(Matthew 20: 1-16)
In the scripture reading we see these early morning vineyard workers envious of their less hard-working colleagues who receive equal treatment. “It’s not fair,” they cry out. And to be honest, it isn’t.
I spent the last weekend in Washington, D.C. with my sister and her family, their children are 5 and 8 years old. I spent about one half of my time playing with the children settling disputes about what was fair and what was not fair. Why does Shea get to watch a TV show and I don’t, why does Shepard get to drink juice with dinner and I don’t? He has more than me, she has it easier than me. It goes on and on and on.
I’m sure any parents, teachers, aunties, or uncles can find lodged in their memory lots of settling of disputes on fairness among siblings. As we grow older, we whine a bit less than 5 and 8 year olds do and we learn better how to mask these feelings of jealousy, covetousness, or envy. We stop screaming about it to a parent, and we probably throw less temper tantrums about it, but the feelings of jealousy never go completely away.
The questions of why someone has life easier than you do, why someone has more than you do, why someone who hasn’t worked as hard deserves the same kind of treatment, why someone who hasn’t earned their keep has received what they have, so on and so forth.
Let me share with you another story. This story comes from ancient Jewish tradition and speaks to these feelings I am talking about. Why do others get more, why do I work hard and they don’t. Why do they have more than I do, and can I even enjoy what I have, if they have more. Feelings of envy.
Here is the story:
There was a farmer in Poland whose family had been poor for generations. One night the poor farmer was awakened by an angel, who told him that he had found favor in the eyes of God, and God wished to less him. Make three requests, the angel said, and God will be pleased to answer. There was only one caveat (there’s always a catch in stories like this): the farmer’s next-door neighbor would get a double portion of everything he wished for himself. The farmer woke his wife up to tell her news. A practical woman, she suggested they give it a try. So they prayed, “Blessed God, if we could just have a herd of a thousand cattle, we could break out of this poverty. Amen.”
No sooner had they prayed these words that they heard the sound of cattle mooing outside their window. Their hut was surrounded by a thousand magnificent animals. Over the next days, the farmer’s feet hardly touched the ground, so overjoyed he was with his blessing. He divided his time between praising God and making practical provision for this newfound affluence. On the third day of his prosperity, he was standing on a hill where he had decided to build a new barn. He looked across the valley at his neighbor’s land, and saw on that far hillside a herd of two thousand cattle. For the first time in three days, the joy in his heart shriveled. He went home in a cranky mood and barely slept that night. All he could think of was his neighbor’s entirely undeserved blessing, and twice the size of his.
Deep in the night, he remembered that the angel had promised three wishes.
With that the old joy came back. He dug deep into himself and inquired what would bring him more joy than anything else.
He prayed, “Dear God, if it pleases you, give me a child that I may have descendants to carry on my name. Amen.” He was hardly surprised when his wife announced a few months later that she was expecting. The days that followed were ones of boundless happiness. The farmer was busy enjoying his affluence and looking forward to fatherhood. He was euphoric the night his child was born. The next Sabbath, he went to synagogue and gave thanks to God for the blessing of his newborn child. He had hardly sat down, however, when his next door neighbor rose to pray, “God has indeed been good,” the neighbor prayed, “for this very night, I became the father of twins.”
Our first farmer’s mood darkened yet again. The joy he found in his blessings were somehow compromised by his neighbor’s double portion. Well, that night, his mood waxed even darker. Then he remembered that he had yet one more request. The story says that he then offered his third prayer: “God, please make me blind in one eye.” No sooner had he spat the bitter words from his mouth that the angel appeared and asked him “Why, child, have you turned blessing into resentment? This request God will not grant, because God is full of mercy. Know only this, not only have you brought sorrow to yourself, but you have brought sorrow to the very heart of God.”
It’s the same feeling the workers in the vineyard had in the text that Sarah Emily just so beautifully read for us. The scripture she read for us comes in the midst of the apocalyptic discourse in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus begins sharing with the disciples what the Kingdom of heaven will look like. What we come to find out in Jesus’ parable is that the kingdom of heaven is not very fair.
Blessings and gifts from God are given in abundance, not in accordance to what is earned. And this is not fair, and it is not the kind of thing that makes sense to us. Why should someone get something they didn’t work for? Why should I not get more? Why should they get what I worked for? But that way of life, where everything is given according to ability or work, that is not what the kingdom of heaven is like Jesus tells us.
The kingdom of heaven is a place where all are given abundantly, where all receive blessing, where generosity abounds. And yet, we humans just can’t totally wrap our heads around this.
