by Canon Rev Dr Janet Trisk, South Africa
There is enough for our need, not our greed
The theme running through todays lessons might be thought of as a two-sided coin. On one side of the coin we see depicted God’s generosity and careful provision for all creation. The other side of the coin is human greed which leads to hoarding and thus exploitation of one another.
Hearing the Word
Comments on Exodus 16: 2-15
We read that in the desert the Hebrew people grumbled against Moses and Aaron. “Did you bring us out of Egypt only to have us starve to death in the desert?” (This is just one of many grumblings that will happen on the way to the Promised land. They also grumble about there being no water, about Moses marrying a foreigner, about the leadership of Moses and Aaron.)
In response, God gives them manna and quail.
Comments on Psalm 105: 1-6, 37-45
The psalmist gives thanks to God for God’s saving acts in history. The verses set for today rehearse the wider story of the reading from Exodus: from the departure from Egypt to receiving manna and quail (“food from heaven”, v.40), to the Promised Land. Finally, the psalm ties in obeying God’s laws with the gift of the Promised Land. [i]
Comments on Philippians 1: 21-30
Paul, writing from prison, reflects on the dilemma of life and death. Life means suffering, but also affords the opportunity to continue the work of the gospel. Death means being with Christ. Either way, Christ is at the centre.
One might contrast Paul’s acceptance of suffering with the “murmuring” of the Hebrews in Exodus.
Comments on Matthew 20: 1-16
This is the familiar parable of the workers in the vineyard, who are all given the same wage, no matter how long they laboured. We might note that in v. 11 those who had borne the heat of the day and laboured longest, like the Hebrew people in Exodus, “murmured” or “grumbled” against the landowner.
Interpreting the Word
The usual interpretation of the parable in Matthew is that God is like the vineyard owner and treats everyone – first and last – just the same. But a Biblical scholar named Obery Hendricks offers another interpretation. [ii] He notes, first of all, what the story tells us about working conditions in first century Israel. People work from dawn to dusk for a denarius. A twelve hour working day is long in anyone’s book. And to be paid a denarius was indeed the usual daily wage, but it was not a living wage. A denarius was just about enough to keep you coming back for another day of work so you (perhaps) can survive to work another day. Furthermore, there is a big pool of day labourers in the story, who hang around waiting for employment. At each point of the day, workers are available. Even at five in the afternoon, some are still in the day labour market. This indicates a sizeable number of unemployed people who are reduced to scrambling for any little bit of work they can get.
For Hendricks, the landowner is not God, but more like the owner of an extensive wine farm in the Franchhoek valley. And by offering the very minimum denarius, the landowner is exploiting labour.
He apparently has an exceptionally large vineyard. (Notice how he keeps coming for more workers.) How could the landowner have attained all that property? One way would be to take land in settlement of the debts owed to him by poorer people.
Then, to top it off, the landowner when he comes to employ the last lot of workers, asks them why they haven’t worked. “Why are you standing around idle?” he asks, all but calling them lazy. He presumes that they are unemployed because of some choice, as if he didn’t know that they were unemployed in the first place because they had been forced off their land.
In paying the last the same as the first, the vineyard owner insults those who were first hired. When the first “grumble,” he singles out their leader — the text says he spoke to “one of them.” The landowner denies doing wrong, and then fires the leader. “Take what belongs to you and go.” The landowner adopts an all-too-typical strategy: Fire the union organizer.
Some will argue that the use of the word “Friend: in verse 13 – “Friend I am not being unfair to you” mitigates against Hendricks interpretation. The Greek word that is translated as “friend” is etairos. Matthew uses etairos in only three places–here, in 22:12 where it refers to the guest at a wedding banquet who refuses to wear the wedding garment, and in 26:50 where it refers to Judas, the arch-traitor. None would be considered a positive example. If Hendricks is right that the use of “friend” is sarcastic, that would support his argument that the land-owner is haughty and dismissive.
