Sunday, September 18, 2005

God's economy (Proper 20A)

Mark Twain was once accosted by a wealthy man who said to him, “Mr. Twain, I want to know your opinion about something. Why do people labor and strive just to accumulate money? Money can’t buy happiness; it can’t buy a happy home, nor can it lift the spirits of those who mourn. Money cannot alleviate the sufferings of the dying, nor can it buy the love of a good woman.” Twain paused and looked at him, “You are referring, I take it, to Confederate money.”

Money can’t buy me love, as the Beatles sang, but it sure can buy or rent a lot of other things that are near and dear to our hearts. Perhaps the most important things that money can buy us are power and prestige. We use money as a way of measuring just how much we have accomplished. Our checkbooks and credit card statements show us two things very clearly: first , they show us just how much we’ve accomplished by the standards of the world we live in, and secondly, they speak volumes about our spiritual lives.

On the first day of the fall semester at the University of Alabama where I teach, I had an experience that provided me with a vivid illustration of what Jesus was talking about in today's gospel reading. As usual, I was running late. Students scattered right and left as I drove up the street in front of my building. Then, I turned into the parking deck next to the history department on two wheels. At that point, a young man quickly gestured me to a stop. When I rolled down my window he informed me that the parking deck where I’d always parked was now “reserved parking”. I have an ordinary faculty/staff parking permit which cost me $80, but if I wanted to park in reserved parking it would cost more than $200 for the semester. Needless to say, I was irate. Who, I wondered, could afford to pay that much for parking? And then it occurred to me that almost directly across the street from what is now the reserved parking deck is the business school. I began to fume. Business professors make 3 or 4 times as much as history professors. They don’t deserve it, I told myself. They don’t have my credentials. Did they have to learn 3 or 4 foreign languages to get their degree? They probably did their dissertations on Lays’ potato chips or Palmolive dish detergent. That's hardly the same as a scholarly study of Calvinism in England. And on and on my mental tirade went.

The mistake I made on the first day of class is that I sat in judgment on my colleagues across the street. I enjoyed the self-righteous satisfaction of examining my business school colleagues in my mental tribunal and finding them guilty. In today’s gospel reading Jesus warns us not to begrudge God’s generosity to others, because God gives not according to what we deserve but according to God's ideas of abundance. We look at the world as a place of scarcity, but God sees creation as a place of abundance.

It is only human nature to want mercy for ourselves and justice for everyone else. We want the world to be fair and believe that we are the final arbiters of fairness. God's economics and our economics have little in common. We believe that everyone should get exactly what they have earned, and if God wants to know how much my neighbor has earned, then I will be happy to tell God how much she has earned to the exact penny. Most people, we believe, get far more of life’s grace and goodies than they deserve. You and I, on the other hand, have been shortchanged. Our paychecks never reflect the overtime we’ve put in.

But the parable of workers in the vineyard reminds us that God’s economy is very different. God does not offer us a job for which we will be paid a wage. Rather, God invites us into a relationship in which he promises us gifts beyond our wildest dreams. God does not promise to reward our hard work with a Christmas bonus; God promises to love us as beloved daughters and sons – a reward we could not possibly earn.

God’s economy is a mystery. We cannot know why the race does not always go to the swift nor the contest to the strong. We cannot know why the Bill Gates and Donald Trumps have so much and the Mother Teresas have so little.

Several years ago Gerald Sittser wrote an article in The Christian Century about the death of his wife, mother, and daughter in a terrible car accident caused by a drunk driver. Furthermore, the driver who had been responsible for the accident was acquitted of wrongdoing in the case.

Understandably, Sittser was outraged and angry. “Why me?” he asked himself angrily. Finally, it dawned on Sittser that he was asking the wrong question, and “why me” became “why not me?” “Perhaps I did not deserve their deaths,” he writes, “but I did not deserve their presence in my life either…. I would prefer to take my chances living in a universe in which I get what I do not deserve … That means that I will suffer loss, as I already have, but it also means I will receive mercy. … I will have to endure the bad I do not deserve. I will also get the good I do not deserve.” (Gerald Sittser, “On the life and death we don’t deserve,” The Christian Century, Jan. 17, 1996, pp. 44-47)

What kind of world has God created? What is the secret to understanding God’s economy? Here’s a hint: Drop the words “earn” and “deserve” and replace them with “gift” and “grace.” From beginning to end it is all gift. Sometimes God gives us the gifts of tears and anguish; at other times God gives us the gifts of joy and laughter. God has given us a world in which the owner of the vineyard is free to give his workers far more than they have earned at the end of the day? Is it fair? Of course not. It is much better than fair; it is gracious.