A Present Salvation
A Meditation on Matthew 20: 1- 16
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop September 24, 2017 Grace Presbyterian Church
Two images kept popping up for me while I lived with this parable.
A group of elementary age children, lined up against the wall. All different sizes and shapes. All wearing the same ill-fitting black and gold polyester gym uniforms. The two best athletes are chosen by the coach. They in turn, choose their teams…for dodgeball or basketball or whatever type of ball we are playing.
And the rest of us stand along the wall and wait. Wait to be chosen by the all-powerful team captains. We wait, with expressions of longing and hope on our faces. Five kids left. Then four. Then three. You just don’t want to be in the bottom two, because once you get to the bottom two, it really doesn’t matter. The humiliation has been dished out. The captain will say, “I guess I’ll take…Cathy,” and the terrible hardship of the final choice is felt by the other team members, who sigh and roll their eyes.
Did the first hired in the parable look on those last hired with a similar disdain? A disdain that turned to contempt and anger when the money was passed out at the end of the day?
Another image. Professional careers often require specialized training and education. None of us would want to put our health care in the hands of someone who has not had medical training. Within our Presbyterian denomination, we have very specific requirements for those who seek to be ordained ministers. Though the process sometimes felt endless, I look back on my experience with appreciation. Even the five ordination exams –Bible Content, Biblical Exegesis (scriptural interpretation), Theological Competence, Worship and Sacraments, and Church Polity (how we govern ourselves) – felt like an opportunity to demonstrate that the education and training were all coming together for me.
I now participate on a Presbytery (regional) commission which has oversight for adults who are pursuing ordination: the Commission for Preparation for Ministry. It is our job to partner with individuals, like one of our members, Avery Smith, and support them through this process of becoming a pastor. At a recent meeting, someone said something about all the ordination exams being open book now. I was glad I had not just taken a sip of coffee, because I would have embarrassed myself by spewing it across the table. What??!! Open book??!! They weren’t open book six years ago!! “Grumble, grumble, grumble…gripe, gripe, gripe.”
Then I also learned that candidates were spreading their exams out – taking one or two at time instead of taking all four senior exams over the course of a couple of days. What??!! They aren’t required to take them all at once as I was required to do??!! They told us we needed to prove that we can handle stress! And the exams aren’t proctored? What do you mean they aren’t proctored? They were proctored six years ago! Do you mean they trust seminary students now?? But, but…but I had to do it that way! And I was walking up hill in the snow both ways to get there…with a Starbucks latte in my hand…and papyrus blue books in the other.
I cried “unfair!” any number of times in my head. “Grumble, grumble, grumble. Gripe, gripe, gripe.” Then I had to pause. Why shouldn’t the exams be open book? A pastor – especially a Presbyterian pastor- will probably have a wall of books on hand to use in sermon preparation or to prepare a Bible study. In this information age, isn’t is just as vital that a new pastor be familiar with and know how to use a variety of theological resources? The critical piece is being able to pass the exam, and do it well. It’s not about proving how much you had to suffer to become a pastor.
I would hazard a guess that most of us have had the experience of being the last chosen…maybe not for dodgeball…maybe it was the geography quiz game or a spelling competition. Or if not the experience itself, we have feared being the last chosen. We have known the angst of being rejected. Most of us have experienced being Charlie Brown – whether in a relationship, or in the job market, or even in volunteer organizations.
But even if we have been lucky enough not to know that feeling, maybe especially if we have not known that emotion, maybe especially if we come from places of privilege, we have all cried out “unfair!” at some point in our lives. By privilege, I mean a good job, a safe place to sleep and food on the table. As privileged people, we have envied others. Like the workers in the parable, we expect to be treated fairly. When things aren’t “fair,” we get bent out of shape.
Which is why this parable, in the words of Clarence Jordan, the author of the Cotton Patch Gospel, is “like a stick of dynamite, covered with a story.” The parable of the Prodigal Son – or Forgiving Father – works on our sense of justice in much the same way. Why does a father throw an expensive party for a son who selfishly squanders family money and then comes running home with his tail between his legs? Why does he do this when his older son has been faithfully by his side the entire time? “It’s just not right!” we cry. Which is more vital and life giving: what is fair or what is merciful?
This parable is so upsetting to our way of thinking, and I believe money is at the root of our discomfort. With the story of the Forgiving Father, we are angry that one son gets to waste money and then have more money spent on him to celebrate his return. With today’s parable, we are miffed that everyone receives the same amount of money regardless of how long they worked.
