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Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Exodus 16:2-15 AND Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 OR Jonah 3:10-4:11 AND Psalm 145:1-8, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-15

We human beings are sometimes quick to complain: “I didn’t deserve this.” “I deserve better.” “This is unfair.” When something good happens to someone else, we may also see that as something undeserved. They got better than they should have. Either way, we may not do well with the concept of mercy. Mercy can be defined as undeserved compassion or forgiveness. If we are to be recipients of it, we may have to give up our notions of being “worthy.” If others receive it when we deem them unworthy, our judgments of worthiness and merit may be challenged.

All that and more comes into play in this week’s lectionary readings—the complaining, the moodiness, the judgments, the mercy, the abundant gracious action of God.

The continuing story from Exodus now has the escaped Israelites in the wilderness. And what are they doing? Complaining. “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you brought us into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:2-3) If the powers that be just feed us, we’ll overlook the injustices they pose. Politics thrives on people being bought off.

Moses and God are not too happy about the complaining (vss. 7-8), but God sends quail and manna. There have been credible attempts to account for this provision of food in terms of natural phenomenon known in the area. This Sunday’s reading ends with the people asking “What is it?” (vs. 15) Moses, and the Lord, call it “bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” (vss. 4 & 15)

The story tells us that they were fed whether they deserved it or not.

Bread is a recurring theme in the rituals of our religious history. It is at the heart of the Passover and the Eucharist. It is a symbol of the spiritual food from God that sustains us, one day at a time. It is not something we can accumulate as a sign of merit and worth.

Psalm 105 is a hymn celebrating all the ways in which God has sustained the Israelites, including the fact that they asked, and God “brought quails, and gave them food from heaven in abundance.” (vs. 40) Somehow the complaining has been edited out. The other Psalm (145) is also a celebration “of the fame of” God’s “abundant goodness” rooted in a God who is “gracious and merciful and abounding in steadfast love.” (Psalm 145:7-8)

Jonah, the “hero” of a Hebrew parable about the extent of God’s mercy, has a complaint as well. God wants him to carry a message of judgment to the evil Ninevites. Jonah runs from the task only to end up in the belly of a large fish. Subsequently, he is vomited up on shore, deciding that the best course is to go ahead and carry the message to Nineveh.

Jonah doesn’t like those Ninevites very much, so he’s not pleased with what happens. They repent and “when God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them, and he did not do it.” (Jonah 3:10)

The description of God changing his mind is enough to catch our attention. Jonah found it “very displeasing . . . and he became angry.” (Jonah 4:1) He said, “I knew you were going to do that. That’s why I ran away in the first place.” Somewhere or other (perhaps from Psalm 145?), Jonah had come to understand that God was “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” (vs. 2) He wasn’t ready to see the Ninevites receive the benefit of that mercy, so he went out and pouted under the shade of a tree. (vss. 5-6) The tree, however, quickly died. (vs. 7) Jonah had more compassion for the tree than he had for the Ninevites. God used the tree to teach a lesson about the nature of mercy. “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals.” (vss. 10-11)

Jonah is every person. We are prone to think we know who is deserving or not. Certainly not those who are seen as “enemies.” But God’s mercy is bigger than the lines that we draw. For some of us, that’s a wondrous truth. Too often we draw lines that get in the way of what God’s grace can bring about, perhaps even a new reality among nations.

The Gospel lesson involves a similar stretching of lines. It is a parable about the pay laborers deserve for their work. A landowner contracts with some workers in the morning. (Matthew 20:1-2) As the day progresses he notices others in need of work. He sends them out to work as well, telling them, “I will pay you whatever is right.” (vss. 3-4) This continues throughout the day until, at five o’clock he finds there are still workers who have not been able to find employment, so he hires them as well. (vss. 5-7)

When it comes time for the workers to pick up their pay, they are all given the same amount—“the usual daily wage.” (vss. 8-9) It shocks the sensibilities of those who go through life measuring who deserves what. It’s no surprise that there was grumbling. (vs. 11) We have a hard time getting our minds around it.

Should we commend the landowner for contributing to full employment? We might picture the places where day laborers gather to see who will come around and hire them. What happens to those who wait all day and have not yet been chosen? Should we dismiss the landowner as having no economic sense whatsoever? Even today we struggle over the economics of extending unemployment benefits.

The landowner makes it clear that he lived up to his contract with the original workers. (vss. 13-14) It’s not about economics or even justice. It’s about mercy and grace and generosity. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose . . .,” the landowner asks. “Or are you envious because I am generous?” (vs. 15)

God’s generosity is not a reward for works accomplished. God has enough love that all are included, deserving or not (according to our standards).

This is not a picture of a God who spies on us with a checklist and keeps score. We see a generous God who welcomes us wherever and whenever we are in life’s journey.

In the epistle reading, Paul is struggling with whether he prefers to continue to live or not. (Philippians 1:21-24) He does not seem to be in a fit of depression, although one wonders whether the battle again Roman imperialism might have become a bit overwhelming. Philippi was a Roman colony, a center of Roman authority. Paul spent some time in prison there.

Paul decides that to live, continuing to share in the loving relationship he has with the believers in Philippi, is “more necessary.” (vss. 24-25) The focus of what he has to say to them, however, brings us back to “worthiness.” What is important, he says, whether he is with them or not, is that they live their lives “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ . . .” (vs. 27) Worthiness here is not merit or something to be rewarded. The Greek text suggests living in a way “appropriate to” the gospel, in a way that is “becoming” to the gospel (as the King James Version has it), that reflects well on the gospel. Worthiness is not about reward, pay for tasks accomplished. It is about lives rooted in the spiritual nourishment (to mix metaphors) that flows from God’s generosity. It is not about reward but inner strength so that we “are in no way intimidated by” the things the world throws at us. It is not about being bought off by “bread” distributed by oppressive powers. Worthiness is a way of living in the midst of the struggle of this life—wherever and whenever we are in life’s journey.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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