Tag Archives: parable

Parable of the Prodigal Son or Prodigal Father?

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
So Jesus told them this parable:
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.

The definition of the word prodigal is: a person who spends money in a recklessly extravagant way. Or someone who is wastefully extravagant.

I don’t know about you, but I feel like I could use some wasteful extravagance in my life. For two long years we have been living small, keeping to ourselves, pairing down. Nothing these days happens with reckless abandon. Everything is cautious and circumscribed. If that prodigal son was feeling even a bit like we do, it is no wonder he was looking for signs of life elsewhere. 

This story of the prodigal son is a familiar story that most of us could probably retell the if we were we put on the spot. In fact, the term “prodigal son” can be applied to a person or situation, and most people will know the meaning. Even if most Christian images and symbols are being forgotten in culture, the prodigal son and his story endures. There must be something about this story that bears familiarity to our own experience and lives. 

But the problem with familiarity is that meaning can be reduced and simplified. The power of the parable can be lost. And the prodigal son, like all good parables that Jesus tells, is not meant to be a simplistic, straight across comparison where the Father equals God, and the son equals humanity. Instead, good parables demand that we put ourselves in the shoes of all the characters, that we put God in the shoes of all the characters, and even consider that we or God might not be any of the characters. 

A few years ago, a good friend who is also a pastor, shared about his experience teaching his confirmation class the parable of the prodigal son. To help the class embody the parable, he had the students act out the story. They found it easy to play the prodigal party boy son and the dutiful older brother. But when it came time to be the father who ran out to welcome home his lost son, the students would stand and wait with hands on hips, a frown on their face. Or they would scold the returning son for making his father worry. Some even grounded the son when he returned. They just couldn’t imagine a parent who welcomed a delinquent child home without some kind of reprimand.

This well-known parable maybe has something much deeper and radical to say to us that we usually remember. It is easy to assume that the parable of the Prodigal Son is a moralism about doing the right thing. Older son good, younger son bad. Don’t be a younger son, we think is the moral of this tale. But that judgement is not one the text actually makes and to really hear what the parable is saying, we have to step away from the morals and lessons that we assume from the get go.

As with all the parables of Jesus, we need to consider the audience. There are two very different groups that Jesus is speaking to. The first is tax collectors and sinners. Those who owed debts and those who collected, but both of whom were believed to be excluded from God’s forgiveness and mercy. Contrast them with the second group, the Pharisees and scribes, the virtuous religious authorities and leaders who controlled access to God forgiveness and mercy. An audience who represented two very different experiences of God’s love. 

With these two groups in mind, Jesus tells three parables about lost things, the third being about a man with two sons. The younger son asks for his share of his inheritance to strike out on his own in the world. But before we can set to the task of judging this son for his dissolute living, it is important to understand Jewish inheritance practice. In Jesus’ day, it was the norm that the elder son would inherit a double portion of his father’s wealth. The older son in this story would get two thirds of the inheritance, while his younger brother just one third. But not all things were divided this way. As land belonged to families or tribes, the older son would become the one in charge of all the land of his father. He would control not only two thirds of his father’s wealth, but all of his father’s land, his father’s tenants, workers and slaves. And this would include his younger brother. So while we assume that the younger brother is some party animal or that he can’t wait for his father to die to get his hands on his money, it might actually be the case that the younger brother just doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life working under his self-righteous jerk of an older brother. 

And while it might be easy to assume, like his older brother did, that the younger son went and lost his inheritance by immoral living, we don’t really know. It could have been a combination of circumstances, such as poor choices, famine, or being alone in a foreign land. 

Yet, to put the weight of the parable’s meaning on the younger son’s repentance and return home is to miss a key feature of good Hebrew story telling. The last part of the story is often the point. 

And the last part of the story is all about the older son. 

