does God do? Does God say: “Fine! Forget it! I’m walking away. I’ll just go find some other people to make promises to. I’ll just go find some other people who appreciate me, who won’t complain”?
No, that’s not what God does at all. Instead, God provides them with manna, bread from heaven.
But there’s a catch. The people of Israel are to collect just enough for the day—and no more. Sure, the healthy persons can collect more than they need for themselves, in order to share with those too young or too weak to collect manna; and everyone can collect two days’ worth on Friday. But the point here is that God wants them to trust him for their daily bread. They are not to hoard.
Even so, a few pages later we read about some people who hoard anyway. They go out in the morning to collect their manna for the day, just like everyone else; but they don’t stop with their one day’s ration. Instead, they collect two days’, three days’, maybe even a week’s worth of the stuff.
What’s going on here?
These hoarders are not trusting God; they’re not wanting to follow the new rules of the new nation. Instead, they’re operating by the old rules of Egypt.
But what happens?
When they wake up the next morning and walk on over to their storage containers, the ones with the extra manna in it, it’s full of worms; it’s mealy; it’s, as we say, not suitable for human consumption.
And instead of seeing God’s generosity in their daily bread falling from heaven, they complain once more. “What?” they say; “that’s not fair!”
In today’s parable, over in Matthew’s Gospel, it’s really the same thing.
Some workers are hired by a landowner at the beginning of the work day. And they’re hired at an agreed upon pay rate: a denarius; a day’s wage, enough to buy one’s daily bread.
Later, at the third hour of the day, the landowner returns to the market and hires other workers, telling them, “I will pay you whatever is right.”
Later still, both at the sixth and ninth hours of the day, the landowner does it again.
And once more, even at the eleventh hour, he hires yet more workers.
Finally the twelfth hour comes and it’s payday. But the landowner pays everyone the same thing, starting with those who were hired last and working his way down to the first.
Then we hear that those who were first hired, the all-day workers, grumble. “Hey,” they say, “these last ones hired didn’t have to stand in the scorching heat. They didn’t have to bear the burden of the entire day. Yet you paid them the same as us. What is this? That’s not fair!”
And we relate to these all-day workers, don’t we? “Yeah,” we say. “You know, those grumblers have a point. That isn’t fair, really, when you think about it. What’s Jesus playing at?”
But, remember, we live in America. We have an abundance of food, an abundance of entertainment, an abundance of information. We hoard unhealthily, even to the point of obesity. This is not a judgment; it’s a statement about the way things are, a statement about our collective lifestyle.
But, remember too, we are citizens of a new kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, with new rules and new ways of seeing and doing things.
Should abundance, then, be the lens through which we interpret today’s parable? Should hoarding be the lens through which we understand fairness, justice, and equity?
I have my daily bread. That is what God gives me. And with this I ought to be content; I should trust in God’s demonstrated generosity towards me—whether or not my neighbor has fifty times more.
But I see my neighbor and find myself wanting so desperately what he has. And I shout out to God, “That’s not fair!” I want that sumptuous feast, even if it’s only empty carbohydrates.
Or I’m like the workers in the parable. “Why should my neighbor have as much as I have?” I ask. “That’s not fair! I work so much harder than she does!” I don’t want to share God’s generosity with her.
But either way: when it gets to this point—when we think it’s unfair that someone else has it easier, or more than we do—it’s no longer a matter of fairness, justice, or equity. We say, “That’s not fair! That’s not fair!” feeling that we deserve more than the next person. But the instant we point a finger at someone else and claim our just desserts, we cross a boundary: from the land of fairness, justice, and equity into the land of envy.
Today’s parable ends with the landowner asking those all-day workers a telling question: “Are you envious because I am generous?”
This question is what Jesus is playing at.
These all-day workers grumble against the landowner, accusing him that he’s being unfair. After reminding them that he is in fact doing nothing unfair, that he is in fact paying them what they agreed upon beforehand, the landowner rightly turns the tables and asks the all-day workers to search their own consciences. “Are you envious because I am generous?”
God is asking us the same. We see our world through the eyes of our times. Despite our Christian identity, it’s only natural that our views of fairness are going to align with our culture. And God has been generous to our culture. But when does our desire for fairness become envy?
We are citizens of a new kingdom. It’s time to search our consciences. Consider whether we need to reorder our views of fairness, justice, and equity to align with the view of the kingdom of heaven; to align with Jesus Christ’s views. And it’s time to ask ourselves: is what we see as fair and just actually masking our own envy?
[i] Actually, Chris McDonough intended to address the graduating seniors; but a tornado warning interfered with his plans and the address never took place. Cf. http://uncomelyandbroken.wordpress.com/2014/09/17/in-the-form-of-a-question/