Matthew 20:1-16 “God’s Economics”
Jesus has an irritating habit of taking the systems of the world and smashing them to bits. In the parable we just heard, indeed in nearly every parable that Jesus teaches, we are left trying to reconcile how we understand the world with the world that Jesus is pointing us to. We are forced to confront our assumptions, our prejudices, our small-thinking, and listen to what the teacher of our faith is saying to us. There are some parables that, because of time or cultural difference, don’t have as much of an impact on today’s Christians. But that is not the case for today’s lesson. In today’s parable those who worked all day in the vineyard and those who just worked for one hour receive the same pay. Vastly different levels of effort and work receive the exact same compensation. Jesus is trying to help the disciples, trying to help us, come to terms with the economics of God’s justice.
The lesson that Jesus is trying to teach in today’s scripture is in direct response to the disciples trying to make sure they get their just reward. Jesus has just told them that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. This didn’t sit well with the disciples, so Peter says to Jesus, “we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus tells them they will receive abundant grace from God. And he says, ‘the first will be last, and the last will be first.’ And to help them understand that, Jesus tells them the parable of the vineyard.
I have a feeling that this parable sat just as uncomfortably with the disciples as it does with us today. Unequal work receiving equal pay. “How is that justice?” the disciples might have asked. “How is that justice?” we might ask. Like I said, Jesus has an irritating habit of taking the systems of the world and smashing them to bits. Jesus challenges the disciples, challenges us, to fully trust in the economy of God’s grace, thereby trusting in the economics of justice and peace for everyone. Jesus turns the expectations of the disciple’s upside down, he turns our expectations upside down. He points to the systems of humanity, the systems of greed, the systems of scarcity and flips the script. Jesus says these systems we have in place that essentially try to calculate the worth of a person have no place in God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom is a system of abundance, but humans are far too stuck in the systems of scarcity. That is why we shake our heads at this parable – unequal work for equal pay doesn’t align with a system of scarcity.
I have long been interested in what I call God’s economics. Economics is, essentially, how we produce, consume, and transfer wealth – and because we live in a material world, we are immersed in material economics. We place a value on goods and labor. And our ability to consume that good or labor is determined by the value the world has placed on us. In material economics, value means wealth. A person with more wealth is able to consume more goods, and a person who can consume more goods can produce more goods, thereby shifting the value of the goods in favor of the wealthy. And this directly translates to power. The power is shifted in favor of the wealthy. I am not telling you anything you don’t know. This is the world we live in. That was the world the disciples lived in as well. The disciples, just like us, were so immersed in the material economic systems humanity had created, that when Jesus tries to explain the economics of God – it doesn’t make sense. It can even feel unjust.
The parable of the vineyard owner giving the same pay for different amounts of work feels unjust in the human system of material economics. But Jesus is not trying to describe the systems of scarcity that humans tend to live in. Jesus is trying to explain the system of abundance that God exists in. And that system of abundance, otherwise known as the kingdom of God, is what Jesus is trying to help us embrace. When the value of a person is determined by nothing, nothing except their very existence in this world, then we will finally be able to understand the economics of God. In God’s kingdom, Jesus teaches, our value is incalculable. In the words of material economics, in God’s kingdom we are each priceless.
I think a lot about the economics of God because I get easily overwhelmed by the injustice of the economics of our human systems. We have seen that injustice play out in so many ways, especially in this unprecedented year. As cities and states shut down businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19, the people who were required to remain at their post – the essential workers – were often the same people who were not paid a living wage. While their labor was deemed essential, their economic worth was considered low.
Environmental scientists have told us that we have reached a tipping point in reversing climate change. They tell us that if we don’t make huge and lasting changes about how we interact with our natural environment, and if we don’t begin today, then the growing disasters will be beyond our ability to manage. Entire regions of our world will no longer be habitable because of heat, drought, or flooding. And the trees we rely on for oxygen will burn up. But because the way we interact with our natural environment is so entrenched in the unjust material economics of our making, we are told that making those changes is bad for the economy.
In the midst of a global pandemic that has killed over 900,000 people worldwide, and almost 200,000 in the United States, we are unable to ensure equal access to healthcare. That is because, in the human systems of material economics, a person’s value determines whether or not they can receive good healthcare. And in the United States, when those who do not have health insurance, or have inadequate health insurance, become sick or get hurt, they are left with medical debt that, for many, is insurmountable. And our material economics around healthcare are is broken, that $15,000 is able to purchase over $2 million of medical debt.
So, where is the hope? Where is the Good News, Pastor Danielle? The Good News is this: in the Kingdom of God, the economics are simple – everyone is worthy, everyone is equal, everyone is deserving. And as people of faith we are trying, we are striving, to understand that. We are confronting our ingrained assumptions about how we function within human systems and asking ourselves what does God want of us. We are leaning into the uncomfortable feelings of challenging these systems, many of which benefit us directly, and trying to imagine something new. Trying to do better. The Good News is this: five small congregations in a small town looked around and asked, “How can we make our world a little bit better?” And by each sharing from our abundance, we looked our neighbors in the eye and said to them, “we don’t see your worth through the lens of human material economics. We see your worth the way God does, as priceless.” Yes, being able to purchase $2 million of medical debt for $15,000 points to a broken system and we must continue to work to fix that system. But it also points to the ability of a small group of people to forever change the world. It says that when we come together, each sharing from our abundance in whatever ways we can, the Kingdom of God comes even closer to our reality. It says that a little can do a lot, and we can each do a little.
The vineyard owner said everyone’s value was equal, despite the worth material economics placed on them. Jesus says ‘the first will be last, and the last will be first.’ Jesus has an irritating habit of taking the systems of our world and smashing them to bits. Thank God. My Beloved Community, we can’t do everything. We can’t change every system and make them more just for all. We can’t end material economics. We can’t do everything, but we can do some things. And even if it is a little, the collective impact will be tremendous. We have abolished $2 million of medical debt throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin. What will we do next?
Let us pray:
Loving God, who creates us into new be-ing each day, help us to discover your purpose for our lives and to seek our roles in fulfilling this purpose. We praise you for your creation of our lives day by day, for you re-creation of hope within us, even when hope seems foolish. We pray for this world of ours, in which cynical self-interest and grasping for power often seem to be the rules by which human beings live. We confess our responsibility for those thoughts and actions by which we further the powers of evil and destruction in our world, for we know final that becoming human is a process of reconciliation and not of separation, of trust and not suspicion, of communion and not of coercion. We accept your call to peacemaking, wherever we may be and in whatever situation we find the hatreds, the fears, of the distrusts which cry out for peace to heal and to mend the brokenness.
Help us to offer thanks to you, not in empty words or pious gestures, but in lives which are faithful to your call. Enable us to bear the fruits of thankfulness in serving others and in building community with the men, women, and young persons in our lives.
We know that you are with us and for us in the midst of our lives. We praise you for this constant love and in Jesus’ name we offer together the prayer of our savior by saying…Our Father…
May God bless you with a restless discomfort
about easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships,
so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.
May God bless you with holy anger
at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,
so that you may tirelessly work for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.
May God bless you with the gift of tears
to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish,
so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.
May God bless you with enough foolishness
to believe that you really can make a difference in this world,
so that you are able, with God’s grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.
- St. Francis