The older son’s refusal to celebrate his brother’s return is more than a mere attitude problem. This older son has fundamentally missed the point. As his father invites him to the banquet, the older son stands in judgement of both his brother and his father. He is indignant. He believes that he is the righteous one. He believes that he has earned his rightful place in his father’s house. He thinks his hard work and obedience entitles him to his father’s wealth and lands, to his father’s position and power. He complains that his father hasn’t recognized his virtue, not even with a modest young goat to enjoy with his friends. Yet, his father has killed the fatted calf for his delinquent brother. The injustice! Never mind that every goat and calf, every robe and ring, every slave and servant (including the younger brother) will one day belong to him. 

It is easy to see the parable of the Prodigal Son about one good son and one bad, yet when we set our assumptions aside and unpack the depths of the story, we can see that it is both sons who are equally lost. And we can see it is isn’t about trying to be more like one son over the other. Instead, we see that there are times in our lives where we have felt self-righteous and indignant, like we have earned our place in the world and more. And there might be other times where we have felt unworthy and unloveable, like we couldn’t possibly be shown mercy and compassion. 

Still, even with a perspective shift in how we see the sons, we are just as unable as those confirmation students to see the radical love of a parent, who loves without reprimand or condition. Yet, the newly understood lostness of both sons helps to sharpen for us just how loving this father is. 

The name western Christians have given this son says much about how we understand this parable: The Prodigal or Wasteful with Money Son. But the Eastern Orthodox church calls this parable the Loving Father. 

Whether it is the son who thinks he is unworthy and undeserving of his Father’s love or it is the son who is indignant and believes that he has earned more than he has received, the father seeks out his sons. Both sons. The well-to-do land-owner father runs down the road in a very undignified fashion welcome his lost younger son home. The generous and compassionate father still goes out to plead with his ungrateful and resentful older son, despite his son’s rejection. This father does not judge, this father does not reprimand, this father does not set condition on his generosity. 

Even when younger takes advantage of his father and loses all that he has been given. Even when older cannot see that he has not actually earned anything, but that his father has freely given all that he has to his son. Both sons are given love and mercy and grace by their father. If anyone is prodigal, if anyone is wastefully extravagant it is the father who is lavish with his love. 

What a radical image of God’s love and forgiveness for Jesus’ audience? A reminder to the Pharisees, Scribes and those of us who think we have earned it, that God’s love cannot be earned because it is already given freely. A reminder to the tax collectors, sinners and those of us who feel unworthy or undeserving, that God’s love is given freely and does not need to be earned. 

This Lenten season we have been confronted again and again with the relationship of love and power. Today, we are shown an image of God’s love that is more generous than we can imagine. 

Today, our Prodigally loving God shows us just how far God will go to find us.  

The Days are Surely Coming, say the Lord – a Sermon for Advent 1

Luke 21:25-36
Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

The days are surely coming, says the Lord. 

The first words of the season of Advent begin with Jeremiah, speaking words from the mouth of God to the people of Israel facing destruction by Babylon. An oracle that begins us immediately with the promise of God to a people who feels as though they are surrounded by oppression, suffering and darkness. 

We have flipped the calendar today, and are about to begin a new season of the church year. Advent might be the only time the church is ahead of the rest of the world… and even then, we don’t really do this time of year the way most do. We begin by talking about the end, we begin by pausing and stopping and waiting for what comes next. In Advent, as in the Church, beginnings and endings often go hand-in-hand. 

Advent is a peculiar season. The church decorates with blue or purples, we generally hold off on singing Christmas Carols (although it is sometimes hard to resist), we patiently and almost quietly count down the days until Advent ends on Dec 24th… all while wondering about what all these stories of John the Baptist and a pregnant virgin actually mean for us. 

But on the first Sunday of Advent, we don’t quite get into those stories just yet. We begin instead with the end. On this first Sunday of the church year we begin with visions and promises of the end, the great reconciling of all creation that God promises to God’s people. 

For the people of Jeremiahs’ day, their world was surrounded by war and destruction, the Babylonians were threatening to conquer much of the Middle East. And Jeremiah prophesied the coming destruction, the people of Israel awaiting what was to come next for them as warring nations around them sought control of the region. 

