Sermon, 9/20/20: What is fair, is fair, and What about Seniority?  

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16 Pentecost


Ps. 105Ö1 6, 37 – 45Exodus 16:2 – 15Philippians 1:21 – 30Matthew 20:1 – 16

So the last will be first, and the first last.  Matt. 20:16


In the few short years that I have been privileged to serve you, you have often heard me say that I find the Bible an interesting, but perplexing book.  It is holy, even as its contents lay out profane behavior, sacred because in it are recorded the intentions of the Divine Creator and how humans have interpreted and acted upon, or reacted against the Divine Will.  The Bible, our Book of Record, is a compilation written by many hands in prose and poetry and wrestles with perplexing and exalting events in the lives of humans.


However much we might long for simple, uncomplicated answers to many of our own challenging dilemmas when we turn to the Bible, it does not accommodate us.  The Bible is not a “how to” book.  And when then we believe that the question has been answered, our Book of Record confounds us with an opposing example.  We read, for example, that we should honor father and mother, according them the respect due to age and care which they gave us in our youth.  Then, in another place, we hear that fathers will be set against sons, and daughters against mothers.  And in today’s gospel reading, we hear that in the end-time, the first shall be last, and the last first.  The list is too long that I could enumerate all such seemingly opposing positions.  And thus we lament: Our Book of Record does not offer us a consistent, linear path to follow.


Yet, I would suggest that at its core, the Bible does offer a clear path which we ought to travel.  If we were ever participants in a TV game show and were the question put to us “How often does the phrase ‘The Kingdom of God is like….’ occur in the Bible?” we would hard pressed, you and I, to come even close to an accurate number.  Still, that is precisely the mission of God’s Messiah, namely to call us back to that task which the Divine Creator has set before us, as well as the path to reach that goal.  Would we ever counter the host of the TV show with the response: I know not the number.  However I can tell what the Kingdom of God is not.  The Kingdom of God is not based on seniority or longevity in the faith or worship of God?  However, that is precisely what leaps out at us from the page, as we hear today’s gospel according to Matthew.  We hear what the Kingdom of God is NOT.


In Matthew’s on-going attempt to establish what a faircommunity should look like, and just when we believe that we are about to get it, Matthew presents us the parable of laborers and wage differential.  This may appear to be a timely subject, because we find ourselves in great turmoil financially, which began prior to COVID-19, but is now exacerbated by this virus.  The Bible teaches that a laborer is worth his hire, i.e. should be paid a fair wage, as Jesus instructs his disciples when he sends them out two by two. Prior to the pandemic, we read of CEOs and CFOs who not only earn an annual salary 100 times greater than the folks who produce the actual products.  The producers of the products find themselves furloughed or, indeed, fired because of a slow-down or closing due to the pandemic.  However, these same lowly workers see the ousted CEOs and CFOs exit with a golden parachute.  


Where, we ask, is the fairness, where the biblical rightness in all this?

The parable of the laborers in the vineyard challenges us to rethink our moral and social responsibility.  As editor/recorder Matthew had, surely, other parables of Jesus which he could have included in his narrative.  But he did not, and so the question which we pose is: What did Jesus possibly attempt to expose by using this parable?


During my academic career, I have been a member of faculties, for which the rule of seniority, while not etched in stone, is not only accepted, but to change it would cause complete rebellion.  It would be, even in today’s collegiate setting, a career-ending move on the part of any university president who attempted to dismantle the established order, by abolishing titles or rank and compensating each faculty member with the identical annual salary.  Demonstrations, work slow-downs, non-sick sick-leaves, and months of litigation would ensue.  Boards of trustees would be forced to offer en masse their resignation.


Ingrained in us is this fundamental sense of fairness, that those who have worked longer should be rewarded for their longevity and commitment to the enterprise.  And then along comes this parable of the laborers in the vineyard which challenges us profoundly, for it seems to question our basic sense of justice.  Where, we ask ourselves, are the grand, glorious, biblical themes of justice and jubilee here? I wondered the same thing, until I put this parable again into its context.  My conclusion: These verses were never intended to lay out God’s universal philosophy of macro- or microeconomics.  


