September 20, 2020

Exodus 16:2-15
Matthew 20:1-16

“Our Daily Bread”

The summer that I was fifteen years old, I worked at Woolworth’s. It was my first real job, other than babysitting the neighbourhood kids, and I got paid $5.80 per hour, the minimum wage at that time. Before I started each shift, I had to go downstairs to the employee’s lounge where the time cards were kept, find my card and slide it into the time card machine which would stamp the time I started to work onto the card.

I worked hard at that job… folding clothes and towels, fixing displays, and trying my best to direct customers to the things they needed. At the end of my shift, with tired feet I would make my way back downstairs, slide my card back through the machine, and then go home, satisfied with what I had accomplished.

I remember that job at Woolworth’s as a good experience, and I think a big part of it was that I had a sense of working hard and earning my spending money. For each hour I worked, I would earn my $5.80. It wasn’t much, but I had earned it and that felt good.

I’m not sure how Jesus’ first listeners would have reacted to today’s parable, but I always get stuck on the way the landowner pays his workers. No time cards, no hourly wage, no bonus for faithful employees, just a denarius at the end of the day for anyone who agreed to come and work.

It definitely isn’t fair. Some workers came first thing in the morning, and worked all day in the sweltering heat. Others showed up an hour before quitting time. And they all get paid the same amount?

It’s unjust. It’s not right. If it had happened that way at Woolworth’s, I would have been really mad, never mind the grumbling that the vineyard workers do. After all, I earned my $5.80 an hour. You can’t just give it away to anyone who wanders into the store for a few minutes of work. That’s what the kingdom of heaven is like? It just doesn’t sound like a good deal for those of us who are trying hard and doing our best to live good lives and to please God.

Now, in trying to make sense of this parable, I have talked to a variety of people and consulted various commentaries, because isn’t the kingdom of heaven supposed to be something good for us? Isn’t it supposed to be the good news that Jesus proclaimed?

So, here’s one suggestion… Suppose that jobs are pretty hard to come by and lots of people are out of work. Maybe that’s not so difficult to imagine. After all, we are living through a pandemic, and we all know people who have been laid off either for several months or even permanently, people who have had their hours reduced or their jobs changed so radically that they’re no longer qualified for them.

Perhaps some of you listening today have had that happen to you, and others of you may have been out of work at another time in your life. Suddenly the income you’ve been relying on to pay your rent or your mortgage and to buy your groceries is gone. What will your family do now? Should you move? Should you re-train for some other kind of job? But there’s no better place to go, and there’s not much available.

A job – that would be gift enough. Whatever it pays. You’ll put in the hours and you’ll work hard for the money. Maybe that’s what the kingdom of heaven is like. It’s like a job that you can get first thing in the morning, with a guaranteed wage and a boss who’ll pay you what he said he’d pay you.

Job security. You won’t have to spend half the day worrying about how you’re going to pay the hydro bill or whether or not you’ll be able to buy milk this week. You won’t be worrying because you’ll be working hard and earning your well-deserved wage. That’s what the kingdom of heaven is like.

But in the parable, when the workers hired at the end of the day came to receive their pay, each of them received a denarius, a full day’s wage. So, when the ones who had worked all day came, they thought they would get even more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner.

They got what they had contracted for, but they were still angry, grumbling and complaining, because others were getting the same amount without having done nearly as much work. I guess they weren’t so grateful for the gift of having a job after all.

When the Israelites began their long period of wandering in the wilderness, they did some grumbling and complaining too. They had grumbled before, and God had gotten them out of Egypt, and here they are in Exodus 16, grumbling again, complaining that they don’t have anything to eat.

Well, I guess that’s a pretty good reason to grumble, so God listens to them again, this time providing quails to eat in the evening and manna in the morning. Strange food, but just enough to keep them going.

Now here’s the part that I find interesting… The Israelites go out in the mornings to gather manna. Some of them probably work a little harder than others and others a little less. But when they weigh up the food they’ve collected, each one is an omer, no more and no less. That’s about the equivalent of 2.3 litres today.