And for the people of Thessaloniki, St. Paul writes to them hoping they are well in the midst of trials and tribulations because the Romans around this small fledgling Christian community are blaming them for upsetting the social order. 

Two communities who are wondering what comes next for them, what will happen to them in the midst of tension, chaos and uncertainty in the world.

And then we hear from Jesus as he preaches to his disciples about the end. Visions and signs of the coming Son of Man. Words from Jesus spoken to his disciples in the middle of Jerusalem during a time of great tension and uncertainty – during the days between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. 

The tension and the uncertainty sounds oh so familiar to us doesn’t it?

Whether it is this ongoing and lingering pandemic, and it is restrictions and surprises, its struggles and effects of isolating us from each other. Or fears about the economy and inflation, the cost of groceries, gas and rent or housing. 

Whether it is the regular reminders that our society has yet to reconcile with our colonial and racist history, that we still struggle to care for the least among us, the poor, those struggling with addition and homelessness, those living on the margins. 

Whether it is this present reality that church is dealing with decline, with a future that we are not sure of, and now has to figure out where we stand in the midst of and following a global pandemic that sent us all home for longer than we every imagined we wouldn’t be gathering in-person together. 

We know what it means to live under a cloud of uncertainty and to wonder what comes next for us… even if we would rather not think about it. Even as we foolishly and misguidedly try to get back to normal with Black Friday shopping lists, baking and decorating and all the other things that come with the holiday season… here we are as the church, starting a new church year and forcing ourselves to pause and sit with this hard question of what comes next for us. 

And here is the thing about Advent, here is the thing about Jesus and all his talk of signs and visions of the end… there is no answer for what comes for us. That is not the answer we get to today, nor really any day in Advent. 

Instead, Advent arrives with an answer to a different question. And it answers it with the very first words of the season. 

The days are surely coming, says the Lord. 

Advent’s answer for us is not to tell us what comes next, but who. 

Messiah. 

Messiah is coming. 

The righteous branch of Jesse to save all of Judah. 

The one sent by our God and Father, the Lord Jesus

The Son of Man coming in a could. 

The Messiah. 

And no, the promise of the Messiah’s coming did not stop the Babylonians coming to destroy the Jerusalem and exiling its most important citizens. 

And no, the promise of Messiah’s coming did not stop the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. 

And no, the promise of Messiah did not prevent the ugly ending of Holy Week with a public execution on a cross…

But God’s promise of the Messiah was that none of these thing would not be end. Not the end of people of Israel and nor the people of Thessaloniki. 

And the cross… well the cross was no ending at all, but rather the beginning. The beginning of God’s new reality for creation, the beginning of God’s new promise of Resurrection and New Life come to fruition for us all. 

And then after the cross, that Son of Man coming in the clouds also walked out of the tomb. But that story is not for Advent to tell. 

Instead, Advent points us again to the promise of Messiah coming also for us. This Messiah whose coming means that all the things of our world which bring tension and uncertainty, conflict and suffering, sin and death… they will not be the end of us. Rather the Messiah’s coming means that we are not alone, not forgotten, not abandoned to the present nor to the future. Messiah’s promised coming means that our world is already transformed now, because a world with the Messiah on the way is a world designed for salvation, rather than a world destined for destruction. And that changes everything. 

And as the Messiah is coming, the Messiah also walks along side us. No matter the outcomes of all those things that cause us tension and uncertainty, no matter the outcomes of things that feel too big to control and too much to bare. No matter the uncertainty of pandemic and inflation, no matter the struggles of families, neighbours and community… Advent points us to the Messiah who shows us that God’s new world is right around the corner, coming into view, breaking through into our world right before our eyes. 

Breaking through to us in the things that have always been before us, that have always been the signs of God’s love and mercy for us here in this place. 

And so even as the world continues to be a place full of tension and uncertainty, Messiah is coming to us bringing God’s new world. 

