“Divine 311”

Ex 13/Mt 20

 

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

New York City not only has a phone number you can call in an emergency: 911. It also has a number that you can call with complaints that aren’t life-or-death but still merit the attention of our municipal government.

For example, New Yorkers can call 311 if a streetlight in their neighborhood has gone out, or their landlord hasn’t turned on the heat in the winter.

Now the ancient people of Israel seem to have thought that they had their own 311-line that ran directly to God in today’s Old Testament Lesson.

The people of Israel are wandering in the Sinai Desert as a punishment for their earlier disobedience. While they’re not starving, they fear they aren’t going to find enough food in their barren surroundings.

So the text refers seven times in fourteen verses to the Israelites’ “complaining.” They protest that they would have been better off if they had remained as slaves in Egypt; then, at least, they had plenty of food.

Complaining also is a prominent feature of today’s Gospel. Jesus tells a story about a landowner who hired day laborers to work in his vineyard. On three occasions later in the day—at noon, and at three o’clock, and at five o’clock—the landowner took on other laborers.

All went well until the workday ended and it was time to pay the various groups of workers. Jesus says, “When the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage…”

Jesus goes on: “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 the landlord replied to 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?’”

In the parable, the landlord represents God. The first laborers are probably meant to signify the Hebrew people and their ancient faith, while the workers who start later symbolize Gentiles who are coming to God through the teachings of Jesus.

But while the lessons are similar in that they both concern complaints directed to God, the complaints get different responses. The hungry people of Israel receive manna to feed them during their wandering in the wilderness.

The first day laborers, by contrast, don’t get the additional money that they ask for. They must be content with the wages that they originally agreed to–even though they are receiving the same pay as the later workers who didn’t bear “the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”

Taken together, the stories give us insights into the process of asking God for things. The first insight isn’t exactly a surprise: sometimes God responds to our complaints and sometimes he doesn’t!

While, the Hebrews’ request was granted; the laborers’ claim was denied. Sometimes, God gives us what we want; sometimes, he doesn’t.

A second insight: often, our complaints are relative. Notice that the laborers who started the day early had no moral ground for complaint because they received exactly what they bargained for. They just wished they had only worked a few hours like the other workers.

We who live in a rich country often are stressed because we don’t have as much as others—even though in absolute terms, we have enough!

Third, both lessons remind us that everything is a gift from God. This is most obvious in the Old Testament lesson, where the manna bread arrives miraculously from the sky.

But there are other reminders of God’s abundant gifts. Anyone who grows flowers or vegetables from tiny seeds will see the natural power of Creation.

Fourth, Christ’s story recalls one of the deepest of all spiritual truths: because God is God—the sovereign, omniscient, all-powerful ruler of the universe—Because God is God, he is perfectly free to reward whom he pleases, as he pleases. As the landowner says in the parable: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”

This is a hard lesson to learn, and even if we learn it once, we’ll probably need to relearn it again! I decide what I can do, I work hard to do it – so, I naturally expect that I should get a bigger reward for my labors than someone who didn’t work so hard.

God ought to recognize that and act accordingly! Yet, of course, whether we like it or not, God will do what he chooses with what belongs to him.

The fifth and final lesson I would draw from these texts comes from a comment from the landowner about the real motives of the complaining laborers. He asks them, “Are you envious because I am generous?”

This applies to all of us, whether we are employed or not. We can all wish that gifts others have received went to us.

I have a friend who is a few years older than I am. He’s semi-retired after a successful career. He has plenty of money, a loving wife and six adoring children, all of them successful, all with wonderful spouses and children of their own.

This man is my friend. He is one of the nicest, most amusing, well-read people you could meet. He is welcome to all his blessings!

And yet I envy him… And I don’t see why he has such good fortune while other people have so much less? What has he done to deserve it?

Now when I ask questions like these, I am of course complaining! And both Bible readings suggest that complaints are part of the religious landscape.

But I also have to remember the other insights to be gained from these lessons. In particular: that whether we have to work long hours or we are born with silver spoons in our mouths—whatever our circumstances, there are times when complaining does no good.

These times, instead of questioning God, we are better advised to play the hand we’re dealt.

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.


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