Exodus 16:2-15/Matthew 20:1-15
Take my words and speak through them, take our ears and hear through them, take our hearts & set them on fire with love for you. Amen.
Let’s set the scene: As the Israelites left Egypt, we would expect them to be overjoyed and relieved because their prayers for deliverance were finally answered, but instead we find an ungrateful and cynical nation. They complained to Moses:
“was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?” (Exodus 14:11)
So, God hears their complaining and splits the Red Sea and delivers them from the Egyptians to begin their journey to the Promised land.
But are they happy yet? NO!
You would think that the camp would be thrilled with their new-found freedom. They were leaving bitter bondage behind and were traveling toward the Promised land. But instead of rejoicing, we read that the Israelites were grumbling:
“if only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death”. (Exodus 16:3)
They were hungry. So, God provided them with manna. Manna, a sweet gum or resin type bread, appeared on the ground each day and they ate manna until they reached the border of Canaan. By evening what manna had not been eaten disappeared. In order to honor the Sabbath, the manna lasted for two days on the sixth day, because it was a holy rest day. So, they always had something to eat.
But were they happy? NO! They complained because there was not meat!
The Israelites continually reminisced about Egypt, as if it had been Paradise. How soon they forgot the brick pits, the task masters whip, how conveniently they forgot the cramps from the hard toil, and the blood, sweat and tears they shed slaving for Pharaoh. Like Lot’s wife looking back toward Sodom, they looked back toward Egypt, as if it had held something good for them to miss. The more God’s miraculous powers, protections, and provisions are made for them, the more ridiculous and loud their complaints were. With children so disrespectful and ungrateful as these, God might have rained down fire and brimstone, but instead He rains down sweet manna from heaven.
And yet again, they grumbled:
They began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost – also the cucumbers, melons, leeks onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” (Numbers 11:4-6)
How foolhardy it was to look at the gifts from God with contempt. Manna was free. They didn’t have to work for it. It wasn’t hard to gather. It was sweet. It was versatile and could be used in a multitude of ways.
‘Nothing but Manna!” (Numbers 11:6)
Once again, God listened to their grumblings and gave them what they wanted:
The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them at twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.” In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. (Exodus 16:11-13)
Were they EVER going to be happy with their lot?
Just what was it going to take to please these people?
You know, it seems we can always find something to complain about. There is always something to complain about, even when there isn’t. We can find a grievance if we want to, no matter how unreasonable it is. We grumble and complain when it’s too hot, when it’s too cold, we grumble when it rains, we complain when it snows. We complain when the weather has been too sunny for just a day longer than we would like it to be… and that is just about the weather!
I guess it has been that way since the creation of Adam and Eve and will be that way until the end of time. People have always been grumpy and complaining. King Solomon, one of the wisest men on earth, prophesized it in Ecclesiastes 1:9:
“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun”.
Indeed, we hear the same type of complaining in today’s Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-15).
This difficult parable attributed to Jesus only appears in Matthew. . . and there is probably a really good reason for this.
It addresses the greed of people who feel they deserve more than anyone else. Not a topic that most people want to hear about.
And, it also turns the world’s commonly-accepted idea of fairness upside down – also, not a popular idea!
Those workers who toiled all day in the hot sun were bitter because those who only worked a short time were paid the same amount as they were paid. They protested:
“It’s Not Fair!”
The estate manager hired laborers for his vineyard about 6:00 a.m. for what amounts to about one dollar, which was considered to be a fair day’s wages. Then he shows his generosity as he hires laborers at nine, noon and three. He actually didn’t need them for the harvest, but was compassionate because they were unemployed and their families were hungry.
When paid, they not only received payment in reverse order, but all workers received the same wage for their efforts. The workers who were hired first appealed to the estate manager using common sense, fair play, logic, and reason. Their complaint was not necessarily that the last hired received the same wage, but that if the manager was that generous with the last, then certainly he might provide them with a “bonus” for having endured the heat of the day. But a contract is a contract, and therefore the laborers hired at the beginning of the day had no real cause to quibble or argue – they got paid exactly what they had contracted with the manager. But they felt they had a legitimate complaint – based on the worldly principles of fairness and logic.
In fact, some of them felt so cheated, that they left without their pay.
I suggest to you this parable is not about fair labor management, but rather is a statement about the radical nature of God and the Kingdom, and the wideness of God’s grace. The nature of grace not only finds human labor to be insufficient to gain grace, but ultimately unnecessary because of God’s love for all people. Participation in the Kingdom of God does not come about by works, but rather comes from the unmerited and unending grace of God. And all will receive that grace, regardless of when they come to accept the love of God.
I suggest to you, the real message of this parable is not about money and fairness, but
The kingdom of God. . .
And God’s Grace.
Grace is defined as ‘unmerited favor, unearned gift or blessing given, regardless of our worthiness’. It is God’s unconditional love that we don’t deserve, that adds strength to our daily lives, that provides forgiveness for our sins and shortcomings, and gives us assurance of eternal life.
No, life is not fair and, thank God, grace isn’t fair either!
God has no reason to be accepting and forgiving of us other than that He is love incarnate and loves us. We have no reason to expect, much less demand that grace, except that He promised it to us. If we were to receive what we deserved, if we lived by our idea of fairness, most of us would be left out and ignored, humiliated and condemned by normal expectations. We would work and receive little; if we arrived late, we would receive nothing. But God does not treat us as we deserve. He gives us His unconditional love. He extends to us the grace to do something worthwhile with our lives. He voluntarily promises us life with Him. So how can we whine or quarrel when He has given us, all of us, much more than is fair?
If we got what was fair, none of us would get to heaven.
Let me repeat that:
If we got what was fair, none of us would get to heaven.
God doesn’t give us what is fair, but gives us His love and grace, in spite of what we deserve!
The test for us is how will we accept that love? What kind of people will we be? Will we picture ourselves as those who ‘deserve’ grace and favor and complain about everything God has given us, or will we picture ourselves as those who are blessed undeservingly? If we end up resenting the grace God gives to others, we miss the point of God’s grace.
The grumblers that could only see obstacles on the way to the wonderful Promised land of God did not even see the blessing of God’s sweet manna. Today, I remind us to accept a new type of manna, a new type of bread.
Then Jesus declared “I am the Bread of Life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)
Christ is the ever living, everlasting bread; bread that nourishes us physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually
by His example and love,
by His mercy and forgiveness,
by His Holy Spirit that surrounds us every moment of our lives if we will be open to it.
This bread will sustain our soul forever!
When you find yourself cynically complaining and dissatisfied with life or the world around you, remember this quote from the Rolling Stones:
You can’t always get what you want,
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try some time, you just might find,
You get what you need.
And what we need is that sweet manna from Heaven, that Bread of Life, the love of Jesus, that will sustain us as we travel to the Promised Land.
So, when we come to the altar rail for communion, let us forget our daily complaints, and remember if we will receive it, we are offered this Bread of Life for eternity.
Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Worthington and Parts Adjacent, 24 September 2017