Sermon: "May We Not Be Anxious"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Exodus 16.2-15; Psalm 105.1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1.21-30; Matthew 20.1-16
Let us consider the context of today’s gospel reading at some length. Two weeks ago (in Matthew 18) Jesus was teaching the disciples how they should react when someone in the ekklesia (the church) sinned against them. We noted Jesus’ real concern was maintaining the sacredness of Christian community through reconciliation. The emphasis was on the method to be used in bringing one to the place where they would seek forgiveness.
As noted last week, Peter then asked Jesus how many times he should forgive if another sinned against him – seven times? While rabbinic tradition stipulated four times, Jesus told Peter seventy-seven times (or seventy-times seven, depending on the translation). I.e., forgiveness is to be unlimited! To make this point, Jesus told the parable of the unforgiving servant: “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves” (Matthew 18.23; NRSV). As you may recall, the slave who was forgiven the exorbitant debt of 10,000 talents then refused to forgive another slave who owed him 100 denarii. When the king heard of this, he summoned him and said, “‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18.32-35; NRSV). In that God has been merciful and extended grace to us, we are to be merciful and extend grace to others.
In Matthew 19 we encounter the story of the rich young man who asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. At the end of this story, Jesus told him if he wished to be perfect, to go and sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, then come and follow him. The account closes with these words: “When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (Matthew 19.22; NRSV). Jesus then told his disciples it would be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. They asked Jesus who then could be saved, and Jesus said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Matthew 19.26; NRSV). It is impossible for us, for we cannot affect our own salvation. Salvation is a gift of God’s mercy and grace. In economic terms, God does not owe us eternal life on account of our labors.
Peter then asked, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” In effect, Peter said, “Unlike the rich young man, we have already given up everything – what’s in store for us?” Jesus responded,
“At the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (Matthew 19.27-30; NRSV).
To reinforce this point, Jesus told the story of the laborers in the vineyard.
As noted, Jesus began the parable of the unforgiving servant as follows: “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.” The parable of the laborers in the vineyard begins in similar fashion: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard” (Matthew 20.1; NRSV). The landowner agreed to pay the usual daily wage. At nine o’clock, the landowner observed others idle in the marketplace and hired them, telling them he would pay them what is right. He did the same at noon, at three o’clock, and as late as five o’clock! At the end of the day, the landowner told his manager to make payment, beginning with the last hired and working backward to the first hired. Those who began work at five o’clock received the usual daily wage; so too for those called at three o’clock, at noon, at nine o’clock. But when those hired at the start of the day came, they expected to receive more, yet they were paid the same daily wage. I think most of us would find their expectation to be reasonable!
So those hired first “grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat’
(Matthew 20.11-12; NRSV). The landowner replied, “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?” Then Jesus concluded the parable by saying, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20.13-15; NRSV).
Emerson Powery, a biblical scholar, suggests an alternative translation of the phrase “Are you envious because I am generous?” might shed some insight:
The landowner’s question … is the translation of a Greek idiom which literally translates as “Is your eye evil because I am good?” An “evil eye” suggested a deeper problem … As Jesus taught earlier, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is unhealthy … if you have the evil eye … your whole body will be full of darkness” … In this account, the ‘evil eye’ was the opposite of generosity (e.g., jealousy, greed, stinginess, etc.)” (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2157 .
What lessons can we draw from our consideration of these parables and their larger context? I am sure we could draw several but permit me to focus on three.
First, and perhaps most important, Jesus is revealing the role of grace. Grace is a significant feature of the kingdom of heaven. We see grace in the king’s forgiveness of the slave who owed an exorbitant debt – as do all! We see grace in the landowner’s payment to the workers of the vineyard. We are called to work for reconciliation with those who sin against us and to extend grace to them. As Christians, we are at work in the vineyard of the Lord, and all of us, no matter how long we labor receive the same reward – eternal life. Notice that the landowner, with the exception of those hired in the early morning, did not pay each worker what he had earned (our usual, reasonable, and customary expectation). The landowner’s generosity is seen in his extension of grace.
Second, work in God’s vineyard should not be done for the sake of reward. Our work should be pure gift given out of our love of God, our love of neighbor, and the desire to see God’s kingdom more fully established. There is danger associated with thinking in terms of reward; we may have the evil eye and be preoccupied with what we can amass for ourselves. Ron Rolheiser comments on the concern for reward as follows:
Remember to whom those words are being addressed: Jesus is addressing Peter … and, in effect, through this parable, is addressing all good people who are morally and religiously bearing the heat of the day. And Jesus is assuring us that we will be rewarded richly for doing this. But, as the parable makes clear, there’s a catch: simply put, we will be rewarded with heaven and it will be wonderful; but, and this is the catch, we can have everything and enjoy nothing because we are watching what everyone else is getting! (https://liturgy.slu.edu/25OrdA092020/reflections_rolheiser.html )
This parable serves as a warning to Peter, the disciples, and to us. If we work with the expectation of reward, we are last in the kingdom of heaven; those who work out of love are first.
Third, if we are not careful, we can be like the rich young man who was possessed by his possessions. He could not give up his wealth and follow Jesus. Although he observed the law, the commandments, wealth still occupied first place in his life. Jesus knew that and told him exactly what he needed to hear. Sadly, he denied himself God’s grace.
This reminds me of Jonah 2.8: “Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them” (NIV). Alternatively, “Those who cling to worthless idols deny themselves the grace of God.” As today’s collect reminds us, may we not be anxious about earthly things, but love things heavenly, and might I add, love them for the right reasons.