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A post-homiletical discourse delivered by the Rev. Dr. James R. Beebe

Rector, St. Patrick’s Church, Incline Village, Nevada, September 18, 2011

Text:  Matthew 20:1-16 – “Or are you envious because I am generous?”



     There are only three kinds of people in this world:  those who can count and those who can’t.  God must be in the last of the three camps.  I mean, let’s do the math:  a guy drives to 7-11 at 6 a.m. and hires 10 laborers; same guy drives to 7-11 at 9 a.m. and hires 10 more laborers; he must have underestimated the amount of work because he drove back to 7-11 three more times – at noon, 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., each time hiring 10 more laborers.


     By the way, in case you didn’t guess, this is a story problem.  If the guy paid each of the 6 a.m. hires $36 for the day, what would he have paid the guys hired at 9, noon, 3 and 5?  Let’s assume they quit at dusk, for argument’s sake, 6 p.m.  If you’re a math whiz, you will have figured out that the first hires got the full $36; the 9 a.m. hires, $27; the noon hires, $18; the 3 p.m. hires, $9; and the 5 p.m. hires, $3.  It’s only fair….


     But no – apparently the guy has money to burn, because at the end of the day, he pays everyone $36.  The late laborers who received $36 per hour were pretty happy about that.  But the laborers who got up before the sun was up and slaved all day long in the hot sun only got $4 per hour.  As a result, the 6 a.m. hires decided to unionize.  Just kidding.  But they were mad, to be sure.  It just wasn’t fair.

     Well, the laborers’ agenda was not the same as God’s agenda.  The laborers seemed to be interested in quid pro quo – if I put in so many hours of work, I get such and such as payment.  More hours, more pay.  Fewer hours, less pay. 

     But quid pro quo goes both ways, of course.  Fred Craddock tells the story of when he was a seminary professor.  He had noted that the seminarians were huge fans of the stories told by Jesus, where the offer of grace was extended even to the wayward son, the publican, and the 11th hour laborers.  So Fred read the following story without explanation and asked them to consider whether or not it was a parable:


     There was once a certain seminary professor who was very strict about due dates for papers.  Due dates were announced at the beginning of a semester, and failure to meet them resulted in an F for the semester.  In one class, three students did not meet the deadline.  The first one explained, “Professor, unexpected guests from out of state came the evening before the paper was due, and I was unable to finish it.”

“Then you receive an F,” said the professor.

The second student explained, “On the day before the paper was due, I became ill with the flu and was unable to complete it.”

“Then you receive an F,” said the professor.

The third student, visibly shaken at the news about the fate of the other two, cautiously approached the professor’s desk.  Slowly, he began, “Professor, our first baby was due the same day the paper was due.  The evening before, my wife began having pains, and so I rushed her to the hospital.  Shortly after midnight, she gave birth to a boy.  Our son weighs eight pounds.  We named him Kenneth.”

The professor listened with interest, moved his chair back from the desk, and looked up at the ceiling.  After a long pause, he looked across at the student and said, “Then you receive an F for the course.”

A large delegation of students came to the professor to protest.  “Why have you been so cruel and harsh?” they asked. 

The professor replied, “At the beginning of the semester I gave my word concerning the papers.  If the word of a teacher in a Christian seminary cannot be trusted, whose word can be trusted?”   The students were dismissed.

Most of Fred’s students were angry not only with the professor in the story, but with him for telling it.  So, to them, grace was something expected.  To them, grace wasn’t grace – it was an entitlement.  Grace can, it turns out, become quid pro quo.

     God is all about people getting what they need to live relatively healthy lives (even if they did only work one hour).  [Jerry Goebel]    God thinks it unjust that someone would be unable to feed their family regardless of when they started work.   It leads to some troubling questions, of course.  Am I more angered that someone earns the same as me or that someone goes hungry?  What if my belief in what’s fair leads to someone else’s family being hungry?  Shouldn’t God’s thoughts be my thoughts?

     Reports have it that 15.1% of Americans have fallen under the poverty line.  Are you more interested in providing those Americans with the same opportunity to alleviate their poverty or in actually alleviating that poverty, even if it means others doing more heavy lifting?

     What no one seems to notice is that money wasn’t the object of Jesus’ story.   The harvest was the object.  What was being brought in was the object.  No one was paid poorly.  No one was paid with a wage that would leave their family hungry.  Families being hungry is what God cares about.  The only ones who were unhappy about receiving their wages were the ones who were consumed by self-righteousness.

     Episcopal priest John Claypool tells the old rabbinic parable about a farmer who had two sons.  As soon as they were old enough to walk, he took them to the fields and he taught them everything that he knew about growing crops and raising animals.  When he got too old to work, the two boys took over the chores of the farm and when the father died, they had found their working together so meaningful that they decided to keep their partnership.

     So each brother contributed what he could and during every harvest season, they would divide equally what they had corporately produced.  Across the years the elder brother never married, stayed an old bachelor.  The younger brother did marry and had eight wonderful children.  Some years later when they were having a bountiful harvest, the old bachelor brother thought to himself one night:

"My brother has ten mouths to feed. I only have one.  He really needs more of his harvest than I do, but I know he is much too fair to renegotiate.  So in the dead of the night, when he is already asleep, I'll take some of what I have put in my barn and I'll slip it over into his barn to help him feed his children.”

     At the very time he was thinking this, the younger brother was thinking to himself, "God has given me these wonderful children. My brother hasn't been so fortunate. He really needs more of this harvest for his old age than I do, but I know him. He's much too fair. He'll never renegotiate. I know what I'll do. In the dead of the night when he's asleep, I'll take some of what I've put in my barn and slip it over into his barn."

     And so one night when the moon was full, those two brothers came face to face, each on a mission of generosity.  A gentle rain began to fall.   It was God weeping for joy because two of his children had come to realize… …that generosity is the deepest characteristic of being a permanent resident in the Kingdom of God.