Harvest – Year A
Exodus 16:2-15; Jonah 3:10-4:11; Psalm
105:1-6, 37-45; Psalm 145:1-8; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16
This year (2008) the Autumnal Equinox falls on the third Sunday in
September – proper 20 in Year A. A full harvest moon happened on
the previous Monday. The second harvest of the year is underway
in the Northern Hemisphere. On the U.S. East Coast, the effects
of three hurricanes in as many weeks – two in the Gulf and one
that scurried up the Eastern seaboard, left the air heavy with tropical
humidity, and the summer prolonged. Pumpkins and hay bales are
beginning to predominate local farm markets. The last of the
sweet corn, heirloom variety tomatoes, burgundy beans, zucchini,
eggplant, and peaches are soon to be overtaken by the squashes, apples,
sweet potatoes, and other root vegetables. Earth’s bounty is
there for the picking, canning, pickling, freezing.
Matthew’s parable of the workers in the vineyard is a harvest
story. As usual, Matthew’s pious comment at the end has nothing
to do with the point. According to the Jesus Seminar commentary
in The Five Gospels, the parable
is not about the reversal of fortune for the greedy or the
self-righteous (“the last will be first and the first last”) but about
frustrated expectations. Conventional fairness in the imperial
marketplace certainly does get turned upside down, whether from the
point of view of the rich proprietor, or the poor workers hired
throughout the day. But Jesus is talking about more than
frustrated expectations. Jesus is illustrating how In God’s realm
the reward is bestowed whenever the program is joined. That is
the nature of God’s Covenant.
“Covenant” is the defining word for all these readings, including the
“alternative” portion of the story of Jonah, and the workers in the
vineyard. In the Exodus story, the Covenant is clear, as God
makes sure the people have the food they need for the day.
Covenant is not so clear to Jonah, who is clueless from beginning to
end. How can you throw a tantrum over a bush that is here today
and gone tomorrow, God asks, when there are 120,000 people whose
ignorance keeps them in bondage? Never mind the non-sequitur about the animals in
sackcloth (Jonah 3:8) –
perhaps they were in solidarity with the people who realized they
needed to sign onto God’s Covenant in order to save themselves.
The part Jonah failed to realize is that God’s Covenant is extended to
everyone who turns to God’s way of distributive justice. No
questions asked, no retribution for past sins required.
Read superficially, this feels suspiciously like “cheap grace.”
Certainly that is what Jonah thought. If God is going to settle
for cheap grace, Jonah would prefer to be dead, thank you very
much. The deadbeats hanging around the well all day, pinching the
women, get the same wages as the pious ones who worked from dawn.
The proprietor looks like a typical CEO, cheating his workers with
bait-and-switch promises of a days’ pay for a days’ work without
defining the length of the day or the rate. How fair or just is
that? It’s just like the old miscreant on his deathbed who
confesses Jesus as Lord, and the angels waft him to heaven.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote the book on Grace, says: “The essence of grace, we
suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it
has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. . . . Cheap grace
means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means
forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth . . . An intellectual
assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure
remission of sins. . . .” The key in Matthew’s parable is the
timing. God’s reward is paid as soon as the worker agrees to the
bargain. And what is the bargain? To be first? To be
last? Far from a position in line, the bargain – the Covenant –
is in Bonhoeffer’s words, true (costly) grace: “the Incarnation
of God.” When Paul says in Philippians 1:21, “For to me, living
is Christ and dying is gain,” he is talking about incarnation – taking
on the life and the purpose and the work that Jesus did. In
Paul’s experience, to die doing that work is deliverance.
Bonhoeffer’s “costly grace” is the radical abandonment of self-interest
so that the great work of distributive justice-compassion can continue,
and God’s Kingdom can come. The promised reward is deliverance
from injustice – whether we live or die.
The Elves have conveniently
abandoned the remainder of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Suddenly
we switch to Philippians for the time leading up to Advent and Year
B. Romans 15:4-13 was
cherry-picked for Advent in Year A. Romans 16:25-27 is
used peripherally on the fourth Sunday in Advent, Year B (stay tuned).
But despite the Elves’ mysterious work, Paul’s point still stands,
whether it is by polemic in Romans, or by pastoral in
Philippians. Like Matthew’s parable and Jonah’s tale, this is not
easy piety, nor is it a children’s story to be tossed off on a Sunday
morning. Paul is writing from prison, where the conditions were
primitive and horrific: so bad, that it is possible they made his
friend Epaphroditus ill to the point of threatening his life. We
don’t know what Paul did that landed him in jail, but we can safely bet
the rent that he wasn’t preaching about salvation from hell in the next
life, which poses no threat to Empire. Paul got into trouble for
the same reason Jesus did. Preaching deliverance from injustice
in this life calls into question everything that Empire does.
Radical abandonment of self-interest brings justice and life – the
presence of God. The joke – which Jonah resented, Jesus
knew, and Paul realized – is that the Covenant includes everybody and
anybody who is willing to sign on. Jonah only went to Ninevah
after his journey into death in the belly of the fish. But Jonah
didn’t die – he held onto his pious convention like a
three-year-old. He would rather hold his breath until he turns
blue than acknowledge that God cares more about saving 120,000 sinners
from injustice than one recalcitrant, self-righteous prophet.
Being willing to sign onto the Covenant and actually sticking to the
agreement are not the same, however, as Moses found to his chagrin, and
the Elves conveniently decline to include in the reading (Exodus 16:16-30). God
might deliver us from the shadow of death, but as soon as times get
dicey, we complain. God gives us manna from heaven – the perfect
food – and the only requirement is that we trust it will be
there. But we do not trust, we hoard – and find that what we have
hoarded has rotted overnight. Not only that, God provides enough
so that over the Sabbath – the holy day of rest – we do not need to go
out and gather food. But we do not trust that what was provided
will be enough, and we go out on the Sabbath to get more, and find none.
21st Century life is largely divorced from the natural rhythms of the
seasons and of the spirit of the land itself. Inhabitants of the
civilized world have a long history of setting ourselves apart from and
above that world. As a result, farmers – who should know better –
over-fertilize, over-graze, over-plant, play the markets, and rely on
chemical short-cuts for seeds, pest control, water supply.
Commodities such as silver, gold, copper, coal, and oil are all
exploited to the detriment of the Planet. “Mountaintop removal” –
also known as “strip mining” – destroys in a day what took the Planet
hundreds of millennia to create. “Surface mining” leaves slag piles in
the middle of farmland and suburban areas. All of these
activities are directly responsible for the decline in potable water
and breathable air, and contribute to climate change world-wide that
results in devastating storms, floods, droughts, fires, and mass
extinctions of diverse life forms.
Ninevah’s animals in sackcloth might be telling us that the
“Incarnation of God” is not confined to humanity. In this time of
harvest, Bonhoeffer’s “costly grace” means the radical abandonment of
self-interest toward all forms of life, including the non-human and (to
us) non-sentient inhabitants of Earth: "Costly grace" means
sustainable action; eco-justice.