The Economy of God’s Love – The Rev. Michelle Meech
September 24, 2023
This is a brilliant but maddening parable we have from Matthew’s Gospel today. It’s a metaphor, of course, for God’s mercy. God’s grace. God’s Love. Jesus is telling us what the Reign of God is like by helping us to understand the economy of God’s Love. And we come to understand that this economy is not transactional. It’s not about earning or being deserving in order to be the beneficiaries of God’s Love.
In the metaphor, the landowner is God. And there are people who love God so much that they come willingly to work with God. They willingly endure burdens and heat. Although, perhaps, not without some expectation or some sense of self-righteousness that is hidden just below the surface. They are long-suffering servants. One might call them “religious” people.
And Matthew has a problem with “religious people”. Remember that Matthew is writing his Gospel to a community who have been excommunicated by the religious people. Matthew’s community in Antioch, Syria is a mixed group of Jewish and Greek people who have come to believe that Jesus is the long-awaited messiah. And the Jewish people who do not believe in Jesus, have decided that Matthew’s people no longer belong as members of their synagogue.
So, we have these long-suffering servants, these religious people, who come on time to begin their workday. Then, God’s spirit moves and calls more people to the vineyard – at 9am, at noon, at 3pm… and even at 5pm.
After a day’s work is done, the workers are instructed to line up starting with the most recently arrived. And they are given the day’s wage. They are given their daily bread – all that they need. The same happens with those who arrived at 3pm. And with those who arrived at noon. And with those who arrived at 9am.
And then, the long suffering servants, the ones who started in the early morning hours. They have been at the back of the line watching all this unfold. When it’s their turn, they receive the same as those who arrived only an hour earlier. These are the people who have been good. Attentive to their duties. They have earned this wage and they are questioning whether everyone ahead of them in line are as deserving as they are.
It’s almost as if you can hear them say, “But wait… you are not acknowledging any difference between me and that person. I have been attentive. I have followed the rules. I have done what’s expected. I have showed up on time and carried burdens for you. And now, you are saying that I’m no better than someone who is just off the street? Some newcomer? Someone who hasn’t suffered and, as a matter of fact, is causing my suffering?”
The response of God, the response of the landowner, is a bit of a comeuppance.
“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?”
I think the word “envious” here is instructive certainly. There is a certain envy of those who only needed to work a fraction of the day to get the same wage. But I think the better word here is resentment.
After all, it’s galling to see someone do well who, we believe, doesn’t deserve to do well. It’s maddening to be treated the same as those who, we believe, don’t deserve as much as we do. It’s infuriating, exasperating, frustrating.
Perhaps you’ve been in a situation like this. Most likely, you have. We can come to resent people who don’t get what we think they deserve. We may resent the situation. And we certainly resent the landowner for not treating us better than those who don’t deserve the respect that we do.
Resentment. It’s one of the worst poisons out there. And it will eat us up faster than anything else. It’s defined as “bitter indignation at having been treated unfairly.”
I go to a 12-step meeting for eating disorders because sugar, rather than drugs or alcohol, is my choice for dealing with difficult situations. I honestly never understood the attraction to whiskey when a donut or 3 will keep me on an even keel.
And resentment is a big part of the 12-step program. It has to do with step 4: the “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” The first time I encountered this step 4, I did what my sponsor asked of me, which was to name my resentments. That was, honestly, quite easy.
I could name family members. I could name institutions. I could name governments. I could name friends. Teachers from jr high and from seminary… oh, I have a good story there for you. I just told it to Ana the other night! I could name ideas that I resented. Systems. Politicians. It was not hard to name resentments.
The problem came when she asked me to, in all of these instances where I held resentment, she asked me to name where I had taken part in the situation. To name where I held some of the blame. She never said the other people were not to blame. But she said that I had a played an active role in all my resentments.
This did not go over well with me. At first. And, if I’m honest, still doesn’t on some days. I mean, when I have been treated unfairly it’s my right to be indignant. What part would I have played in these situations? I’m just the victim.
But the truth is, I did participate in my own resentments. I still do participate in some of them. If for no other reason than, I’m holding on to them.
And there I am. There we are. In line for God’s grace. Just like the long-suffering servants were, I am at the back of the line, because that’s where long-suffering people always choose to stand – waiting and watching for some kind of justification for our resentment. What we don’t see, what are choosing not to be aware of, is that we are putting our resentments ahead of ourselves and, in so doing, becoming more bitter.
Over the past couple of weeks, the readings from Matthew’s Gospel have been providing some difficult lessons. First, it was being honest with people who hurt us and forgiving them. And then, being prepared to forgive, not 7 times, but 77 times, an infinite number of times in other words. And today, we have this parable about resentment.
Resentment is one of the things that tears community apart. Why? Because when we are resentful, all the people, all the situations, all the things we resent… live rent free right here in our psyche. The story we know so well, the one we tell over and over about that time when someone did something to us as if that is the only thing that defines us. And we put this part of ourselves that holds onto this story right up front. Our resentments come first.
These stories take up so much space in our mind that we have no room for ourselves. No room for the people who love us. No room for new possibilities. No room for our own growth. No room for a new experience of the person who created the resentment in the first place. What is the story you’re holding onto?
In these stories, in other words, there is no room for God. Unless God does our bidding and punishes those we resent. But that’s not God because God is about liberation. It’s not liberation to rejoice in another’s pain. Not ever. That’s just our self-righteous resentment taking up space and keeping us bound. Resentment tears community apart because it keeps us frozen in time.
The invitation we have, then, the invitation to come to the vineyard, is to forgive. To let go. To release ourselves from the bondage of whatever it is that keeps us feeling self-righteous, whatever keeps locked in resentment. To let go by owning our part in our own resentments. Not an easy task but one that is so deeply liberating, we would never have imagined it.
So, yes, this is about forgiveness. Again. But we don’t forgive for the sake of the person we resent. I mean, sometimes someone really does need our forgiveness. But really, we forgive for the sake of our own salvation. Because when we have released ourselves from our own resentment, we discover Christ’s peace. We experience the liberation of God’s Love. We live into the Reign of God that has been right there just waiting for us all along.
And when that happens, suddenly, we realize that we are the ones who have been late to the vineyard this whole time. And we rejoice in the goodness of God who loves us so much and has been patiently waiting for us to see the truth.
This is how God’s economy works. This is how the Reign of God has always worked. We are so much more than our moments of pain – these things about us and about others that we tend to put first and foremost in our minds.
God’s Reign of Love is so wild, so unhinged, so astounding, so boundless, so wide and free and generous, so lavish and untamed and rowdy. God’s Reign of Love is so far beyond our comprehension. And the human error, the original sin, if there was one, is only that we cannot imagine that we deserve it simply because we breathe.
We are made in the very image of God – whole, beloved, beautiful, and infinite. This is the truth about who we are. And who we were always created to be. Living into the Reign of God: Not a holding on, but a release. Releasing ourselves from our own resentment. Discovering Christ’s peace. Experiencing genuine liberation from all the resentments that we have put in front of ourselves.
The last will be first and the first will be last. This is the economy of God’s Love.