Coming to us in word, water, bread and wine. 

Coming to us in the gathering of this community, a sign of the Body of Christ. 

Coming to us with the promises of God, made and fulfilled. 

Messiah is coming and Messiah is here. This is the story of Advent, the story that begins today, even the in the midst of all of uncertainty and endings about what comes next. 

The days are surely coming, says the Lord. 

God’s October (Third Day) Surprise

GOSPEL: Matthew 21:33-46
37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

What a week. 

Unless you live under a rock, the breaking news, local and world events of this week hit us like a torrent of hail. Here in Winnipeg we began by entering into the ‘Orange’ zone because of increasing COVID transmission. Gathering sizes have been limited to 10 indoors and outdoors. Our own cautious plan to potentially begin in-person indoor gatherings for worship has been put on hold for the time being. 

And then on Tuesday the worst United States presidential debate took place, like a dumpster fire inside a car crash inside a train wreck as one commentator put it. Two angry old men took the stage, with one being particularly belligerent and bullying, refusing to denounce white supremacy and seemingly endorsing neo-Nazi groups. 

On Wednesday, the CERB came to an end, with a potentially messy transition of millions of out of work Canadians to Canada Response Employment Insurance programs. 

By Thursday, Ontario and Quebec were introducing greater lock down measures with cases spiking there. And here in Manitoba, the Exposure App came online (make sure you download it!). 

And then by Friday morning, the news came that President Trump and the First Lady, along with some staffers and other legislators tested positive for the coronavirus, shaking a good chunk of the world with a big October surprise… on the 2nd day of October. 

Events that have captured our attention in gripping and anxiety inducing ways. 

In case we have forgotten, this is actually a sermon and not a news report! 

So let’s talk about Jesus then. 

In the midst of all that other stuff going on in the world, Jesus hits us with this curious parable. The 3rd parable in a row about a landowner. First it was the labourers in the vineyard getting hired throughout the day, yet being paid the same daily wage. And then it was the sons who said one thing and then did the opposite. 

And now we get this parable, which is rather nakedly an allegory for Jesus’ own death and resurrection. 

A landowner rented his land to some tenants. When it came time to collect the rent or harvest, he sent his servants to collect it. Yet, the tenants took a wicked a turn and killed those servants. 

So the landowner sends more slaves to retrieve the harvest and again the tenants kill the messengers. 

Finally the landowner deciding he needs to get serious, sends his son. 

It is a curious parable with a curious ending. Certainly, those listening to Jesus would have wondered the same thing that we might wonder. Why would the landowner keep sending messengers. Why not an army? Why not soldiers?

It is a parable where we can see the ending coming a mile away. The son will not fare well. Certainly, Jesus’s first hearers knew that the landowners rationale for sending his son was incorrect. Like when one of the characters in a horror movie decides to investigate the dark basement or abandoned mental hospital… things are not going to end well. 

And sure enough there is no surprise or twist. The wicked tenants kill the son.

But then Jesus asks a question. A question on which the whole parable hands.

“What will the landowner do?” 

I think we know what we would do. The crowds listening say it out loud. 

They think the landowner will answer violence with violence. This is the way of our world. When someone does you wrong, do more to them to make sure they understand their mistake. The punishment must fit the crime. 

There is something about this kind of narrative that grips us. There is something about the power to kill and the power of death that catches our attention. When those first slaves are met with violence and hostility we are hooked. 

And with each wave of messengers, with each response of violence and death on the part of the wicked tenants, we are drawn deeper into the dark narrative. Death has a hold over us, its power both frightens and allures us. But the time the son is sent, based on the flawed thinking of his father, we are caught up in the story even though we know the ending. 

Such is the power of the original sinner within us, the part of each human being that fears and craves the power of death. The thing within us that makes us unable to turn away from an accident scene, from breaking news, from a dark story, with dark twists and turns. The original sinner within both fears death and wishes for its power. We imagine the control we could exercise in the world were we to wield the power of death. 

