Proper 20A

September 18, 2011
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Exodus 16:2-15
Reading 2: 
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45
Reading 3: 
Philippians 1:21-30
Reading 4: 
Matthew 20:1-16
By Paul S. Nancarrow

Exodus 16:2-15
Later writers in the Hebrew Scripture tradition, such as Second Isaiah, often look back to the wilderness wandering as an idealized time when the people enjoyed an uninterrupted intimacy with God, a time when city fortifications and royal ambitions and Temple practices and international politics and interreligious syncretism did not come between the people and their God. Today’s and the next weeks’ readings present a less idealized picture of this wilderness period, highlighting the people’s grumbling against Moses and Aaron and God, but the upshot is the same: this is a time in which the people learn how to be faithful, how to trust in God’s leading and providing rather than giving in to their own anxieties and apprehensions and Egyptian habits.

In this story the people grumble about food: hungry in their journeying, they remember the well stocked cook-pots they had in Egypt, and they wish they’d never left them. Their expectation of what counts as food is limited by their previous experience, and they can see no possibility for that expectation to be fulfilled in their current circumstance. So they complain. But their complaining is met by God in the provision of new possibilities the people had not imagined: a wind squall dumps quails in their camp, and they have meat; and the next morning the rising dew leaves behind it a substance with which they are not familiar, but which they find to be nutritious, and this they use for bread.

The provision of these unexpected possibilities shows the people that, with God, there is more for them to rely on than the limited range of expectations they inherit from their past. They can put their trust in God, and contribute their human action — their gathering, in this specific story — to the larger working-out of God’s ideal aims. In this connection it is particularly suggestive that the name the people give to their unexpected bread, “manna,” is said to derive from the question they ask when they first see it: man hu, what is it? The question itself becomes the identification of nourishment. Preachers on this passage might encourage their congregations to ask themselves what expectations limit their sense of possibilities, and what questions in their lives could identify new sustaining aims in God.

Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45
These verses from Psalm 105 are part of a longer poem praising God for the guidance given to Abraham and his descendants, especially from the time Joseph went to Egypt to the time of the Exodus, with a quick hint of the Conquest. This section of the psalm is linked to the Exodus reading particularly by verse 40, “They asked, and quails appeared, and he satisfied them with bread from heaven”; verse 41 anticipates the Exodus reading for next week. The psalm passage helps to anchor the particular story from Exodus within the larger sweep of salvation history.

Philippians 1:21-30
Paul writes his Letter to the Philippians from prison, either on his way to Rome or in Rome, at a time when he has a very keen and personal sense of how the Gospel can stir up opposition. From the verses immediately before this passage, it seems that Paul faces two distinct groups of opponents: those who wish to silence him and stop the preaching of Jesus in the Empire, and those who preach Jesus as Paul does, but do it out of “selfish ambition” rather than the sincere hope for the salvation and liberation of those who hear. But Paul is able to see creative transformation in both these oppositions: being imprisoned in imperial quarters has given him the opportunity to preach about Jesus to the imperial guard, and his boldness in doing so has in fact encouraged other Christians in the community to speak of their faith; as for the ambitious preachers, their personal motives are of little concern to Paul, so long as the Good News is spoken loud and long and often.

It is in the context of this transformed understanding of opposition that Paul writes of living and dying. There is a genuine possibility that Paul’s trial will end in his execution, and he here expresses confidence that the end of his earthly life will mean everlasting life in Christ, and that is “gain.” On the other hand, if he is exonerated at his trial, or at least not executed, that means continued life in the body will give him more opportunities to be “fruitful” to the Philippians and, more generally, the entire Christian community. In a spirit not unlike the Buddhist notion of the bodhisattva, Paul says he is “convinced” that he will not “depart and be with Christ,” but will remain in the present world order to “continue” with the Philippians “for your progress and joy in faith.” The Philippians may therefore take Paul as an example, so that in the struggles on behalf of the Gospel which they face (and which are not specified in the letter), they will also stand firm, “side by side with one mind,” not “intimidated” by their opposition, as Paul does. “This is God’s doing,” Paul affirms: the provision of divine aims which allow believers to see even in opposition the opportunity to proclaim Good News, and thereby to creatively transform threats of suffering into occasions of rejoicing, is God at work in them — provided they live “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” by eliciting those divine aims into prominence in their experience and consciously choosing to embody them in their actions.

