Harvest – Year A Proper 20

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 ARomans 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.