A Reading from the Book of Exodus (16:2-15)
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “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.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” So 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 Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.” Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’” And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’” In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”
Psalm (105:1-6, 37-45)
1 Give thanks to the Lord and call upon his Name; *
make known his deeds among the peoples.
2 Sing to him, sing praises to him, *
and speak of all his marvelous works.
3 Glory in his holy Name; *
let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
4 Search for the Lord and his strength; *
continually seek his face.
5 Remember the marvels he has done, *
his wonders and the judgments of his mouth,
6 O offspring of Abraham his servant, *
O children of Jacob his chosen.
37 He led out his people with silver and gold; *
in all their tribes there was not one that stumbled.
38 Egypt was glad of their going, *
because they were afraid of them.
39 He spread out a cloud for a covering *
and a fire to give light in the night season.
40 They asked, and quails appeared, *
and he satisfied them with bread from heaven.
41 He opened the rock, and water flowed, *
so the river ran in the dry places.
42 For God remembered his holy word *
and Abraham his servant.
43 So he led forth his people with gladness, *
his chosen with shouts of joy.
44 He gave his people the lands of the nations, *
and they took the fruit of others’ toil,
45 That they might keep his statutes *
and observe his laws. Hallelujah!
A Reading from the Letter of Paul to the Philippians (1:21-30)
To me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again. Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. 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.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew (20:1-16)
Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they 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.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘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?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
Last Sunday, our first reading told the story of the Israelites passing through the waters of the Red Sea; and I shared with you a Midrash: a rabbinic expansion on the story. It envisioned that account from the perspective of the Egyptians and of the God who loves the Egyptians as well as the Israelites. I then talked about the importance of looking at situations and events and relationships from other perspectives, rather than just our own.
This morning’s readings seem to prompt a further exploration of that subject. But, instead of trying to view those events and relationships from the perspective of other human beings, they lift before our eyes a perspective that often contradicts that of the society in which we live: namely, the perspective of God.
Often, we take for granted the perspective of our own culture, and we tend to interpret stories and real-life situations in the light of that perspective. When, for example, we hear about God’s gift of the manna in the wilderness and envision the Israelites going out daily to collect it, I think that most of us picture people gathering enough to feed just themselves and their families. That’s very much in keeping with our culture, which often tends to be very individualistic. We are conditioned to take care of our own needs and those of our immediate family.
But the story of the manna, as the Book of Exodus tells it, focuses on God’s care for all the people. And, in the verses following today’s reading, God goes on to instruct the Israelites to care for all the people. God tells them to collect the manna, but to take only as much as each of them needs and to ensure that everyone in the entire people has the food that he or she needs, so that (Ex 16:18) “those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed.” In response to God’s gift, given to and for all, those who receive the gift need to focus on using what has been given to serve the needs of all, not just their own.
St. Paul, in our second reading, shows the same focus on the needs of all. Writing from prison with his own future in doubt, he gives his preference for the future; but he then asserts that the needs of the entire community outweigh his own personal desire.
That same focus on caring for everyone’s needs lies at the heart of Jesus’ parable in the gospel, as well. This story, which is sometimes referred to as “The Laborers in the Vineyard,” has been interpreted, at different times in history, in different ways. That’s really no surprise, since parables are not allegories. At least in their original form, they tend to be open to variety of interpretations. Some in the past, for example, who have wanted to portray the Christian faith as replacing Judaism, have interpreted those hired at the beginning of the day as Jews, and those hired late in the day as Christians, who receive the same reward even without the so-called “burden” of the Torah. Others commentators, in more recent times, who wanted to focus on current labor issues, have tried to make of the parable a story that condemns the oppression of day-laborers by their employers. The problem is that neither of these approaches would have even occurred to those who first heard Jesus telling this story. Such approaches tell us more about what the interpreter wants to hear than about what Jesus meant to say.
The parable, as Jesus would have posed it and as his audience would have heard it, would have come across as a description of God’s extravagant love and concern for all people and of God’s call for us to do the same – not in some abstract, spiritual sense, but in the practical ways that we relate to one another. It would have been heard as God’s call to us to form our actions, not in accordance with what we might think is “fair,” but in accordance with what God judges to be “just” or “the righteous way of acting.”
Toward the end of the story, the landowner, or “householder,” responds to his critics, who have worked the full day, by insisting “I have done you no injustice.” Notice that they don’t even argue the point. Justice is not at stake here (although we might want to protest that “we deserve more than they do because we worked more than they did.”). Instead, the emphasis is on how the landowner or householder went over and above what people might think was “fair” in order to do what, in God’s eyes, is right: ensuring that everyone had whatever he or she needed to live.
New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine, in commenting on this parable, points out that Jesus’ overall teaching was not mostly about how to live life after we die, but how to live life now. As she puts it (Short Stories by Jesus, p. 204), “To those who ask today, ‘Are you saved,’ Jesus might well respond, ‘The better question is, “Do your children have enough to eat?” or “Do you have shelter for the night?”’ This parable helps us to answer those more pressing, more visceral questions.” Then, concerning this story, she asks, “What if we saw it as about what God would have us do not to earn salvation, but to love our neighbor?” As much as we try to avoid it, as much as we attempt to “spiritualize” Jesus’ teaching, that is what his message was all about: loving our neighbor in very practical, down to earth ways.
In focusing on the needs of all, Jesus was completely in line with the entire teaching of the scriptures, including stories such as God’s gift of the manna and the people’s responsibility in receiving it. As Jesus pointed out, he did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets – all that had come before him – but to bring it to perfection.
What might it mean for us to follow the example of the landowner or householder in this parable? Might it mean that what we and our society consider to be “fair” is an inadequate standard on which to base our actions? Might it mean that we need to go above and beyond what we judge to be “fair” in striving to live the justice, the righteousness, of God, ensuring that all people have enough to eat, the basic health care that they need, a decent place to live? If those concerns were to form the basis of how we respond to the needs of others, we would be well on our way to following the example of the one who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45) and who entrusts to us the work of ensuring that all people have their daily bread.