Matthew 20:1-16
There is always the temptation with Jesus’ parables — especially the longer narrative parables, such as the Laborers in the Vineyard — to treat them as “normal” referential stories, giving practical advice or concealing allegorical codes. This parable has been held up as an example of labor relations; it has been allegorized as referring to successive groups of people chosen by God (Jews, Jewish-Christians, Gentile-Christians, later peoples converted by later missions); it has been used as a warrant for pastoral assurances that late arrivals to faith, even on the deathbed, are valued by God just as much as any other.

I think sometimes it is helpful to remember that Jesus’ parables are not “normal,” they are neither advice nor allegory: they are a teaching method that is meant to surprise the hearer into insight; they are teachings that are designed to present the hearer with something that on the rational face of it makes no sense, so that the mind and heart are led — we might even say forced — to leap to a new level of comprehension.

In this parable, the fact that the laborers all receive the same wage is not a useful piece of information or a wise precept for living; it is a patent absurdity that is intended to goad our offended sense of fairness to jump to a new way of seeing the situation. In interpreting parables it is good to begin with the end: here the “punch line” is “So the last will be first, and the first will be last,” and the whole vineyard narrative can be taken as an elaborate wind-up for that pitch. That marks the parable as a teaching of the Great Reversal, a common theme in Jesus’ message, warning that the distribution of power, prestige, and position in this current world order is not to be equated with the divine aim for the Reign of God.

In this particular Great Reversal parable, the last to work are the first to be paid; but when the first workers are paid at last, all the workers have the same amount. Though they say it as a complaint, the first workers summarize the parable’s truth when they say to the landowner “You have made them equal to us.” It is that radical equality before God that is the end result of the Great Reversal. In God’s Reign, all orders of precedence dissolve and there is no “better” or “worse,” no “last” or “first” among those whom God loves. In the parable, the landowner has only one wage to hand out, which of course would not be true of any actual earthly landowner; that unexpected and surprising twist in the narrative prompts the deeper insight that God has only one gift to give, namely, God, the Divine Presence, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, creative transformation, fullness of life, richness of experience, the beauty of holiness — by whatever name it is called, this is the one real gift of God’s Reign, and it transcends any expectation based on worldly order.

In the Reign, “you have made them equal to us” is not a complaint but a simple statement of all-encompassing joyous fact, as God’s aims for love, justice, and peace, specifically adjusted to the real needs of each entity, are offered for worldly actualization. As always with Jesus’ teaching, the Reign is presented as both a present process and a promise of future fulfillment. God’s aims are always offered to entities; as people growing in faith realize that in God’s aims there is no “better” or “worse” or “first” or “last,” but all aims are for the greatest love, justice, and peace possible in the situation, they are more able to harmonize their actions and experiences into greater mutual well-being, and this helps to build up the Reign on earth.

No creaturely accomplishments ever completely fulfill divine aims, of course, so no earthly accomplishment of love and justice and peace is altogether what God would have it be; the fullness of God’s Reign, therefore, the complete realization of divine aims, remains a promise of future satisfaction in God as the Adventure of the Universe as One. This is the eschatological dimension of Jesus’ basileia-teaching. The contrast between the present process and the future fulfillment opens up a sense of the larger possibilities for which persons of faith can strive — what Whitehead calls a “propositional feeling” — and this becomes a lure or call for greater realizations of basileia-values in worldly situations. The surprising insight that God has only God to give leads to the breaking down of barriers of all sorts, striving toward the time when “you have made them equal to us” is the hallmark of all faithful human society.