And so this parable takes us along for the ride, hitting the right parts of our flawed humanity and biological self preservation instincts to keep us rapt.

The parable is almost like different version of our barrage of news this week. Enough violence, drama, suffering and death to keep us glued to screens. 

And yet, the parable isn’t meant to be a litany of things gone dark and wrong. 

For you see, the parable also is supposed to make us think of the other story of a son who is send to wicked people and is killed. 

A story that goes much the same way all the way to Good Friday. 

But that doesn’t end there. 

A story that completely surprises with a twist we would never imagine by Sunday morning. 

The Easter story keeps going. Resurrection changes the game. Life continues on. 

And this parable that we hear today only makes sense with the easter story as the backdrop. 

For you see, as the tenants keep killing and killing. As the hearers of the story keep expected more and more death. God is focused and intent on something else. 

God keeps expecting, hoping for, anticipating life. It seems almost naive. 

The landowner sends more and more messengers and finally sends his son. 

Just as God sent prophet after prophet, messenger after messenger to the people of Israel. God sends messengers and teachers to proclaim life, again and again. To keep calling a death focused humanity to something different, to something new. 

Finally, God sends the son, the revelation of God incarnate. The Messiah who has come to meet God’s lost people, to walk their paths and challenge their death focused ways. 

And when the son encounters the power of death head on… something new happens. The God who keeps expecting life, who keeps expecting something new, shows us a power greater than death, a continuation of the story when there should have been only end. 

And so it is with us during our heavy news week. At a time when we are bombarded over and over with death, with COVID restrictions, with ugly political debates, with shocking breaking news…. God is there in the background, expecting different outcomes. Expecting life, over and over and over again. 

And then when we least expect it, when death seems to have won, once and for all, there is new life. There is a new ending, there is resurrection, there are empty tombs, and there is the realization that death does not have the power we thought it had. That death is not our ending. 

Instead, God doggedly pursues new life. What God has been doing since the begging, chasing after Adam and Eve as they leave the garden, going with Abraham and Sarah into the wilderness, showing the Israelites the way out of Egypt, rescuing the Israelites from foreign occupation, calling for the repentance of God’s people, sending prophets to proclaim a return to God. 

And finally God sends us the son. 

The son that we will surely listen to, but don’t. 

The Messiah who calls out to us, 

who heals the sick, 

receives the poor and down trodden, 

who eats with sinners, 

and frustrates the powerful. 

The son who is nailed, unsurprisingly to a cross. 

And the son who walks out of the grave, extended the story. 

Extending life.

Loosing our grip on death. 

Showing us a new way. 

What a week, we declare today. 

And God responds by saying, 

“Just wait until you see my October, my third day surprise.”

Who Gave You the Authority, Jesus?

GOSPEL: Matthew 21:23-32
23When [Jesus] entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”

“Who gave you the authority?”

A question that is floating around our world a lot these days. 

Our relationship to authority has changed dramatically over the past months. Back in the “before time” it was rare that we had to listen to some kind of authority tell us how to go about some of the most mundane aspects of our lives, from work, to school, to groceries to, to eating out with friends. Now there are now a myriad of authorities that we need to consult  to go about our daily lives, from political leaders, to public health officials, to business owners, to those in charge of organizations and institutions, to the person telling us to hand sanitize when we walk into the electronics store. 

Authority and living our lives by stricter rules then we are used to is everywhere now. How we relate to authority is a constant calculation.

And so here we are, well on our way towards the end of the church year, with Thanksgiving, Reformation Sunday, All Saints and Christ the King Sunday on our horizon. When we would normally be settling into new routines, beginning up with all the groups and activities that we took a hiatus from over summer, and we are instead still stuck in a kind of limbo. Not truly opened up and back to normal and nor truly close down and closed off. Somewhere in between trying to figure what we can do in this new world and what we can’t, and how to stay stay safe and keep our neighbour safe. 

In the midst of this new world, we encounter Jesus being confronted by the elders and chief priests about his authority. About an issue that we know very well these days. 