The parable challenges the usual hierarchies we assume. “The last will be first and the first last.” If as Hendricks suggests, the landowner is a greedy, penny pinching employer, the parable is clearly a criticism of economic exploitation of the poor by the rich.
The broader story of the Exodus is also a challenge to economic exploitation. In Egypt the Hebrew people are enslaved and when they pose a threat because of their increase in numbers, their Egyptian overlords make conditions even more tough for them to perform their work. After their escape from slavery and in the wilderness wanderings the Hebrew people have to learn a new way of relating that includes principles of trust in God, generosity and that they need not hoard what God gives them. So long as each takes what they need and no-one hoards. If we had read a little further in Exodus 16, we would have heard how, as each person gathered manna in the wilderness, no matter how much or little they gathered, each had enough. However, some of the Hebrews, in contravention of God’s instructions, hoarded the food they did not consume and it became rotten.
As many commentators note, the appearance of quail and manna are very natural phenomena in the middle east. Quail – little guinea fowl like birds – migrate from Africa to Europe and along the way settle down in great flocks each night to rest. What is called manna (which is just a word derived from the Hebrew man hu, which means “what is it?” is a substance secreted each early morning by tamarisk trees. So in summary: God immediately responds to the hunger of the Hebrews. And God responds in perfectly natural ways. God’s world is an hospitable home for all, provided we gather what we need and do not hoard.
Preaching the Word
It’s easy to dismiss the Hebrews as ungrateful wretches. God has brought them out of slavery in Egypt. They are on their way to the Promised Land. What do they have to complain about? However, don’t these ancient grumblings sound very modern?. We too grumble about there not being enough water. We too grumble about foreigners in our midst. We too grumble about our leaders.
When we are comfortable it’s very easy to dismiss the grumbling of others. God brought you into freedom, how can you grumble about food? Why are you burning tyres when you have an rdp house? Why are you going on strike when you have a job? But it’s hard to take the long view, when one is cold or hungry or ill or fearful. Notice God’s response to the hunger of the grumbling Hebrew people. God sends food – quail at night and manna each morning. God does not blame the Hebrews for losing the big picture. God’s concern is for those who are hungry, for those whose immediate needs are being ignored by those in power.
Similarly it’s easy to dismiss the workers in the parable as ungrateful – as the landowner does. But although good work/ creativity is a characteristic of God, slave labour is not. The Sabbath rest is a fundamental principle.
The first lesson in the wilderness is this: Share. Be generous. The mentality of Egypt and the landowner is to grab power and consolidate it. The mentality of God is generosity. This is the example for all God’s people. However, notice what happens when the “fair” treatment is imposed from the outside, as in the case of the wealthy landowner. Each worker gets the same daily wage. But this is because he imposes this “equality” on the workers. It is in freedom from oppression that we can learn to relate fairly to one another.
Living the Word
What the Hebrew people still have to learn and what we still have to learn is that there is enough . But in order for there to be enough we have to share. And whatever we hoard goes bad. In this Season of Creation it is easy to fall into despondency: the earth and its creatures are doomed. However, the promise from the story of the Exodus is that even in the wilderness, there is enough, if only we will take just what we need and no more.
by Rev Dr Janet Trisk, South Africa
Erlander, Daniel. Manna and Mercy. A Brief History of God’s Unfolding Promise to Mend the Entire Universe. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress. 2018 (Revised edition)
Haslam, Chris Comments and Clippings http://montreal.anglican.org/comments/archive/apr25m.shtml accessed on 6 April 2019.
Hendricks, Obery. The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Teachings of Jesus and How They Have Been Corrupted. New York: Doubleday, 2006.
[i] Chris Haslam Comments and Clippings http://montreal.anglican.org/comments/archive/apr25m.shtml accessed on 6 April 2019.
[ii] Obery Hendricks The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Teachings of Jesus and How They Have Been Corrupted. New York: Doubleday, 2006.