Tom Long describes this perfectly when he comments on this scripture, he writes, “God gives everyone a daily wage so extravagant that no one could ever spend it all. A deluge of grace descends on all; torrents of blessing fall everywhere. And here these first hour workers stand, drenched in God’s mercy, an ocean of peace running down their faces, clutching their little contracts and whining that they deserve more rain.”
The crux of our sermon.
Envy and jealousy of our neighbors leads to anxiety and sadness. Comparing ourselves to others is a ruthless task. Wanting after the possessions or lives of others makes us feel sadness and emptiness. It is not where we want to be. It is my presumption that this is how the workers in the vineyard felt too, feelings of envy bubbled up in them, jealousy at the undeserved blessing the late hour workers received. Crying out about what is fair and what is not fair, there is no doubt that is not an enjoyable way to live life.
The question “are you prepared to die to envy?” may be better replaced with the question, “do we know how to die to envy?” It is my suspicion that we all would like to die to envy, to let go of feelings of jealousy, but it is often just not that easy. Envy is this thing that bubbles up inside of us from deep inside, some place we’ve never discovered. They call it the green monster for a reason, a monster that comes from nowhere and attacks us and those around us.
Is there a way out of this life? Is there a way to not let these feelings of envy conquer the way we think of those around us – our neighbors, our colleagues, those less fortunate than us, those more fortunate than us? These feelings of jealousy, this need to be better than our neighbors to have more than our colleagues, this need to have life better than our friends, this need to have worked harder than everyone for what you get, this desire to compare who has what and how they got it? Is there a way to let go of who deserves what? How do we get out of this desperate feeling? Is there a way out?
Well, I don’t think there is a magic pill or a special switch that I, or you, can flip. But I do believe there is an answer. I do believe there is a way to live life away from jealousy and envy. I do believe there is a different life that is possible.
And the answer to it simply couldn’t be more exactly what you think the preacher would say. The way out of this life is to live into our lives more deeply with God. To let go of envy and jealousy, we must look toward our life with God with gratitude, to let go of envy, I think we must live into gratitude.
I don’t mean simply putting on rose colored glasses and being grateful for every single moment and every ounce of life. I don’t mean to simplify this by calling us to put on an “attitude of gratitude.”
No, rather, I believe that to move from envy, to move from this life of comparing, calculating, and jealousy, we ought to look at our lives instead as a gift from God. To recognize life as a gift that we live out with God. To see ourselves as those farmers standing drenched in God’s mercy, soaking wet with love and blessings, grace and relationships, and to look to God and say thank you for the rain, thank you for raining on me and thank you for raining on my neighbors, on my colleagues, on my friends, on the guy down the street. Thank you God for pouring down these abundant blessings.
Craig Barnes, President of Princeton Theological Seminary, writes in his book When God Interrupts a section at the end on the doxology. The doxology is the piece of ancient liturgy we sing as the offering plate is brought forward. Congregations across the world sing this with us, praise God from whom all blessings flow. Dr. Barnes writes,
“Do we really believe that all blessings flow from God? As the ushers hold the offerings of the people before God, someone has to be thinking, ‘praise GOD? I have worked myself to a frazzle to get that money I’m giving to the church.’ But if we think the money we put in that plate was ours to give, we have missed the point of worship. All of life comes as a blessing from God….Either we believe life is something that must be achieved or we believe life is something that can only be received. Once we start seeing this choice in the Bible, we find it on almost every page. Is God the creator, or are we? Is Jesus the savior, or are we? Does the Holy Spirit give wisdom, or are we smart enough on our own? We’ve got to choose. The Bible cautions us to choose carefully.”
So, if we change the question to this sermon, “are you prepared to die to envy?” knowing that we all most likely want to die to envy, we don’t want to live life with envy. Then, we must turn the question to us, “Can we see ourselves not as achievers of life, but instead receivers of life?” Are we willing to turn our minds from self-achievement, comparisons, calculations, and turn instead to a life filled with gratitude?
Not simply saying thank you for everything, not just noticing all of life’s blessings, certainly that. But also knowing that each and every blessing comes from God, the lives we live, the relationships we have, the homes we live in, the jobs we occupy, the energy we have, each of these is a gift from God. Recognizing that this life we have is not something we achieve but a gift.
I think that might change the way we look at our neighbor’s blessings. Thank you God for blessing me and thank you God for blessing them, for all of these gifts are from you. Praise be to God.
In the name of God our creator, our sustainer, and our redeemer. Amen.