Proper 20, September 21, 2001
Community Church of Wilmette & The Church of Jesus Christ, Reconciler
Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16 (The Laborers in the Vineyard)
Other Readings: Exodus 16:2-15; Ps. 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1: 21-3
Preacher: The Rev. Laura Gottardi-Littell
A few months ago I read an autobiographical story in the New York Times magazine. I couldn’t put it down. It was well written and compelling, and offered a window into a world unfamiliar to me, the world of serious drug addiction.
It was a story by and about David Carr, now columnist for the New York Times. The story was about his life as a crack cocaine addict, and his recovery. It’s not a pretty story. He writes about his stints in jail and rehab, his use and abuse of other people, mostly women. He got his girlfriend, who was also his crack dealer, pregnant, and they had twin girls. After they both did a stint in rehab, his girlfriend slid back into drug addiction, and David obtained custody of the twins. In some real ways, the baby girls become his salvation, his motivation for slowly getting his life back on track. It is a stark, sometimes brutally honest memoir with a hopeful ending. Carr is careful not to portray himself as a hero.
He writes; “Here is what I deserved: hepatitis C, federal prison time, HIV, a cold park bench, an early, addled death.
Here is what I got: the smart, pretty wife, the three lovely children, the job that impresses.”
In the course of overcoming his addiction and getting his life together, Carr became an attentive father and husband, a hard-working newsman, a person he describes as genuine and often pleasant.
Carr’s story is not an explicitly religious story. He didn’t one day see the light of God, fall to his knees and repent. His salvation came from sources other than organized religion: rehab, therapy, work, his children. Though maybe God had a behind-the-scenes hand in his recovery. And rehab and 12-step groups do contain a spiritual component. They ask people to take responsibility for their lives and make different choices, which is what people do when they identify themselves as sinners and repent.
I mention Carr’s story because he is someone who ended up with a life far better than he “deserved.” Our gospel story is also about people who get more than they “deserve.”
In today’s gospel story, a landowner pays laborers who have worked just a few hours the same amount he pays laborers who have worked all day in the hot sun.
Our worldly sensibilities tell us this is not fair, not the way it should be. People who work hard should earn more than people who work a little. That’s only just. And people who are hard-working and law-abiding deserve to have good jobs and lovely families. Not former crack addicts like David Carr.
Neither Carr’s story, nor the story of the laborers, is a simple Aesop’s fable, where the good guys win and the bad guys lose. These are complex stories, as are many of the stories in the Bible, as are many of our stories.
The moral of David Carr’s story is not “abuse drugs and other people, and you will end up happy and successful. “ For every story like Carr’s, there are many more stories of addicts who end up friendless, doing lengthy jail time, or dead.
In our gospel story, the moral of the story is not “treat workers unfairly” or “be lazy and you will get ahead.”
Both stories say to me instead that God can work in extraordinary and unpredictable ways in people’s lives. That sometimes the outcome is unpredictable. God doesn’t give us what we deserve, in the ways we usually understand deserving. God’s economy is different from the market economy.
In today’s gospel, Jesus challenges conventional ideas about who should get what. Remember he is speaking to a 1st century audience who believed that you got your just desserts. If you were struggling, God was punishing you. If you were content and had what you needed, God had smiled on you. Jesus wants to show it’s not as simple as that.
Psalm 103 says that “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, show to anger and of great kindness. God has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.”
God ultimately wills grace and mercy for all of us. It doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences for bad behavior. Many times there are and should be. We can create our own hell on earth. But Jesus shows us a merciful God who wants us to go beyond simple notions of legalistic justice. Wants to push us beyond the idea that those who live by the letter of the law will be saved, but those who struggle and make mistakes are forever doomed. This is a God who likes to eat with tax collectors and sinners. And presumably, drug addicts. He doesn’t like them to go on sinning, but he understands and cares about them. God loves us even when we are not the people our world considers righteous.
And we, like God, need to be about grace and mercy. Do we feel that only certain people are deserving? Do we sit in judgment upon other people or ourselves? It’s easy to judge, but that’s not the kingdom of God. In God’s kingdom, there’s enough for all. And it pleases God to be kind to the ones the world says don’t deserve kindness.
Jesus is issuing a direct – and confusing --challenge to our notions about fairness. It’s certainly not the only place in the gospels where he does this.
Take the story of the Prodigal Son, which is in some ways similar to the story of the laborers. The prodigal leaves home and lives a life of partying and irresponsibility. He wastes all his father’s money and ends up broke and empty. Thoroughly discouraged and ashamed, he returns to his father’s home, admits what he has done, and asks to be treated as a servant. His father instead embraces him lovingly, and honors him with a lavish party. All this dismays the prodigal’s older brother. Here he’s been upright and obedient to his father all his life, and when did he get a party like that?
The father resembles God, who graciously welcomes sinners when they admit their mistakes and return to him. The older brother reminds us that those who consider themselves upright should seek to welcome back those who have gone astray. Not be angry or envious because their father is celebrating the lost one’s return. Just as all-day laborers shouldn’t get upset because they got paid the same as some who worked fewer hours.
In the story of the laborers, the landowner resembles God. Those who come to God late in the day, or late in life, receive the same grace as those who have been faithful to God from the beginning. God loves us all with an equality that doesn’t make sense, that isn’t based directly on our actions. We can’t earn or control grace; it’s freely given by God, like manna from heaven.
These are not simple stories, the laborers, the prodigal son, or David Carr’s story. They attack our preconceived notions about fairness and deserving. They are like Zen koans or works of art. The kind of sense they make is not a logical, linear, left-brained sense. Jesus is confounding our intellect and appealing to our other ways of knowing. Does it make sense that David Carr ended up happily married, with three beautiful children, working for the New York Times? Does it make sense that the prodigal son gets a big party? Does it make sense that the laborers who came at the end of the day made as much money as those who’d been working all day? Not really. Not sense as the world knows it. But that’s the kingdom of God. It operates by different rules and a different economy.
I want to be sure that you understand I’m not condoning abuse of drugs or another person, and I’m not condoning irresponsibility. We are responsible for our lives and we need to live them honestly and make amends where needed. What is redemptive about Carr’s life, for me, is his honesty and the work he did to change his life. The prodigal son likewise admitted the error of his ways, then received grace.
Having said that, I hope you can see the thread that I think connects these stories. God gives grace freely, inexplicably, and sometimes extravagantly, like manna in the wilderness, a day’s wages for a few hours of work, a lavish party for a sinner. Jesus said that he came to call sinners, not the righteous, and that he desires mercy, not sacrifice. He wants us to get beyond a legalistic idea of justice, a strict eye-for-an-eye mentality. He challenges our idea that we can buy or control grace. He challenges our ideas about who is deserving. He wants us to understand that with God, sometimes the last are first, and the first last.
Can we live out this vision of extravagant grace in our homes, churches, and the world?