A Simple Truth (Sermon for March 17, 2019)

A simple truth: someone else having enough does not hurt me.

There’s an episode of The Simpsons where Lisa, the smart and justice-oriented daughter of the title family accuses her hapless and dimwitted dad, Homer, or being jealous of Apu, the proprietor of the local Kwik-E-Mart, for… reasons.

And Homer replies, “I’m not jealous, I’m envious. Jealousy is when you worry someone will take what you have. Envy is wanting what someone else has. What I feel is envy.”

And Lisa checks a dictionary and is astonished to discover that Homer—again, hapless and dimwitted—is right.

You will probably never need to know the difference between jealousy and envy. But that difference makes me wonder if there’s a word… not for when you’re worried that someone will take what you have, that’s jealousy… and not for when you want what someone else has, that’s envy… but for when you just don’t want someone else to have what they have.

I looked. I couldn’t find one. Even in German.

But, let’s admit it, we’ve all been there. We’ve all had that feeling sometimes, when we’ve looked at what someone else has and wanted it taken away from them.

In today’s reading, we don’t get any flourishes. We just get a parable. There’s no miracle. There’s no tricky question. There’s no dire prediction. There’s just a story. 

The kingdom of heaven is like this landowner.

You see, there was a landowner who had a vineyard. Early in the morning, he went out to hire some workers, and he agreed to pay them the normal daily wage. So they went to the vineyard and they began working.

Around nine in the morning, he went out again and saw some people standing around, so he hired them. And they went to the vineyard and they began working.

Around noon, he went out again and the same thing happened. And around three in the afternoon he went out again and the same thing happened.

And around five in the afternoon, he went out again and saw some people standing around, so he asked, “Why are you standing around?”

And those people replied, “No one has hired us.”

So the landowner hired them. And they went to the vineyard and they began working.

Eventually, evening rolled around and the workers lined up to get paid. The 5pm workers were first, then the 3pm workers, then the noon workers, then the 9am workers, and, finally, the early morning workers, who had borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.

Now, if you were paying close attention, then you know that the early morning workers were the only ones who the landowner went out to hire. He went out at 9am and noon and 3pm and 5pm, but nothing in the story tells us that he intended to hire workers. He went out at those times and he saw people standing idle, who needed to work, so that they could make money, so that they could support their families; and so he hired them and put them to work.

And if you caught that little detail, then you have a hint about what’s coming.

The landowner paid the 5pm workers, the last of the people who he hired, the normal daily wage. And at the back of the line, the early morning workers, who had borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat, got excited. They turned to each other and said, If he’s paying a day’s wage to the people who only worked for an hour, imagine how much we’re going to get!”

But when those early morning workers got to the front of the line, the landowner gave them… the normal daily wage. They got exactly what they were promised. And they grumbled. They said, “The people who you hired last only worked for an hour, but you have made them equal to us.”

And I don’t think they said that because they were afraid that the landowner was going to take something from them. The landowner had just paid them everything that they were promised. He wasn’t about to take anything away. They were not jealous.

And I don’t think they said that because they wanted what the other workers had. The other workers had nothing more than what those early morning workers had. They were not envious.

I think that they looked at what the landowner had given them, and they looked at what the landowner had given to the 5pm workers, and they thought, “That landowner has made us equal. He treats everyone the same. He gives everyone what they need.”

And then they thought, “But those people shouldn’t have what we have. They shouldn’t be equal to us. We don’t want them to have what we have.”

And they justified that feeling to themselves, “It’s the landowner’s vineyard and the landowner’s money, but we have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat. It’s unfair that he should treat us equally. It’s unfair that we should both have what we need. So he should give us more, or he should take away what he has given to them.”

And, in the end, what they were saying was, “They should not be equal to us. We should be privileged. We are entitled to that.”

There is a saying that goes something like this (there are a few different versions): When you are used to privilege, equality feels like oppression.

Here’s what it means. 

Imagine that there is an exclusive club that you like to go to. You are so used to being let in and seeing other people kept out that you are astonished and offended when you are told to wait outside with the rabble who are normally denied entry. You might feel like something is being taken away; and something is: access to the club. You might feel like you’re being hurt… because you’re being treated like everyone else.

Now, imagine that same exclusive club. You are so used to being let in and seeing other people kept out that you are astonished and offended when the doors are thrown open and everyone is allowed in. You might feel like something is being taken away; and something is: exclusivity. You might feel like you’re being hurt… because you’re being treated like everyone else.

And if you want to see that in action, listen to people with power—people who often look like me—talk about people without it. 

Listen to the people who complain about people on welfare owning smart phones or buying junk food. Listen to the men complaining about there being too many movies with women in the lead. Listen to the people complaining about how there are too many people around who don’t look like us.

It sounds a lot like they’re saying, “It’s unfair that we should be treated equally. They should not be equal to us. We should be privileged. We are entitled to that.”

But the simple truth is that what was unfair was that we were ever treated unequally. What is unfair is that there are people going hungry while others have food to spare. What is unfair is that there are people who are not represented in popular culture while others win all the awards. What is unfair is that people are red-lined out of neighborhoods while others live in comfort.

And the simple truth is that someone else having enough does not hurt me.

And the kingdom of heaven is like this… landowner.

You see, there was a landowner who had a vineyard. And early in the morning, he went out to hire some workers. And he did.

But as he went on about is day, he kept seeing people who needed work. He kept seeing people who were standing idle in the marketplace because no one would hire them. And he was moved to compassion. So he hired them.

Eventually, evening rolled around and the workers lined up to get paid. And the landowner paid each worker the normal daily wage. And the workers who the landowner had hired in the early morning grumbled. For they had borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat. And they said, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us.”

And the landowner said to them, “So? You agreed to work for the normal daily wage and that’s what you received. That is what belongs to you, take it and go. But I am generous and I choose to give these others what they need, as well. Why should you grumble? Someone else having enough does not hurt you.”

And the story doesn’t tell us what those early morning workers did. Maybe they had an epiphany, and took what they had been given, and left in joy. Or maybe they took what they had been given and left grumbling under their breath.

But either way, those early morning workers—and the 9am workers and the noon workers and the 3pm workers and the 5pm workers—had experienced the generosity of the kingdom of God. And it is a generous kingdom, where everyone has enough.

This is the second week of Lent. And, as I’ve said, Lent is traditionally a time of repentance and fasting.

And yes, when we choose to fast, there is a sense of discipline and self-denial. But there is also a reminder: that we can do with less… and that because we can do with less, others can have more. We who have have more than we need can give up a little extravagance so that others can have what they need.

For the kingdom of heaven is like this. It is a vineyard where everyone who needs work can work. It is a vineyard where no matter when you arrive today, you will be given enough for today. And no matter when you arrive tomorrow, you will be given enough for tomorrow. And where all of us, no matter whether we arrive in the early morning or the late afternoon, will have enough and more than enough.

Thanks be to God.

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