They’ve gathered as much as each of them needs for the day. If they have any left-overs, they don’t get to keep them anyway, because the manna goes bad overnight. That’s what the kingdom of heaven is like… Everyone works, some a little, some a lot, but no matter what, everyone is taken care of. No one gets more than they really need, but no one goes home without enough to get by.

I guess there’s no getting a little extra in this system. No sneaking a little more for a midnight snack. No starting up a manna-picking business to earn some extra privileges from those who would rather not gather their own. No planning ahead so you can take a week off from manna picking. God has provided abundantly for God’s People, but they’ve got to rely on God from day to day to take care of their needs.

It’s like the line we pray every week in the Lord’s Prayer that says “Give us this day our daily bread.”

The way that God provided for the Hebrews in the wilderness made me think of the Canada Emergency Response Benefits (CERB) payments granted to people who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic. What struck me was that everyone received the same amount – not a percentage of their previous income, or an amount related to how much they worked before the pandemic – but they all got the same amount. Not a huge amount, but hopefully enough for each one to get them through this crisis.

After the CERB payments became available, it quickly became clear that there were people being left out – like people who worked on contracts, and people in the Arts community who earned their income through gigs and occasional jobs, as well as students who couldn’t find summer jobs.

And so, they made adjustments, broadening the scope and including more people. I expect that even with the changes, some people were still left out, but it felt like our Canadian ethos was to provide for one another – not based on what each person had earned or accomplished, but based on our common need.

I think it’s the same kind of spirit that led to the establishment of a health care system that makes basic medical care available to everyone. And it’s the same kind of spirit that prompts many of us to advocate for pharmacare and dental care for all, and the concept of a Guaranteed Basic Income.

Imagine a society where we no longer need food banks and food hampers and school breakfast programs because every family has enough. Or maybe we would have school breakfast and lunch programs, and they would be for all our children, regardless of family income.

The parable begins with the question of what the kingdom of heaven is like, and then suggests that the world God envisions for us includes that kind of mercy and generosity that ensures that all people have enough, and no one is left out.

That interpretation of the parable is perfectly in keeping with the way that Jesus lived his life – sharing freely with everyone who had a need for healing, hope, or nourishment, and trusting that others would provide for his needs as well.

Consider that line from the Lord’s Prayer again: “Give us this day our daily bread.” When you pray that every Sunday, are you thinking only about bread? If you’re like me, you’re thinking about all of the basic needs you have to sustain your life – food, shelter, friendship, meaningful work, love, and more. And you’re acknowledging that all those things come from God’s mercy and generosity.

Of course, somewhere in the back of your mind, you may still be thinking that good things come to those who earn them, and rewards come to those who work hard. It is hard to let go of the ingrained idea that God is counting up our good deeds and subtracting our bad ones, and that we will be rewarded or punished accordingly, either in this life or in the afterlife.

There once was a man who wanted to earn God’s favour. He had recently had a conversion experience, and had dedicated his life to biblical study and prayer. He was going to be the best religious person that he could, and he was going to assure himself that he would one day be going to heaven.

The problem was that he was never sure. He would pray and meditate and do spiritual exercises, fasting almost to the point of death. He would confess every sin that he could recall and a few extras just in case, but no matter what he did, he could never be sure that he was really saved. “Have I really done my best for God? Have I fully realized my God-given potential?”

I guess he just didn’t know what time he’d arrived at the vineyard to work. If he’d only arrived at three o’clock, even if he worked really hard, would he be able to earn enough to survive? How could he be sure? How much was enough?

But one day as he was studying the book of Romans, he had a revelation, and he suddenly understood salvation in a new way. He saw that it is something that cannot be earned by work, because it is a gift from God. We are justified by faith, not because of anything that we may do to try to earn God’s favour, but because of the gift of God’s grace.

I guess the problem with my initial reaction to the parable was that I assumed that I was among the workers who arrived early in the morning. I assumed that we were among those who had earned our daily wage and wanted a little extra for our hard work. What Luther knew, deep in his heart, that nearly drove him to madness, was that no matter how much he did, he couldn’t do enough to earn it.

We’ve arrived late. The landowner doesn’t owe us much, if anything, but when paying time comes round, we’re first in line, and he is generous. God will indeed give us this day our daily bread, and God invites us to do the same for others. That’s what the kingdom of heaven is like.