The Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (24 September 2017)
Is 55:6-9; Ps 145; Phil 1:20-24; Mt 20:1-16
Theme: The lord is good to all
In her sermon on this Sunday’s gospel, called “Beginning at the End,” Barbara Brown Taylor compares the laborers waiting for work to her childhood memories of standing in line on hot Saturday afternoons waiting for the movie theatre to open. To be at the head of the line was best, as you could witness the drama of the door being opened and feel the wonderful coolness of the air-conditioned air as it surged forth. If the manager had decided to let the people at the end of the line in first - people who hadn’t even been waiting long enough to get hot! - the first in line would have been highly indignant - and the people at the end amazed and overjoyed.
It’s a wonderful sermon, and coming to the gospel text after reading it, it’s a surprise to find that nothing is said there about the reaction of the latecomers to having a full day’s wages pressed into their hands. It would be natural to assume that they would be very pleased to go home to their families with the money, after a long day of wondering if they would earn anything at all - but we are not told that. What we are told is how the workers hired at the beginning of the day reacted and how the householder responded. This is what matters to Matthew.
How did they react? They grumbled, saying that men hired at the last hour have been paid as much as they who had worked all day, including during the hottest part of the day. They have been paid the same when they have given more time and effort. The householder could have tried to avoid this reaction by paying the late comers after he had paid the men hired at first. Instead “he sets up the first hired to believe they will receive more than those hired last.” (Levine & Brettler, 36) They would have seen the wage promised them for their day’s work, handed out, coin after coin, to the late comers. The householder seems to be setting a test. How will those hired first, but paid last, react? When they react as might be expected, the householder treats it as a teachable moment. He points out that he has paid them what they had agreed to, which was the standard rate of pay. He continues: “Take what belongs to you and go: I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
The householder’s behavior is an example of what Michael Crosby calls “a generosity-beyond-what-is-just with one’s resources,” a generosity that he compares to that of the woman who anoints Jesus with the costly ointment (Mt 26:6-13). The householder’s generosity, like hers, raises objections. (Crosby, 36-37) Reasons for not being generous can always be found, especially if the generosity is intended for someone other than ourselves. But as the householder makes clear, generosity is a choice. We can choose to give to others “what belongs” to us.
Bibliography: Crosby, Michael H., “Matthew’s Gospel: The Disciples’ Call to Justice,” in The New Testament-Introducing the Way of Discipleship, ed. Wes Howard-Brook and Sharon H. Ringe (Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 16-39; Levine, Amy-Jill, and Marc Zvi Brettler. ed. The Jewish Annotated New Testament. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011; Taylor, Barbara Brown. The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
For Reflection and Discussion: What do we do with “what belongs” to us? Do we act generously, whether by giving more than is fair, or by showing a generosity of spirit that does not begrudge others their good fortune? Or do we brood over what we think others owe to us?
This week’s Sunday Gospel Commentary was prepared by
Anne Morton, BA, MA, MA (Theology), Winnipeg, Canada, Bat Kol Alumna 2010
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