The Gospel of Matthew was written primarily in response to the Pharisees, the ruling class of biblical Israel.  This we must always bear in mind, when we read Matthew’s gospel.  We can no more interpret this parable as a universal prescription for all times, than we could any culturally bound piece in scripture.  We must ask ourselves always what precipitated this pronouncement of God’s Messiah.  


The precipitant is obvious.  Through the aid of a parable, that is, without calling out his opponents by name, God’s Messiah takes on the concept of privilege, a concept which his Pharisaic detractors exploited to their social, economic and political advantage.  In fact, the establishment of the Kingdom of God is hindered by the decision of humans in the unfair distribution of the gifts given by God to all; and what has caused this unequal distribution has been the belief and actualization of the privilege that longevity brings, a privilege that is passed down from one generation to the next. Jesus attacked this at every opportunity.  His mother Mary, anticipating her son’s radical ministry, sang regarding The Kingdom of God: “He has put down the mighty from their seat and has exalted the humble and meek.”  So, inequities in distribution of the gifts of God was and is of concern.  Thus, the question must be raised: How did this come about and how was and is it perpetuated?


The Pharisees, without being addressed or accused directly, knew without a doubt that Jesus had taken aim at them in what on the surface appears to be a proto-economic statement.   Jesus was not attempting to take away the value which each laborer had brought to the enterprise. Rather, he, then to his Pharisaic audience and now to us, questions inequities and the resultant impoverishment of those on the receiving end, as it were, and this Jesus does so, by holding up, in verbal form, an out-furled banner: The Kingdom of God is like…


This may indeed seem overly simplistic.  But for Jesus, the burning issue of the day is not simplistic.  To establish The Kingdom of God is all about addressing the larger societal systems of economics and justice and all manner of complex social inversion.  Just to express the problem using such terminology, tells us how complicated it is to establish The Kingdom of God.  And the one issue which no one wants to acknowledge or to address, is in what way rank and privilege impedes the building of the kingdom.  Jesus takes on the ruling class which always has one eye on their big picture, namely to make sure that they and everyone in their class get and maintain the advantage, all cloaked under the guise of religion.  


Like some of you, I have often wondered why some people seem to have an overabundance, yet appear not to work any harder than do I.  Then, from a position of personal comfort, I have also looked in another direction and been consumed by the thought of those who walk miles for a pail of drinkable water and live on annual incomes that I can spend in an evening or weekend.  And I have been equallyoverawed by those who have much, but yet take themselves off to the Peace Corp or join Teach America, or Doctors-Without-Borders, or rush off to swell the ranks of the Red Cross or to join other volunteers to combat wildfires and pandemics.  


And at such moments, the answer can be read on Jesus’ unfurled banner:                   “The Kingdom of God is like…”  No matter the situation or station into we                                 are born, we are called to work for the good of all.  These are not mutually exclusive goals.  We have the internal presence of the Holy Spirit to help create a kingdom on earth in our lives and in the world.  Or, we cancreate a panic-filled, Pharisaic chaos of self-comparison and entitlement and fear of losing our privilege.


As people of faith, we are called to work together with God’s Spirit to embody God’s love and grace on earth.  We are to do it in our individual lives, as well as in our global communities.  It doesn’t matter, if the person next door has circumstances that make responding to that call easier or more difficult.  That part is between him/her and God.  It does not matter that the person in another pew gives less, even though he may appear to possess abundance.  That is between him/her and God.


Today’s gospel, directed at those biblical Pharisees, is also directed to people of faith, to us collectively and individually. Longevity and seniority are not the cornerstone, on which The Kingdom of God is built.  Rather, that cornerstone is a much tested four-letter word: LOVE, no more and no less.   As St. Matthew reminds us: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the main corner-stone.  This is the Lord’s doing, and it is wonderful in our eyes.”  (Matt. 21:42) It is the corner stone on which The Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven is built.  Amen