The trouble with some parables is not that you cannot understand them, and today Jesus tells one such parable. The real trouble is that you understand it all too well.
Saying something vague like “the last will be first and the first will be last” sounds fine as long as I can still imagine myself as the one who is last, still waiting my turn to be vaulted into victory.
I can think of so many people who are better off than I am! More money, more health, more leisure time, more possessions, more confidence that the world is working to their benefit. Must be nice for them. Huh. I imagine myself saying: you know, the first will be last, and that means you going last. Heh. (head toss) Right, Jesus? (looking around) Jesus?
But Jesus is over here telling a story where some kind of petty workers are complaining, “But we worked the hardest…and you made them equal to us.” It’s easy to imagine Jesus smiling, maybe even smirking, as he reports the words from the landowner’s mouth: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
What kind of God just gives stuff away for free? It’s just so irresponsible and unfair. Does God play by any rules? Does God even understand that time is money? Or is that not a value as far as God is concerned? Is God, maybe, just as much invested in the well-being of the landowner, as the well-being of the manager, as the well-being of each of the laborers themselves, no matter how many hours they have worked?
This week I heard that grapes on a vine all ripen at the same time, which means the grapes must be harvested quickly. When Jesus tells this parable, he doesn’t mention the time of year or whether this daily work is related to a harvest, but what if it is harvest time? What if there’s urgency to hire as many workers as possible because there’s so much work that needs to be done quickly?
The landowner isn’t signing long-term contracts with these day laborers, simply paying a fair wage for a day of work, for those who joined the work at any point in the day. It seems this landowner is not concerned about the long-term impacts of this policy—he invests his money in his workers on that day, choosing generosity.
Auto workers and screenwriters and actors who are striking right now could point to this parable and say to their various corporate leaders: see, it isn’t that hard to pay workers a fair wage. Look at this landowner who doesn’t disappear into his mansion to count his profits, but actually engages directly with workers.
How much peace is lost in worrying about the future, worrying that the God who provided what was needed in the past will suddenly disappear or forget how to provide tomorrow?
How much peace is lost in comparing oneself to others, questioning if you truly have enough because someone else might have more?
How much peace is lost in the shame a person feels when they cannot feed themselves or their family because they’re stuck in a system that doesn’t care for them or stuck in a job where they’re asked to hustle and work even harder for unfair pay?
How much peace is lost in the process of valuing oneself primarily based on what you can produce or what work you can complete, rather than resting in the truth of your belovedness as a child of God?
The fear of not enough is not a new idea—not for us, not for Jesus nor the people around him, not for the people of God who were liberated from slavery in Egypt and called into the wilderness to follow God’s lead. Signs and wonders are great, but even the people of God lose their patience while they’re hungry—hungry enough to long for the days back in Egypt because even if they were slaves, at least they got to eat.
Anna Marsh, a professor of Old Testament, pays attention to the timelines, beginning with the verse that was left out of today’s lectionary reading from Exodus: “The whole congregation of the Israelites…came to the wilderness of Sin…on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt.”
Following this story of their exodus from Egypt, the Israelites have been away from their homes for exactly one month. Whatever food they took with them has run out by now. Have you ever complained when you ran out of something you need, like food? We could have some empathy for this situation.
It appears God does have empathy, since God acts as soon as the complaints are voiced. God acts even before Moses can begin to intercede on behalf of the people. God promises to “rain bread from heaven” and the people shall “gather enough for that day.” Daily bread. A new way of understanding “daily quota.”
Back when the people of Israel were enslaved, “daily quota” referred to how many bricks the Pharaoh required them to make in one day’s time—an exhausting and unending and increasingly impossible task. Now a daily quota is about receiving how much God provides for you: food for nourishment, and care for your physical body through rest and holy Sabbath.
Anna Marsh explains it this way: “God is a different kind of sovereign than Pharaoh—one working to heal your pressured and productivity-focused relationship with time.”
God values creation and human life in such a way that offends our sensibilities about worthiness, about earning one’s food, about controlling our physical environment and establishing which humans are granted more power. Can we humans say we’ve done a fair job caring for our own kind, nevermind the planet? The problem with world hunger is not the ability of the Earth to produce enough food for all the people—there is enough—but the problem is access to resources.
Anna Marsh writes,
“Our food is commodified, and industrialized in countless ways; grown and packaged and shipped to us in ways that are unhealthy, unsustainable, and which we would find immoral on any smaller scale—all of this to support a pace of life that is far from life-giving.
“Most of the ways we can opt out of this system are market-based. We can purchase what matters to us: health, sustainability, convenience—though probably not all at once. We would be hard-pressed to find non-monetized ways to align our food choices with our values, to disentangle ourselves from all the ways our food systems are harming us, other creatures, and the planet.
“Most of us are aware that these unwholesome truths are wrapped up right there between the plastic and styrofoam, but the budget is tight, we’re needed for a thousand other tasks, and someone has to get dinner on the table. The expectation of productivity is indeed oppressive. The pace and complexity of modern life seems to encourage us to be unreflective in our lives, including about our food.”
How then shall we eat? Marsh refers us to philosopher and theologian Norman Wirzba, who suggests a new way of understanding food and eating: food is God’s love made nutritious and delicious.
God feeds us not just with imaginary, idealistic, or spiritual food, but real food. When we celebrate the Sacraments, we utilize the real gifts of the Earth—water in Holy Baptism, and wheat and bread products and wine from real grapes in Holy Communion.
When we’re called upon to care for our neighbor’s needs, we don’t merely say prayers and wish for God to help: we participate alongside God in answering those prayers, sharing real food and supplies (even diapers) with our food pantry partners with St. Anthony’s and Isaiah 58.
We bring non-perishable food, and our congregation’s volunteers are restocking the Little Free Food Pantry at least three times a week.
This congregation has a line item in the annual budget to designate giving to Bread for the World, a non-profit organization (started by Lutherans, by the way) which works with national leaders to advocate for the needs of people experiencing hunger here in the U.S. and around the world.
Food is God’s love made nutritious and delicious. God provides everything we need to live an abundant life. May God grant us wisdom enough to give thanks.
 Exodus 16:1  Anna Marsh, Commentary on Exodus 16:2-15, Working Preacher, accessed September 23, 2023, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-25/commentary-on-exodus-162-15-6  Ibid.