Whatever is just

24 September 2017
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 20A (RCL)
Exodus 16:2-15
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

We often read this parable as an assessment of the reaction of Jewish Christians to the admission of Gentiles into their fellowship. Much like the story of the prodigal in Luke, which aligns Jewish Christians with the older brother who has observed the father’s commandments, we align the Jewish Christians with those hired first in this parable, who have born the heat and burden of the day. These late comers receive the same reward, and the first are justifiable perturbed. In my evangelical days, we read this as a comment on death-bed conversions. This interpretation did not make the bulk of Christians very happy. Why not play around until the last minute?

Even when read just as a story, people respond in a similar fashion: the next day, all the laborers will wait around until the eleventh hour and see if they can get hired at the last minute, and paid for a full day.

I think Matthew tells this parable to make us question our sense of justice. When the householder (not necessarily a land owner) goes out at the third hour, he says that he will pay those hired “whatever is just.” The NRSV translates dikaios as “right” when “just” is much more accurate. When he speaks to the one who complains, he says, “Friend, I have done you no injustice.” A denarius was a day’s wages for a day laborer, and about what would be needed to feed a family for a day. Each laborer in the vineyard went home with enough to feed a family. And those hired at the last hour were not slackers, but had been waiting all day to be hired.

We like to think that we have earned what we have, and those who have less have not worked as hard as we have. We see justice in the uneven distribution of wealth. In reality, those with greater wealth have not necessarily worked harder than the poor — they have just been luckier. The householder asks the complainer if he is not permitted to do as he pleases with what is his. He can scatter it broadly if he likes.

In the story of the manna, the people are told to gather just enough for the day. In the verses that follow this passage, they disobey God and try to hoard the manna, with the result that it rots. This story is in direct opposition to the story of Pharaoh (aided by Joseph) who hoarded all the grain in Egypt, and consequently was able to buy the whole people into slavery. Hoarding is strictly prohibited to the people. This parable in Matthew asks us to think of justice not in terms of merit, but of need, and generosity: is your eye evil because I am good? We can either see the world in terms of a zero sum game, in which whatever someone else is given is no longer available to me, or as an open sum game, in which the more we give away, the more there is to share. What does justice look like?

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