It’s much, much easier to digest this story if we say that it is about salvation. Then we can nod our heads, and say, “well of course everyone receives the same grace, the same mercy regardless of when they enter into relationship with God.” Besides, Jesus introduces the parable by saying, “the kingdom of heaven is like…” Two things to remember when you hear that phrase. First of all, a better introduction would be the kingdom of heaven is like this story…otherwise, we read it as, “the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner.”
Secondly, when Matthew uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven,” he does so out of respect for God’s name. In Jewish practice, it was preferable to avoid saying “God,” and instead say “Holy One,” or even “heaven.” When Matthew says, “kingdom of heaven,” he is actually saying “kingdom of God.” That alters our focus. We hear “heaven,” and think “afterlife.” We think “salvation.” “Kingdom of God,” is something more expansive.
It is the realm God imagines for us on earth, and that world yet to come. It is a “present reality and a future hope… It is dawning already, so that its effects are made known in the healings that Jesus performed; and the ethic that he taught was essentially a “kingdom ethic,” that is, a declaration of what life in God’s kingdom (or under the rule of God) entails. As the dawn precedes the rising of the sun, but its effects can be seen as lighting up the present, so the ministry of Jesus was, in this way of thinking, a time in which the effects of the kingdom could be seen, even if its coming in its fullness had to be awaited as a future event. [i]
Amy-Jill Levine, Jewish New Testament scholar and author of Short Stories by Jesus, challenges us with this question: “what if the parable is about loving our neighbor – rather than salvation?”[ii] What if this parable is about salvation in the present rather than salvation in the world to come?
If you flip back one chapter, you will see Jesus telling a young and very rich man that all he needs to do his give his stuff away and walk with Jesus. That man walks away broken hearted. If you flip back one chapter, you will witness Jesus blessing children and saying that God’s kingdom belongs to them. To children! Who can’t earn their keep, who are a drain on a family’s economy. Children!
When we look at this parable as if it were telling us how to live in this world, it is a stick of dynamite because it upsets all our understandings of fairness. Fairness looks much different when you are standing in a place of privilege.
In our heart of hearts we label the workers who came at noon, and three and five as “lazy,” but scripture doesn’t say that. These individuals were unemployed, but not unemployable. Maybe they had tried to get work elsewhere, and now sought employment here. Maybe the ones arriving at 5:00 had already worked one full shift, but still hoped to earn more money before the day was over. Maybe they were older or differently abled and it took them longer to get to the marketplace. And maybe one or more of them were lazy, and someone kicked them out of the house and told them to go find work. Regardless, the homeowner chose to pay them a day’s wage. The homeowner chose to pay the ones who worked the least amount of time first.
We can easily imagine how offended the all day laborers felt. How angry they felt. And if this is about salvation in the present, what a crazy economic system this would create! A living wage. Imagine.
Jesus’ parable would have reminded the listeners’ of a teaching from Deuteronomy (15: 10 – 11)
… give generously to needy persons. Don’t resent giving to them because it is this very thing that will lead to the Lord your God’s blessing you in all you do and work at. 11 Poor persons will never disappear from the earth. That’s why I’m giving you this command: you must open your hand generously to your fellow Israelites, to the needy among you, and to the poor who live with you in your land.
So this employer offered dignity to the least, to the last. To the ones who had given up on themselves. To the ones the world had abandoned. To the ones working over-time, and the ones who could barely work. Dignity. Opportunity. Mercy. Sometimes what is “fair” and what is “right” are two distinct possibilities. Levine suggests that “the owner is the role model for the rich – to pay what is right and what is right is a living wage. If it turns out that the last hired really were too weak to work, then we might conclude with regard to fairness that the owner has requested from each according to his ability and given to each according to his need. The equality of his payment and thus his treating all the workers “equally” derives from a sense of justice keyed into what people need to live.”[iii]
The first hired have to choose whether to live in resentment or in harmony. They will have to decide whether they are grateful to be able to work and not just work for themselves but carry some of the load for others; or whether they will resent those who are less able.
In the choosing, they may find salvation in the present.
In the freeing from resentment, they may experience salvation in the present.
In the witnessing of generosity, they may know salvation in the present.
In the choosing, in the freeing, in the witnessing, we might, too. We just might.
Thanks be to God, the giver of life, who disrupts our comfortable assurance of salvation in the future with the challenge to experience salvation in the present. Amen and amen.
[ii] Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus (Harper Press, 2014), p. 220.
[iii] Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus (Harper Press. 2014), p. 235.