“God sees the good…God transforms the bad.”

sermon recorded after live stream had technical difficulties. Text is below. 

There’s a theme in the readings today. 

A refrain that arises from the Israelites roaming in the desert and repeats itself in the Judean countryside where Jesus is traveling. 

We’re familiar with this theme, you and I, especially during this strange and unsettling time of pandemic and social unrest.

Do you hear it? I do, from my own mouth, as well as others.

It’s grumbling.

We’re not talking about the gentle murmuring of peevishness or irritability. The words in these stories from scripture speak of smoldering discontent.

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained…saying, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” The Israelites are disgruntled. 

And In our gospel reading, where Jesus is teaching about the kingdom of heaven, we hear the grumbling of resentment:

“When those hired late in the day came for their pay, each of them received the usual daily wage. So those who had worked all day thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they 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.’ The people grumbled.

It’s always nice when the lectionary readings play well together. We read the familiar story from Exodus, when the hungry and tired Israelites are looking back longingly, at their time in slavery. If nothing else, their wistful recalling of that horrible time reminds us that trudging through a hot and dry desert is NO picnic, even if it is the escape route from slavery.

The Lord hears their cry and gives them quail and manna to eat. God gives them simple and sustaining food, meat and bread,—with directions for eating. Quail we get; Manna, well we have this fascination with manna— the bible describes it as a wafer made from coriander seed and honey—and while it was life-saving, the truth is there is nothing luxurious about manna. It is basic bread. It is daily bread.

God’s instructions say this explicitly, “each day gather enough for that day and no more.” Manna is given each day for that day, and except on the day before the Sabbath, manna cannot be stowed away. Manna will rot if collected and stockpiled.

The story in Exodus goes on to tell us that stored manna becomes wormy and foul. God gave the Israelites manna to keep them alive, each day, to let them know God hears their struggles, and to teach them not to hoard.

So they ate manna. The leaders of Israel and their children. Those who work all day and those who just complain, they all get the same to eat. God gave the gift of manna to all of them, regardless of their contribution or status. Each and every person gets plenty; they all get their full.

When we hear Jesus tell his disciples the parable of the laborers many years later then, they should not be surprised to hear the kingdom of heaven likened to a place where the owner of the land is kind-hearted to each and every laborer.    The story of Exodus would have been engrained in Jesus’ disciples—this was their people’s story.

Yet, Jesus knew this story of the laborers would be hard for many to take. It riled the disciples asking Jesus about their own future, after all they’d done with Jesus. It riles us too, like the grumbling laborers who’d worked all day. This is not fair!We worked longer; we should receive more.

Their anger does not baffle us. They shout, “You have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the [whole] day!”

Their anger is deep—they want equal pay for equal work.

Jesus is teaching that God wants each and everyone to get a daily wage, a living wage. 

This is hard for us to hear, precisely because the landowner actually wasn’t unfair. He was straightforward: “It is my vineyard; my money; I am not paying anyone less than what was agreed.” Yet, we identify so easily with the daylong laborers’ feelings of jealousy in this parable.

Sadly, we see the inequity, too, more than we see the good that is done for those who worked only a little while and received a daily wage.

The landowner calls them out–the grumbling folks, and we have to cringe a bit too: He says, Are you envious, because I am generous?

If you ever read the KJV, you would have heard this line much differently— the KJV literally translates this line from the Greek that the gospel was written in. The landowner calls out those grumbling by saying, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” It’s a great line, one that will stop you in your tracks;

Jesus specifically contrasts evil and good. Is your eye evil because I am good? We need to look more closely at this–First there’s the evil.

We know what the evil eye is, we’ve heard about it in folklore for ages. There are people whose loyalties are unknown—perhaps to the devil? One with the evil eye could curse you with a sideways glance. The people in Jesus time had many beliefs in evil spirits and oaths to deities.

In first century anatomy, people understood the eye as the lamp of the body. Your eye created the light through which you see the world, or didn’t see it. Jesus is getting at something profound in telling this parable.

Yes, he is challenging us to admit that in our world, God’s generosity doesn’t make sense to us. We are too self-centered. But More importantly, I believe Jesus is saying: there are those who see evil when God sees good—and this is perilous.

Jesus is also saying, God is good. Is your eye evil, because I am good?.

There are those who’d like to call me out here, or call Jesus out. God is good? They’d name all the disasters in the world, the crime and poverty, racism, sexism, nationalism…all the isms, and ask how can this be? God is good.

We have to open our eyes to let the light in and see goodness,  dear Bishop Tutu reminds us, “Our God is an expert at dealing with chaos, with brokenness, with all the worst that we can imagine. God created order out of disorder, cosmos out of chaos, and God can do so always, can do so now — in our personal lives and in our lives as nations, globally. The most unlikely person, the most improbable situation — these are all ‘transfigurable’ — they can be turned into their glorious opposites. Indeed, God is transforming the world now — through us — because God loves us.”

Because God is good. God sees the good in the world just as starkly, as we see the bad. God entered the lives of slaves and sent them on a journey toward freedom. Freely giving them meat and manna to eat, no work required. Everyone has enough to eat, and no one has too much. God’s kingdom is one where everyone is invited to work together. Come anytime, everyone gets a living wage, everyone gets hired, no one gets paid any more than another, no one gets less.

It may not make sense to us, but friends, by keeping our eyes open, our hearts can be transformed. We’ll never be changed by crafting a sound and solid argument for our opinions.

We’ll never see clearly if we look sideways at goodness. We will be only transfigured by encountering God’s goodness. We can start by encountering the goodness given by those who rise to meet the needs of others.

This is goodness inspired and given by a generous God.

Thanks be to God.