The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
In the name of the living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
If I were to invite you to name your favorite parable, what would it be? And if you like me have a lot of favorites, okay. What are your two or three favorite parables? Even though I can’t see it, in my mind’s eye, I can sort of picture our YouTube live chat, quickly, getting populated by parables. And that’s a great thing. And even though I can’t see them, I can imagine some of the answers, the Good Samaritan, or maybe the prodigal son, maybe the mustard seed, or the sower. I can also imagine some that maybe aren’t at the top of your list. Take, for example, the parable the last time I preached – the one about the wheat in the weeds. You remember it – the closing image is that of the eternal fire in the furnace and the weeping and gnashing of teeth. Perhaps today’s parable. The laborers in the vineyard may not have been at the is, is top of your list, but that’s okay, because I would posit the view that the message in the parable today is as relevant in Jesus’ teaching to his disciples 2000 years ago, as it is to you and I today. And I’m going to invite you to join me in delving more deeply into what Jesus was saying and continues to say. We know that parables were one of Jesus’ favorite forms of teaching. For the next three Sundays, there are going to be parables. And so, what might we look at when considering these stories?
As we look at today’s parable, I’m indebted to the scholarship of Jewish New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine, whose wonderful book, Short Stories by Jesus, helps to open these things up for all of us. She makes the point that we might be better off thinking less about what they mean and more about what they do to remind, to provoke, to refine, to cause us to look at things in a slightly different way. She also says the parables, if we take them seriously, not as answers, but as invitations, can continue to inform our lives as our lives continue to open us to the parables in new readings, and I would submit in new understandings. So let’s look at today’s parable. One of the first clues for us in understanding the parable is the way it begins. Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like, so we know from the very beginning, Jesus is not articulating the world as it currently existed, but more about the world as God intended to be. And we know looking at that parable, that it turns our notions of what’s right, and what’s fair upside down. I mean, let’s face it. Anyone overseeing an MBA program would not lift up that parable as a model case study on how to implement a cost-basis analysis. That’s not what it’s about.
Kingdom economics are different than Wall Street economics. Moving on in the story, the landowner hires the first round of laborers who were day laborers. They were dependent on work each day to have the resources to feed and sustain their family. A denarius was a typical day’s wage for that work, which for laborers in the field would have begun at six in the morning and concluded at six in the evening. And a denarius was not generous, but enough for them to take care of their family. The landowner continues to go out to hire more laborers. And he says that he will pay them whatever is right. The Greek translation is closer to whatever is just, whatever is proper. And the Hebrew root underneath that is about justice and righteousness and charity. And that begins to give us a view of what’s going on in the story. Then at five o’clock, he goes, once again. Now you can only imagine if the laborers have been waiting for work all day long, in order to feed their family, what they must have been going through in the last hour of the working day, and not being hired. When the text reads “standing idly”, it basically means literally without work. The fact that they’re still waiting means they’re still hoping. They’re still hoping that someone might hire them and they’re willing to accept whatever that person would be willing to pay, because something is better than nothing.
You see, the kingdom of heaven is about God’s economics, not Wall Street’s. And I don’t know about you, in terms of the larger lesson for our time in 2020, but so far 2020 is not looking much like the kingdom of heaven to me. This weekend, we mark the grim milestone of 200,000 lives lost to COVID-19. 200,000. We know that in the peak of this pandemic, the unemployment rate has never been higher since the Great Depression. We know that millions of people have lost their jobs and lost their ability to provide for themselves and for their families.
It’s been a particularly hard week in our country, as the hurricanes have assaulted the South and the wild fires have run rampant in the West. And if that’s not bad enough on Friday as the sun was setting in Rosh Hashana was dawning, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. Much like the landowner, that teaching in the Torah of justice and righteousness, Justice Ginsburg lived her life learning that teaching. Throughout her life, she was dedicated to giving a voice to so many, who for so long had no voice, particularly as a woman. Now on behalf of a very grateful nation, I say, thank you. Exceedingly well done, good and faithful servant.
And in this year, 2020, many other things have been laid to bare. Two weeks ago in the New York Times Sunday magazine, the title was America at Hunger’s Edge. The cover photo was what first caught my attention and what continues to haunt me. The cover photo is of a four-year-old named Sonia Rodriguez who was sitting cross late and barefoot on the floor, cradling a loaf of bread. In the photo journalism article that unfolds in the magazine, we see the work of a photo journalist who over the course of three months traveled across the country, beginning in New York and ending in San Diego, taking photos of what’s going on in our country. The article states that nearly one in eight adults say that in this time they don’t have enough food to feed their families. And part of what it lays bare is what’s been hidden in plain sight – that millions of Americans struggle to put food on the table.
Sonia Rodriquez’s mother is disabled. She receives $900 a month in disability benefits. And for her mother, and for Sonia and her two brothers, she doesn’t always make it to the end of the month. And the photo captures a loaf of bread and some other provisions that the Salvation Army provided. The story tells us that Sonia and her brothers said to her mother how excited they were, because at least that night, they would not go to sleep hungry with no food in their tummies. Where do we look for hope and our call in the midst of that?
Where is God’s economics coming to bear in these times that we’re in? The truth is, as I look across the country and the notes that we receive from so many of us, I see the hope and I see the answers. Today’s parable is all about loving God and loving our neighbor. And part of that is sharing what we’ve been given. We’ve seen how so many of you are helping to stock food banks across this country. How so many places of worship, including this Cathedral, have had food drives, helping to meet the needs of our neighbor. You inspire me. The message this morning is we can’t stop. There’s more for us to do. Deuteronomy 15:11 says that there will never cease to be those in need. And that God commands us to open our hands to the poor and needy in our land. We’ve had challenging times before and we’ve done it, we’ve gotten through it by loving God and loving our neighbor and doing it together. A little over 50 years ago in this pulpit, and in another really challenging time in our country, The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that we are tied together in the single garment of destiny and what affects one directly affects all indirectly. It was true then. It was true and remains true today. Together, my friends, we can do this. Loving God and loving our neighbor. My prayer for you and for me in this time is that when generations after us look back, they will see how we met the moment – loving God, loving our neighbor. Together, we can do this and we must. Amen.