Have you ever noticed that the Protestant work ethic makes life hard. It means all of those shortcuts and life hacks feel like cheating. Hard work is morally superior to the easy way in our history and in much of our culture.
I felt this lesson acutely when Matt and I moved into his parent’s old house in what used to be a farming community. Along with a basement and barn full of other people’s frugality (read junk), I was also inheriting a way of life that was very different than the small town life I grew up in. It’s the work ethic on steroids. The rule seemed to be the harder you worked at something, the better it was.
For example, homemade ALWAYS trumps store bought. A grocery store cake for a birthday is an abomination. If you truly love your child, you bake the cake from scratch. To me that meant a box, but no, baking from scratch means really baking from scratch with things like flour, sugar and cocoa. If you can find a way to mention how you were able grow and grind the wheat for flour yourself that was even better. (Hipster cooks take note, you are not the first).
Home repairs are done by homeowners, not contractors. Digging up water lines, replacing the roof, building an addition are to be done by the homeowner. One neighbor jackhammered the concrete floor in his basement and carried it out the door, two buckets at a time.
The idea of working hard and earning our keep is ingrained in our American experience. I think all of us know what I’m talking about. We call it making a living.
And so when we read the gospel story about all of those workers and their payment we can totally understand what’s going on when those who worked the longest cry, “That’s not fair” when the idle Johnny Come Latelys get paid the same amount. But, Jesus is reminding us that God’s generosity doesn’t always comply with our expectations. It is entirely God’s to give.
Jesus begins this parable with the phrase: The Kingdom of Heaven is like…and then proceeds to describe something very unlike our ideas of heaven. In our idea of heaven, we think that if we cling to the old rugged cross, we will exchange it someday for a crown. A life of faith earns us streets paved with gold. One of the things that our common idea of salvation gets wrong is the order of things. We see it as an if…then…statement.
If we work hard and do the right things, God will grant us grace.
If we proclaim we are saved, then we go to heaven.
If we go to church and follow the rules, we inherit eternal life.
Notice the order is our action followed by God’s reward.
But we have it backwards. God is always first. God’s faith is first. God’s grace is first. God’s generosity is first. What God gives is not based on what we do, but rather who God is—and who you are.
Let’s do a quick survey of how God acts first in the Bible. Notice that God calls, equips and provides for our Bible heros before they do anything.
- Abraham was considered righteous before he was circumcised.
- Moses was a stuttering shepherd when God propelled him to leadership.
- God provides manna for the Israelites even though they are whining and complaining.
- Jesus calls his disciples before they are equipped for ministry.
- Paul experiences intimacy with Christ while he was killing members of the church.
God works backwards. God doesn’t call the qualified. God doesn’t pay what we earn. Instead, God calls us when we don’t have enough experience or money. God provides for us when we haven’t done anything. God makes the first move. And this makes us uncomfortable.
When Abby was a young child, she used to give away her toys. Whenever we had a play date, she would be handing her friends toys to take home with them. (One of the things I admire most about her is her generous spirit.) Her friends would be thrilled. They’d go running up to their mom with glee. “Look what Abby gave me! I can take it home. She said I can have it!” The moms, however, were uncomfortable with Abby’s generosity and would take the toy out of their child’s hand and give it back, saying, “We can’t just take other people’s things. It’s not nice.”
We live in a world of give and take. When faced with generosity we feel that we have to give back. We have to return the favor. We can’t be “on the take.” It’s just not nice. We have to work hard, earn our keep and save for a rainy day.
These are great rules for being successful in the world, but Jesus is telling us they don’t reflect the Kingdom of God.
This approach to worldly success is not just an American phenomenon. The Israelites experienced it, too. God provided manna from heaven for the Israelites every day except the Sabbath. Each day they would get as much as they needed and a double portion before the Sabbath. The deal was, they were only to take as much as they needed. An interesting thing happened to the manna when some of them tried to take more or save some overnight. Exodus 16 says:
This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.’“ 17The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. 18But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed.19And Moses said to them, “Let no one leave any of it over until morning.” 20But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul.
It didn’t matter how much they gathered, at the end of the gathering each person had the same amount of manna. No matter how hard they worked to get more, no matter how frugal they tried to be with what they had, everyone ended up with the same amount.
Exodus and Matthew are using two different stories to remind us of God’s provision and abundance. They both highlight that God’s generosity is not linked to our efforts. The Israelites didn’t have to earn the manna, it showed up as they slept. The payment that the workers received was independent of the efforts that they made. Even the idle ones who showed up at the last minute got the same payment.
God asks, Are you envious because I am generous?
The truthful answer for most of us is: Yes.
We are used to making our own living. We are used to being paid by the hour. Our brains are so hardwired into this “earn your keep” lie that we assume that God abides by that rule.
But God plays by different rules. When we get that undeserved payment of love and grace, some of us are moved to tears with gratitude at this amazing grace.
Others of us feel uncomfortable. We want a heavenly reward that is equal to our efforts here on earth, for ourselves, yes. But especially for those people who seem to be doing less.
We want to have a say in who and how God offers the generous gift of grace. We want to hold tight to our own ideas of what it means to be faithful. We want a God that we can define. We want rules that we can referee the game. We want God to reflect our worldly values.
God’s generosity is not under our control. But God’s grace is so much bigger than we can imagine:
God says, Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? In other words God says, don’t tell me what to do.
The Aster flowers are blooming in my garden. The flowers are purple with yellow centers. When I spend time outside, I can watch as different insects land among them. There are sleek honey bees, and fat, fuzzy bumble bees, a few Monarch butterflies, stink bugs under the leaves and some dark bug that I can’t name. The aster is host to all of these bugs, it doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t have a way to test the worthiness of the insects, but rather is open to all of them.
I see God’s church in this way. At the center is Jesus, a powerful attractor. Wave after wave of people have made their way to Christ’s church. First it was a small community of Jewish believers, then it was the Gentiles who lived in and around them. And God’s grace was available to them all. The church spread to parts of Asia and the Europe in medieval times. And God’s generosity was available to them all. It came to the Americas and Africa. And God’s generosity was available to them all. People with tattoos and blue jeans and guitars came into church and God’s generosity was available to them.
It doesn’t matter if they are first or last, if they’ve worked the entire day or for just a few hours, God is generous with love and grace. It means each of us has reason to be thankful that God is generous with grace.
Before you stepped foot in this church, God’s generous grace was at work in your life. Before you were baptized and confirmed and possibly ordained as a church leader, God was already providing for you.
And that is the Good News of the new covenant that we share. Christ Jesus came as the embodiment of God’s grace in the world. Our salvation comes first by grace, not by following laws. We can experience God’s grace here and now.
At the end of the day, God is waiting for us, not to pay us what we earn, but to pay us what God chooses. We don’t come to church to earn an eternal pension. We come for abundant life. We come to remind ourselves that the kingdom of God is at hand. We come to church because our life in Christ is what makes life worth living, today and every day.