Grumble, grumble

September 18, 2011
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 20A (RCL)
Exodus 16:2-15
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

Both Old Testament and Gospel stories are characterized by grumbling, but with very different results. In the Exodus story, Moses has led God’s people out into the wilderness across the Red Sea, and they begin to worry about their future. God hears their grumbling, and provides for their needs. In the parable in Matthew, the land-owner rebukes one of the workers for grumbling about his generosity.

The Old Testament (particularly the Torah) paints a very different picture of the relationship between God and God’s people than we can accept. There is a lot of give-and-take in the relationship. When God gets angry at the people’s grumbling (later in the story of the Exodus, in the Book of Numbers), God resolves to destroy them. Moses has to chide God, asking what other nations will think if God goes through with the plan. God repents of the plan. Abraham argues with God about Sodom and Gomorrah. Moses has to beg God to take some of the burden of the people off of him. Back and forth.

Here, they’ve come out into the wilderness, freed from an oppressive, but at least familiar, past, and are facing an uncertain future. Did God think this through? What are we going to eat? At least in Egypt, we had meat and bread, even if we were slaves. I wonder how many congregations find themselves in similar circumstances. Freed from some pattern of the past, they stand facing a new thing, and wonder how they are going to pay the bills. God’s people grumble. They take their complaint to Moses and ultimately to God. And God responds. Tonight, you’ll have quail, and tomorrow, bread. But just enough for the day. I wonder if the certainty isn’t part of what enslaves us. God gives us just enough for today. To have more than that is to sit at the fleshpots in Egypt.

In the parable, the land-owner hires workers in the morning for a denarius each. He hires others throughout the day, “for what is just.” At the end of the day, each gets a denarius. Those who started early grumble. We hate this parable. We should all get what we earned. Welfare drives us nuts. The landowner asks one of them, “Can’t I do what I want with what belongs to me? Or is your eye jealous because I am good?” (generous is a bad translation of the Greek work agathos). Not only was the denarius the usual daily wage — it was also about what it took to live for a day. It might not have been fair, but it was right. But again, notice that each gets enough for the day. No more, no less.

It’s easy to complain that others have it better than we do. That church has a huge endowment. Not fair. But God gives us what we need for our work in the vineyard. And what if we turned the story around, and we are the landowner? Are we giving away God’s stuff freely enough? Are we giving people what they need, rather than what we think they’ve earned?

Where is God calling us? What do we need for the journey? Can we ask God for it, and then trust that it’s enough? Or, are we going to compare ourselves with others, and not be satisfied with the result?

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