The Problem with God
Belmont UMC—September 21, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching
Let me begin today with a parable from my imagination. When I was a teenager I often worked for Mr. Ellis who managed my Uncle’s farm. Mr. Ellis was a small man, who always wore overalls and his face sported stubble of beard. He was rather quiet and usually had a wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth. Working with him meant long quiet days of hard labor. He had called me in the heat of late summer and asked me to help pick up hay. I was 15 years old and he was paying $10 for the 6 days and for me at that time it seemed like a lot of money.
Early on Monday morning my Granddad drove me to farm. The mowers and bailers had been there. No one else showed up to help so Mr. Ellis and I worked all day. I would hoist the bales of hay up to Mr. Ellis on the wagon and he would stack them. It’s hard work and by the end of the day my hands were blistered and my neck was sunburned. That night I dropped in bed was quickly asleep.
The next day, couple of other people showed up, poor folks in old Chevy that clanged and smoked when they pulled into the farmyard. They were the kind of simple, country folks I grew up with—they worked hard and kept to themselves.
Two days later a immigrant family came by; the man and woman helped while one older child kept an eye on a toddler.
Another man who was somehow related to Mr. Ellis showed up on Friday. We were close to being finished, closer to payday, closer to my $60. We always ended work at noon on Saturday—famers went to town on Saturdays. About 11 AM that day a couple of guys showed up to work—too late. They worked the hour that was left anyway.
At noon we quit work. Mr. Ellis went in his house and came out on the porch with money. The people lined up. The guy who came on Friday, the new arrivals, and the immigrant family were in front of me, and I heard each exclaim, “Wow, $60, thanks.” I was excited. I must be getting a bonus. But then came my turn and Mr. Ellis counted out 6, ten dollar bills. “What’s this?”
“This is what we agreed on.”
“But those other people!”
“Do you begrudge my generosity? Those other people probably need the money more than you, boy.”
“It’s unfair!” (angry tears filled my eyes). I left with granddad and I did not speak on way home. At home I slammed the door of my room and threw the money on the floor. I did not go into town with friends. I pouted and sulked.” So this is just a parable, but it is a way of putting my self (ourselves) right into the story. How do we feel?
This sounds like Jesus’ parable about vineyard workers. Some worked 12 houis, some 9, some 6, some 3, and some 1 hour. All same wage—20 cents. The ones who worked all day grumbled and complained. The vineyard owner said, “Don’t I have a right to do what I want with what belongs to me?
Jesus taught in parables. Barbara Brown Taylor says that some parables are like cod liver oil. We suspect they are good for us, but they are still hard to swallow.
In this story we have a problem with God. We are bothered by God’s generosity, God’s unwillingness to play by our rules, God’s failure to follow the link between work done and rewards given. Why, it’s the American way!!
Jonah had a similar problem with God. He fled from God because God wanted him to go to preach to Ninevites. Ninevah was the capital of Assyria, whose armies had destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Jonah ran because he had a sense that God would save the Assyrians if they repented. “That’s why I fled to Tarshish; for I knew that you were a gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.” Jonah grumbled about the generosity of God.
The older brother in Luke’s parable of the Prodigal Son had a problem with his father. His younger brother had taken his inheritance and squandered it on reckless living, then he came home, to be greeted by an unreasonably generous father. He gave him a new robe, sandals, a ring, and he killed the fatted calf to throw a homecoming party for the younger son. The older brother came in from working in fields and asked, “What’s all the revelry?” He was so angry he would not even go in the house. He said, “I’ve been here working all these years and you never even gave me a goat that I might have a party with my friends.” That’s unfair. I deserve (I’ve earned) more.
Why is God so unfair, so generous with latecomers and sinners? The first people to hear this parable had known Jesus or had been followers of the Way from beginning, and these recent converts, mostly Gentiles, some former pagans, had come along to claim their place in the church.
The context of this parable is this: Peter had said to Jesus, “We’ve left home and livelihoods to follow you. What will we receive for our efforts?” This was followed by the Mother of James and John who asked that her sons be seated at the right and left of Jesus. Jesus offered Peter a place in his coming kingdom (the same offer he made to a thief hanging on the cross next to him—a definite latecomer), and then he told this parable. Is Jesus saying to the disciples and to us, “You will be rewarded, and so will everyone who follows.”
We are here because of the extravagant grace of God. God’s grace is extended to all of us, whether we’ve been here for 30 years or 30 minutes. While some of us might think it only fair to create a special place for latecomers, that we should be rewarded for our years of service, there should be some hierarchy or points system in the kingdom. God chooses to be equally generous to all.
The economy of God’s grace is not the same as our economy. God is extravagant with grace. Everyone is the recipient of God’s unreasonable generosity. This is not based on a trickle down economy or hierarchical divisions.
This may be a matter of where we are standing in the line or in the order of things.
Those at the front of the line feel favored, entitled. We hurry to get in line and we don’t like to have anyone break in front of us. When I was a child, I went to a day camp where we enjoyed swimming, crafts, games, and the canteen. We’d run to the canteen to get our popsicle snack. We’d run and we would push to be first in line. I liked being at the front. One day our counselor handed out the popsicles from the back of the line and we yelled, “Hey, that’s not fair!” “I’m not trying to be fair; I’m trying to hand out popsicles!”
I stood in line at the Big Box store one day, and the lady in front me turned to me and said, “You are supposed to get in front of me.”
“No, that’s fine, I’m not in a hurry (I felt uncomfortable with her offer of kindness.)
She said, “Look, I’m committed to doing acts of kindness, and you are my first act of kindness today—work with me here.”
As I was leaving, I turned to her and said, “What a great way to begin my day; may God bless you for your kindness.”
In those times of my life, when I’ve been in the back of the line or been the last to show up in the vineyard—meaning I have done nothing to earn or expect the love of God and God has said, “Hey, come up here to the front.” I don’t gloat, “Hey, look at me.” I feel deep humility and profound gratitude.
The truth is, that is all the time and everyday. We will never earn or deserve the incredible grace of God. It is a gift from God. Like those latecomers, and all of us (including reckless younger brothers and Ninevites), God gifts us with love and grace we will never deserve. God is always saying, “Move to the front of the line.”
Could this parable be about radical hospitality? Was Jesus saying to the disciples, “Go out to the marketplace and invite laborers to join you, and say to them, ‘It doesn’t matter who you are or what you have done, or how late you arrive, God will reward you with more than you could ever earn or deserve. Come and join us as we labor in God’s vineyard.’”
This parable is not about us, but it is about God, who offers us the unreasonable and extravagant gift of love. So we can fold our arms and pout and throw our money on the floor and yell that God is not fair. Or we can throw a party and celebrate in the presence of one who loves all of us extravagantly, generously, even unreasonably.