This confrontation comes in Matthew’s Gospel, it comes from a moment just after Jesus has entered Jerusalem riding a donkey, the prophesied symbolic entry of the promised Messiah of Israel. 

From the cheering crowds, Jesus goes to the temple. The elders and chief priests know what Jesus has just done, they know the crowds have been cheering on this would be Messiah. And they also know that as the official gatekeepers of God for the people of Israel, that Jesus has not been sanctioned by the religious authorities to take up the mantel of the Messiah.

But when the temple authorities question Jesus’ authority, Jesus pushes back. He points them to John the Baptist, who was incidentally the son of a temple priest – one of their own. And Jesus declares that John had baptized or anointed him, much like Samuel had anointed King David. Jesus traps his accusers with a question they cannot answer, because it will either get them in trouble with the crowds or undermine their own authority. 

Jesus exposes the problem of the priest sand elders – their twisted relationship to power. Their motivation to hold onto power and stay in control, their use of the authority of the temple to control the flow of God’s mercy. 

The temple was first built to be God’s dwelling place. To be the place where God’s people would come to receive God’s grace and mercy, to receive forgiveness of sins. And the point of the temple was not to control God’s mercy, but to provide it. To hand it out. To make sure that God’s people could go and receive in concrete and tangible ways, That they always had access to God’s mercy.  

Yet, as it often seems to be with humanity, we like to turn points of access into checkpoints and bottlenecks, into points of control and power.

And now Jesus has become a threat to the temple cult, to this carefully crafted system that had been devised and shaped for centuries. 

Instead, Jesus was giving access to God out in the world, without the proper authority, without the proper control mechanisms. 

Jesus was undermining the whole system, upending the power and control of the temple leaders had over the people of Israel. 

Today, we certainly don’t hold that kind of control over people as the Church, at least not in 2020. There have been times over the past 2000 years when the Church has constructed systems of power and control around access to God – as Lutherans we were born out of such a moment in time in the Reformation. 

But these days, our place of authority in this world is quite different. We are increasingly being relegated to margins of most of public life. 

Yet, our understanding of authority and desire for it is not that much different than that of the temple cult of Jerusalem from 2000 years ago. 

Somewhere along the line we too have begun to confuse access to God’s mercy, with power and control over the world around us by gatekeeping God. 

We may not exert the same influence, yet still we long to. As churches well into the 21st century, often struggling with our place in the world, it is easy for us to believe that if we only need our authority back, our power and influence over the lives of people around us. If only Sundays could be kept free of sports, shopping and dance lessons, people would have to come to us. If only we had more money flowing to our offering plates, more staff carrying out our programs, more people to serve on committees, we could be an institution of importance again. 

As human beings, we often believe that more authority, more power and control, will bring more security, more comfort, and make our lives easier. 

And yet, as we watch the pharisees tie themselves in knots working to maintain their power and authority, we know that it is the same for us. That seeking out authority and influence, power and control only makes life more difficult. 

As Jesus responds to the elders and chief priests, he puts them on the spot by forcing them to choose between angering the crowds or undermining their own influence. So they choose neither. 

And you can see the math going on their heads. If they give up power and authority, than Jesus will gain it. They fear an inversion of the status quo, where all the folks at the bottom will wind up at the top, and the folks on top will fall to the bottom. 

Yet, Jesus isn’t seeking a power inversion, he isn’t looking to take the authority of the temple away from the elder and chief priests, at least not directly.

As Jesus continues to speak, he tells a parable about two sons who say one thing and do the other. But it is Jesus declaration that follows about who will gain access to the Kingdom of God that reveals what Jesus is up to. 

Jesus subtly names who is the source of that authority and what that authority is doing in the world. 

Jesus hasn’t ridden into Jerusalem to turn the existing power structures upside down, but to do away with them entirely. 

Jesus is reminding the temple authorities, that their job is not to withhold God’s mercy but to make sure God’s people receive it. Jesus is reminding us that his is out job too.

