The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Reflection – Chanthip Phongkhamsavath

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

September 20, 2020

Good morning. After last week and the beginning of this week spent mostly indoors, I will say it has been a blessing to be able to open up some windows and take a deep breath. A much-needed deep breath it felt…to clear my mind…and to find something different which I hadn’t pieced together before in today’s readings.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard the passage from Exodus or of the laborers and the landowner, however I struggled with it a little more then I feel like I have in the past. Maybe because it hasn’t been so long ago that we woke up to a red and orange sky – a day filled with eerie darkness. A day that seems like it could be a journey in a different type of wilderness, although I was blessed to spend it inside there were many laborers who were not. I cannot seem to get the image of the farmworkers harvesting outdoors set against the orange sky out of my head. And I wonder if they complained to the landowners for having them work that day.

My natural inclination in the readings was to see the complaining.  In Exodus, “Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the LORD who brought you  out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your complaining against the LORD. For what are we, that you complain against us?”

And in Matthew’s Gospel, the laborers grumbled against the landowner.

It seems fair on both accounts given the immediate situation at hand.  However, in both readings there was something else that was present, yet was a little harder to initially grasp, because it was not for me the easiest to relate to right away – and that’s the generosity. When the people complained to Moses, the Lord responded with a bit of a test through providing food. However, it is a generous test, one that gives nourishment first not requiring the Israelites to past their test before being rewarded.

And the Landowner’s response to the grumbling laborers who have worked a full day, “‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’”

I think the very human response of wanting fairness created my resistance to the portion of that reading that is also accurate – as I imagine the laborers and the different hours that were worked I am envious – initially envious of what seems like those who only had to work shorter hours – yet what I began to realize was I am more envious of the generosity.

I know that I am capable of generosity, however I wonder if I am capable of the type of generosity that is in the readings today. After bringing the Israelites out of Egypt, it seems the Lord has to continue to show them through the bread how blessed they continue to be.  And in the reading from Matthew, Jesus through the parable notes the generosity of the landowner – God’s generosity.

And that is where in our current day, it is sometimes hard to believe in that type of generosity. Someone willing to give a day’s wage for anyone they come upon willing to work. It makes it harder considering, just a week ago, the headlines of a Time’s article read, “The Top 1% of Americans Have Taken $50 Trillion From the Bottom 90%—And That’s Made the U.S. Less Secure.” That was just one article, there were numerous others that highlighted how COVID-19 has further exacerbated the wealth gap across the country. It amazes me to think of how wide of a gap that is in the world, the U.S. and even in just the Bay Area alone.

It makes me want to take from the top one percent and redistribute it – it makes me want to complain about how unfair things are. Except what would I do if I were in that top one percent – what would you do?  Would you be willing to be generous with what you have?  Would you be willing to give someone you hired the same amount for working just one hour versus someone who worked all day? Especially if you also had family and others you cared about and wanted to ensure were taken care of?

Except this is a parable and in the Kingdom of Heaven I don’t think its wages that are being given out. It can be very easy for me to be stuck in the literal, in hours worked and comparisons of hours in a day. That is the limitation that I feel like I need to be reminded to push past, to get out of thinking about how I would feel as the complainer – and remember instead what is being offered.  And it is being offered to all who are willing to receive it and there is no limit.

An opportunity for the work that I and we put in to be part of a greater whole, to benefit from God’s generosity. The generosity does not make any of us worst off, it only makes us all better off. Because for each of the laborers, if I imagine what happens next, each one is able to take that wage and go home – to hopefully purchase dinner for themselves and their families. And because of the generosity of the landowner more are nourished, and in a literal sense are not starving. So why would I not want the landowner to continue to seek others willing to put in as much work as they can when they are found, for in the end the more who are willing to work, I would hope the work lessens – maybe just a little.

Work though, even if there are many to help in finishing a task, is still work.  And even though it is Sunday, it is a different type of work that we do together. The work that tries to understand the extent of the struggle in not being perfect, in not being envious of our neighbors, of wanting more than maybe what we have – and recognizing the salvation and grace offered to us.  It is a generous offer, despite our imperfections or because of it and our work to follow Jesus’ teachings, that we are given God’s love.

There is a portion in the second reading from Philippians which I think encapsulates it, “And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well– since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.”  I would say it is not suffering but rather the work that we are asked to do, in order to recognize and receive the generosity of God’s love and to practice it with others. The most rewarding things often come when there has been some hard work and struggle put in, so let us do this work together and appreciate the generosity of our Lord and Savior.