Sermon preached at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, New York on September 20, 2020, Proper 21A; Matthew 20:1-16.
I have three small books on my shelf at home that I often reach for when I’m look for inspiration concerning one of the parables. They’re all written by an Episcopal priest named Robert Capon: the Parables of the Kingdom, the Parables of Grace, and the Parables of Judgment.
This week, having this parable about the Laborers in the Vineyard to ponder, I reached for the Parables of Grace. It seemed like the obvious place to look. Curiously, it was not there.
Next, I reached for the Parables of the Kingdom, saying to myself, “OK, Jesus does say ‘The Kingdom of God is like . . .’ Nope, not there either.
I picked back up the Parables of Grace. I must have missed it. I searched until my eyes hurt. Definitely not there.
Now I was puzzled. Saying to myself, “It couldn’t be,” I reached for the Parables of Judgment. Much to my surprise, there it was in the Table of Contents: “the Laborers in the Vineyard.”
So there goes my stock sermon about the amazing, all-inclusive grace of God, I said to myself.
But, of course, this parable is about the amazing, all-inclusive grace of God. But it is more than that; it is about our objection to it, how much our human heart recoils at it, how simply downright unfair it seems to us.
And the note of judgment comes at its end, strong and clear, in the form of a question: “Are you envious because I am generous?” “Envious” or “jealous” is a fair translation, but it misses the image that is in the Greek. The landowner asks if the complaining workers have an ophthalmós ponērós. “Do you have an evil eye?”
It’s a great image and most of us have a sense of what it means. It’s that look, of course, famous to mommas, schoolteachers, and preachers. Sometimes we call it just “the look.”
When we get “the look” we know we are in trouble. Judgment has been passed and there ain’t no turnin’ back. Guilty until proven innocent, and don’t be plannin’ on that anytime soon.
In this case, “the evil eye” is that feeling of unfairness we can get when we ponder the radical grace, the unconditional love, of God.
I don’t think I have ever taught a class or preached a sermon about God’s complete and total grace when somebody has not said to me afterwards something like, “So that means we can just get away with anything? God will always take us back?” There’s that evil eye.
Now do not feel bad if you have said something like that before because you are not alone, plenty of us have said it, and I suspect those of us who have said it out loud are only the tip of the iceberg of those who have thought it and felt it.
So our answer to the question—“Is your eye evil because I am generous?”—is, let us be perfectly honest, “Yes,” or perhaps an even more emphatic, “You bet I am.”
Let us rehearse just what this good news is and why it is so offensive to us ala the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. The employer in the parable makes no distinction when it comes time to pay the laborers between those who have worked all day and those who have worked only an hour. It is as if he forgot to write down who was who. He is, in short, a bad bookkeeper, but he is also so fair-minded that, since he has not been keeping track of who was who on the time scale, he pays everybody alike.
Jesus is saying to us, “That is God my friends.” God is a lousy bookkeeper, but nothing if not fair-minded. And heaven does not have executive suites for those who have been about the goodness routine for a long time. Or if it does and we get one, we might be surprised to find that irritating jerk of a neighbor of ours back on earth whom we neither ever remember going to church nor doing a decent thing in his life has the next suite over. We are neighbors still. He seems to have gotten off scot-free.
It reminds of my friend Verna Dozier’s answer to the question I heard someone ask her one day, “Do you believe in a literal hell and that some people are going there?”
“Actually not,” she said, “I think everybody goes to whatever we mean by heaven. But some people are not going to like it there.”
“So who is that,” I later asked, “who will not like it there?” I thought I knew the answer, but I wanted to hear her say it. “People like me,” she said. “People like me who have an investment in some people not being there. And there they will be. God will have gotten his way in the end and I wonder sometimes if I am going to be able to tolerate it.”
A lot of people’s questioning or even negative, reaction to a God of radical grace comes from the fact that this is not the God we have been brought up to believe in.
The God we were sold, often as children, definitely did keep track. He was in fact “the Great Bookkeeper in the Sky.” He knows if we’ve been bad or good, and forms his opinion about us based on that knowledge. And ultimately he has the greatest reward/punishment system of all—an eternal life of bliss in heaven or an eternal life of pain in hell.
I dare say that is what a majority of people believe is Christian teaching about salvation.
The trouble is, if you actually read the whole of the New Testament, that image is rejected. God as the great, judgmental bookkeeper in the sky ends up having far more to do with our need to control other people’s behavior than God’s actual plan of salvation.
If God ever was the Great Bookkeeper in the Sky the Jesus story is all about how God changed his line of work, threw out the books altogether, except one, the Book of Life, in which she is pleased, nay, delighted to write the name of anyone who asks her to, who hears her say, “I love you,” and says, “Yes,” in return.
Our job is not to get ourselves accepted by God, but simply to accept our acceptance.
It ought to be easy, but it is not, of course, because there is something about us that wants there to be a Great Bookkeeper in the Sky. We are slaves to this world of success, of reward and punishment, of you get what you deserve, of the myth that all you have to do is work hard and fly right to get ahead in this life and the losers are those unwilling to work hard and fly right enough. That is how the world works.
But then comes God. Sits down at this Table with us and eats. Says pull up a chair and have a bite with me. No examination, no credentials required except that we do pull up a chair and hold out a hand.
The good news this morning is that God does not have an evil eye and is a lousy bookkeeper. The hard part about faith in God is not working hard and flying right. The hard part about faith in God is accepting his acceptance, not only of us, but of those who do not deserve it, who may have caught our evil eye. The trick is not letting our evil eye distort how we see the world and our neighbor.