Exodus 16: 2-15 Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III
Matthew 20: 1-16 September 24, 2017
“I choose to give to the last the same as I give to you.”
Prayer: Lead us, O Holy Spirit, to truths that are greater than our own. In the name of Christ we pray, Amen.
Anyone ever heard of a business entrepreneur named Wilmot Reed Hastings? [show of hands?] Me neither. Never heard of the guy. Well, let me tell you a little story about him. In 1997, Mr. Hastings rented the movie called “Apollo 13” starring Tom Hanks. After he viewed it, he was going to return it to Blockbuster the next day… but he forgot. Then he misplaced VHS cassette video. Six weeks later, he found the cassette, took it back to Blockbuster and was charged a $40 late fee! The next day, he went to the gym, and decided that the gym had a much better business model. You pay $30 or $40 bucks a month work out as little or as much as you wanted. Reed Hastings wondered if such a model would work for people who wanted to rent movies. And, right then, an idea for an online video subscription service was born. On August 29, 1997, Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph founded Netflix. You pay a flat fee and you order and watch movies, as much or as little as you want. No late fees. Unlimited due dates. The company started by sending DVDs by mail. In 2013, Netflix expanded into film and television production, as well as online distribution. Today Netflix specializes in and provides streaming media and video-on-demand online and has almost 104 million subscribers worldwide, including 51.92 million in the United States (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reed_Hastings, retrieved September 22, 2017). Any Netflix subscribers here?
But, here’s the kicker—if you invested $1000 in Netflix shares back in 2002 when it first went public, your $1000 investment likely could be worth almost a half a million dollars today, if you held out as the stock split and bought shares when they were low, and so forth. We understand that’s SOP for capitalism—standard operating procedure.
We also understand capitalism in the sense of labor, too, our economy. We want a fair wage for the work we do, and we want to be paid the correct amount for the precise amount of hours we put in. After all, that’s SOP for our economy. It is built on this premise, and our livelihood depends on it.
So, is it any wonder that Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard is somewhat offensive to us? We feel the unfairness of the parable. We struggle with the landowner’s philosophy because he is not operating by our SOPs!
And maybe that’s a huge takeaway… Jesus is teaching, not about our SOPs, but he is revealing God’s Standard Operating Procedures. He is describing the way God acts, the way God thinks, the essence of God’s nature. And in God’s economy, the SOP for God is based on God’s abundant, extravagant generous provisions.
I would say that if there is any statement in Jesus’ parable that doesn’t offend our sensibilities, it’s the one that acknowledges that God is keeping faithfulness to what was agreed upon in the contract. “Friend, I am doing you no wrong,” says the landowner. “Didn’t you and I agree to the daily wage?” Yes (sad face). Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” I guess so (more pouty face). “I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.” But, but, but… “No buts.” Jesus is teaching that God practices faithfulness in ways opposite our SOPs.
Which leads to a second takeaway… perhaps we are to learn more about God’s SOPs and practice them ourselves? Is it possible that God sees the person in need and invites us to tend to and provide for that person appropriately? Might it be that God knows where something is unjust and invites us to make the situation just, even if it means going to extravagant lengths?
The 2014 film, The Good Lie, starring Reese Witherspoon, is about several orphaned “lost boys of Sudan.” The film follows them as they adjust to life in the United States after growing up in a Kenyan refugee camp. In one scene, one of the lost boys is having a difficult time getting used to his new job working in the produce section of a supermarket. The store manager has instructed him to carry a box of slightly old, bruised fruit out to the dumpster. There he sees a homeless person trash-picking, and offers him the food. The manager chastises him, telling him that’s forbidden. Then, this dialogue takes place: “What are you doing?” “It is a sin not to give to those in need.”
“According to who?” “Jeremiah.” “And who is that?” “Me. My name is Jeremiah.” He takes off his apron and hands it to the manager, quitting his job (Homiletics, September 2017, p. 34).
On the one hand, Jeremiah is putting his life at risk by quitting his supermarket job—no money now will come in. On the other hand, he is acting on faith believing that at times it is more important to be just and merciful, trusting in God’s provisions afterwards, than it is to be employed and stuck in the bondage of guilt and selfishness.
Which leads to another takeaway… God wants our faithfulness. God desires, I think, for us to trust in God’s extravagant provisions that might seem unconventional to us, especially when we are stuck in the wilderness with no clear way out. When we encounter difficulties in life. Family crises. Job problems. Busted relationships. Circumstances that cause us pain. Struggles that threaten to undo us. Anxieties that seem to make everything secure come unwound. Loved ones who venture toward death, both physically and emotionally. And when death does occur, the grief that comes. It’s easy for us to complain to God about all that. It’s easy to let the struggle consume us.
But, I invite us to say in faith, in fear, in the heat of the struggle, in the height of anxiety, “Why, God knows all about my problems! God, you’re fully aware of my circumstances. You know what I need. You know what I want. You know the difference between the two. I trust in your wisdom. And, I trust that what you provide, no matter how unconventional, no matter how extravagant it might be, now matter how much I don’t understand it, I trust that it is good and fulfilling.”
The deeper, faith-filled challenge I think is for us to remain focused in the middle of the wilderness… in the middle of what we perceive as unfairness. In the middle of our crises. Remain focused on the living Spirit of God that is within each of us individually, and then when we are together, like today, collectively as a church.
This is where I feel my journey of faith is leading me… and I feel called to lead us as people of faith… I invite us, I call out to us, I encourage us… remain focused on the life of God in you. In God’s extravagant provisions…let us believe powerfully that God is providing for you…for me... for all of us… that as we move forward as a church, God’s standard operating procedures of reaching out to all, all-inclusively, and at work through us... That God is creating a just world for all by working through us.
Because God, as the landowner, knows that everyone in God’s realm has basic needs. Everyone has a basic need for food. Everyone has the same basic need for shelter. Everyone has the same basic need for health care, the same basic need for spiritual support and upkeep… it doesn’t matter what time you started working, it doesn’t matter when you showed up to the party, it doesn’t matter what kind of theological understanding you may or may not have… it doesn’t matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, Jesus says that God’s SOP is to be generous and extend the same grace to the least and the last as God does to those who came and worked first.
God’s SOP is to welcome everyone to participate in the bounty of what God owns, which is everything. “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Ps 24:1). The realm of God is everything we see outside us and everything within us… it’s the bounty of knowing Christ, who is the most extravagant provision of all… it’s the bounty of God’s extravagant provisions which are always available and always are offered to everyone!
The bounty and beauty of God’s realm is that God affirms the dignity and worth of everyone. Maybe we’re called to invest in the expansion of this realm, this vineyard, this kingdom of God, working toward a world of greater justice, fairness, and mercy for all?
Would we see high returns? Yes, if what we mean by high returns is a world where God’s way of love, mercy, and justice prevail, where early on workers rejoice in the good fortune of workers who come late… where we celebrate the generosity of God’s extravagant provisions… because the over all goal is a healthy, productive vineyard for everyone!
Let us be quiet and reflect upon this message. Amen.