Because God isn’t putting authority and power into the world, God’s Kingdom isn’t about creating structures for human beings to exploit. 

God is the source of is mercy, love, compassion, and grace. 

God is putting hope and promise into the world. 

Hope found in the Messiah who meets humanity in flesh. 

Promise that the powers and authorities of this world are not the ultimate ones. 

Compassion given through disciples delivering good news in word and action. 

Love granted by the nearness of Christ to God’s beloved children. 

Mercy for the suffering and down trodden given by the Messiah who has found a wayward creation. 

And Grace, Grace on its way, on its way to Good Friday, on its way to that morning of the Third day. 

God is in our world filling it and us with the power of life and new life found only in God. 

And so as we crave influence and control of the world around us, as we wish for just enough power to be comfortable and to not have to worry… 

Jesus still brings us the good news of forgiveness for sinners, mercy for the suffering, and life for the dying anyways. 

The church may never be as powerful and influential as it once away, we may never be an important authority in this world again in our lifetimes… but God the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news of God’s love for all of creation and for us….

That is as authoritative as it has ever been, that is the root and source of the power of the Church, of the Body of Christ out in the world. 

“Who gave you the authority?”

This is perhaps the question of our time. 

And the answer is found in the grace and mercy of God, given to us in Christ. 

Guaranteed Basic Grace

GOSPEL: Matthew 20:1-16
[Jesus said to the disciples:] 1“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’

Today, as we continue into the second half of this long season of green, we hear a familiar parable. The parable of the landowner and day labourers. 

It is a familiar parable for most folks who have spent years sitting in pews, listening to sermons on the parables of Jesus. This parable caught my attention from an early age. I can picture sitting in church as a child, hearing the pastor talk about this story… even when listening to sermons wasn’t all that interesting to me yet. The way it sets itself up to challenge our assumptions, even when we know the story. The upside down way it treats how the world is supposed to work. They way it speaks to ancient labour practices and yet still seems so applicable and current with the way we understand work today. And the familiar indignity of the workers who worked all day contrasted with the surprising generosity of the vineyard owner. All of these parts of the parable grab us every time we hear it. 

But these days we have new ears to hear and the parable comes to us from a different place and with different questions and challenges for us. So much of our focus is on the dangers and risks around us in the world. We hear about massive fires burning far, far away but still sending smoke our way. We read the news about outbreaks at schools in our neighbourhood community. We get blasted with the constant election coverage of our neighbours to the south and the election question is being asked of our own government. 

This is a parable that points back to so many of the questions we have faced in the past few months and questions that we are about to face in the coming ones. Questions about privilege, equity and equality, question about justice and human dignity.

When we hear the parable again today, we remember the familiar elements. The landowner hiring workers for his vineyard. Early in the morning, again at 9, in the middle of the day, at 3o’clock and against just before day’s end. We envision this well-to-do landowner coming back again and again to the marketplace, the agora, the centre of a town’s economic and social life. 

The day labourers are waiting for work, just as they probably did each day. They waited in the marketplace, hoping to be hired for the day so that they could earn enough to support themselves and their families. The basic currency of that world, the Danarii was based on a day labourer’s wage. Enough money to pay for food and shelter for one day. 

We don’t have many similar systems here in Canada, but if you know the right places to look, you can still find day labourers. The first time I saw a group waiting for work as when I was a teenager. Our church youth group travelled to San Diego and then across the border to Tijuana to build houses in Mexico. We stopped at a Home Depot to pick up some supplies  and there was a group of men waiting to be hired. As we sat in the van while leaders went into the store, we watched as pick-ups pulled up to the group waiting on the sidewalk. The drivers would call out a number, and the equivalent number of workers would hop in the back. 

The first part of the parable would have been a common and easy to understand circumstance for Jesus’ hearers. A landowner goes a hire some labourers first thing in morning, discovers after the a bit, the harvest isn’t progressing quickly enough, so goes to get some more. 

But once the owner goes back a third time at noon, this should be setting off our spidey sense. It would be strange to go a hire labourers for half a day, and strange that the labourers were still waiting at noon. 

Still the parable gets more strange. The landowner keeps going back, at 3 and 5 o’clock. Why would he keep hiring? How much work could those latecomers do? And why were they still waiting, who did the labourers think would hire them in the middle of the afternoon and at day’s end?

But then we get to the important part. The part that we cannot help but identify with. The part when the landowner pays all the workers the same wage. 

There is a part of us that enjoys the indignity of the full day grumblers. We identify with these ones, the ones who feel entitled, who have worked all day and recognize what they have earned. Even if landowner doesn’t pay the extra, the grumbling workers know they have earned more. 

They see themselves as the dedicated hard working ones who have put in the time and should reap the reward. 

And nearly every sermon I have heard on this parable admonishes faithful Christians in the pews not to complain (even if deserved because of hard work) about those who might come to faith a the end…

Yet, certainly this year, this chaotic and unprecedented 2020 year with natural disasters, protests against racially motivated police violence, and a pandemic… certainly this year is challenging our established understanding of this parable and ourselves. 

It is easy for us to think we are the hard workers and the others are the lazy ones looking for a free ride. We rarely attribute our situations to opportunity and good fortune. 

Surely, the grumbling workers knew what is was like to be passed over for work. Surely they knew what is was like to wait in the marketplace for the chance to feed their families for another day, only to wait and wait and wait for nothing to come in the end. 

Surely, they could see that the latecomers where not lazy layabouts who are taking advantage of a generous landowner, but rather that the early workers were the lucky ones, the ones who could rest easy for the day knowing they their needs would be provided for, that their families would have roofs over their heads and food in their bellies. 

If this global pandemic has taught us anything about fairness and privilege, it is often those who are perceived as lazy and taking advantage are often the least advantaged and some of the hardest working. We have see many all of sudden be without work and have nothing to do but wait. We have seen how it is often the poorest least advantaged who are forced to work the front lines of a pandemic world. 

And we have heard our own Lutheran Bishops, along with Anglican Bishops write political leaders in support of Guaranteed Basic Income, which is receiving a lot of attention in the news, in legislative halls and around kitchen tables. As the CERB, the Wage Subsidy and other programs kept food on the table and the lights on… we have discovered that there is a lot of luck when it comes to earning a living and hard work is no guarantee that you will have enough. 

And so as the workers who worked all day grumble about not getting more than they needed and agreed to work for, the landowner replies to them,

“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

The landowner, the one standing in for God challenges the perspective of privilege and entitlement. The landowner challenges it with generosity, with a generosity that gives not based on merit and worth, but based on need. The landowner provides all the workers, the lucky ones who were picked first and the ones who had to wait all day, enough. Enough to eat, enough to feed their families, enough to live. 

Guaranteed Basic Grace. 

This challenge to the way we understand the world works, this reminder that hard work is often born of opportunity and circumstance and that those who are left to wait and who are left out are the unlucky ones. 

And yet Jesus’s challenge to us also reveals the generosity and abundance of God’s grace and mercy given for us. 

That God’s approach to us is not to measure us by our hard work or merit, not to give us what we deserve… because we are certainly all lacking and all fall short. 

Rather God’s approach is to give us what we need. To show us the mercy and grace that will get us through to another day. God’s approach is to extend life where there only seems to be death. Where there would have been empty bellies and unsheltered heads, God extends life once more. 

God’s way with us is to keep life going, to give us one more day. One more day that carries us to the third day, to the day of resurrection, to the day of grace and mercy when life extended.  indefinitely. 

And this year, God has challenged our sense of fairness, our understanding of opportunity and privilege. God calls us again to consider not what each one of us is worth nor what we think we deserve…. But to consider what each one of us needs. And God reveals the generosity that is given to us. 

And however unfair that feels, God gives all the grace and mercy needed for one more day and for life eternal in Christ.