I want to start with the Gospel lesson this morning, and then go back to Moses and the Israelites. Jesus gives them a story that is hard to stomach. There is this wealthy man, and he goes out to the place where the day laborers wait for work, and he hires a bunch to come work for him. Of course, as part of the hire, they agree on a wage for the day. So let’s imagine that they agree on $10 for the day, which was a fair wage in that day. They are happy to have work. A couple of hours later, he has had his morning coffee, and he sees idle men and the grapes have to get in quickly, so he tells them to go work – and that he will pay them the usual. A couple of hours later, he again walks through the square, and tells more men to go get to work, and that he will pay them what is right. So it goes, until just an hour before quitting time, when he hires the last group.
At quitting time, he tells them to line up, with the last group in front. He pays them $10. The eyes of the guys who have been working all day widen, and they decide that the owner is being a great guy, so obviously they will get more for working all day. But no, when it comes down, everyone gets the $10. The guys who have been working all day in the hot sun are really mad. They grumble, why should I only get $10 when that guy who only worked one hour gets $10? NOT FAIR!
The owner says, wait a minute! Did I not agree with you for the “fair” wage of $10? Is that not a fair wage for a day’s work? Well, yes, it is! So what you are really saying is that I don’t get to be generous! You are full of envy. You could be full of satisfaction for getting a fair wage for a good day’s work, but no, now, you are full of envy. It is no fun waiting all day in the marketplace, hoping that someone will hire you, and by the time lunchtime comes, you are pretty sure you will have no work today, no money to buy dinner for the children, there is no place else to go, so you wait in the marketplace, hoping against hope, knowing it is really too late for you, you think this is fun? You have been there, in that waiting place, not wanting to go home to face your wife and hungry children, it is horrible! Wouldn’t you rather have been working? Really? If that was the alternative? Come on, guy! And so what if I choose to give him a full day’s pay that he didn’t “deserve” so he can bring dinner home to a hungry family. How does that hurt you?
It injures our sense of “fairness.” It interferes with our sense of worth, and deserving. But if we turn it around, we should be glad. If we only got what we deserved from God, well! Then we would hope desperately that this story is true, because we are the ones who do not deserve, whether we know it or not. Sometimes we see ourselves as the ones who have worked all day, as in, we have been “good.” And now we see all of these other people getting into heaven, even ahead of us, people we know are not as “good” as us, and we cry “not fair!” And God says, who says I cannot be generous? Who says I have to play fair?
This is not a new concept that Jesus is teaching here, it is an old one that we don’t like very much when we see ourselves as the “good” people who have been trying hard all our lives. We grumble. This grumbling goes all the way back to the Israelites who are hungry in the wilderness. They grumble, loudly, against Moses. They ask why he brought them out to die in the wilderness when they could have died more comfortably and with full bellies in Egypt. They conveniently forgot how awful things were there. Moses does an important thing. He refuses to take responsibility for their anger, and he tells them that their anger is really at God. Now, he is willing to go to God with their complaint, but he makes it very clear: Moses said, “When the LORD gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the LORD has heard the complaining that you utter against him – what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the LORD.”
So there are a couple of things I find critical in this small piece. One is that complaining to God is an acceptable activity. The other is the issue of off-loading pain. So first the acceptable activity. If you look in the Bible, you will find time after time when the people as a group, or individual people, list their complaints against God, and they don’t just make a list, they also tell God what is on this list! They are not polite about it either. This is more like how it normally is between labor and management, and labor is complaining to management that this and that has not been done, and we are sick and tired of waiting for it to happen. I remember the first time I saw a video of how things work in the English Parliament, and I was absolutely floored by the screaming and yelling. It was appalling! But this is the way that the Israelites knew how to address God. None of our “if it please you sir?” kind of kow-towing, terrified that the master was going to backhand us out of the house or perhaps just incinerate us on the spot! How many people have I heard that were worried that it was not right to ask God for what we needed, because they didn’t want to offend God. They didn’t learn that from the Bible!
In the Bible, people yell at God, they tell God exactly what is going on, what they don’t like, and what they want God to do about it. They are not polite, they are not nice, they don’t hold back. However, they do one other thing that we often don’t do as well. They end up saying, OK, but you are God.
We also see this over and over. There is even a name for it. It is called, “the lament form.” In the lament form, you start out by stating your case against God. This has happened and that has happened, and then this happened. This is not polite stuff here. This is like a criminal lawyer calling witness trying to send someone to the electric chair. There are no holds barred. You let God have it with the worst punches. When you have made your case, you are done, but then there is one last thing. You acknowledge that God is God, and that you are not.
It is very clear that the Israelites get mad at God rather frequently, and they are not shy about doing so! It is also very clear that they do not get struck down for this kind of behavior. They get struck down sometimes for lying, but not for yelling. Rather, what happens is that God responds, not always, but often, and takes care of the issue, especially when the call is for “God to be God.” What do I mean by that? Well, we can look at the Lord’s Prayer for a good example. In the first part of the prayer, we are asking God to be God. The prayer is written in the imperative, do this! God, make your name holy, make your kingdom come here like you have it in heaven! Give us what we need for today! Do not test us! And so it goes. How often do we mumble this powerful prayer, demanding action from God? Then it ends like we are supposed to end all conversations with God. For the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours, in other words, you are God, I am not. Amen.
OK, so that is about complaining to God. It is a perfectly acceptable thing to do, as long as you end it properly by acknowledging God. So the other thing was about off-loading pain. What do I mean by that? This is something I run into a lot when I am coaching people. They tell me about something awful that happened, how someone hurt them, and after a bit of talking, they realize that what happened really had nothing to do with them – they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now if a piano drops on your head like in the cartoons, it will hurt. I am not saying that what happened should not hurt. Of course it hurt. But that is not the question I am asking.
There is a great cartoon where the dad gets yelled at by the boss. He cannot yell back, but you can see the smoke coming out his ears, and he goes home and yells at his wife, who yells at the oldest kid, and down the line it goes until the baby yells at the dog, who gets this curious expression on his face and there is a question mark over the dog’s head. The dog is quite clear that it has nothing to do with him, but something is obviously not right. When we got clear about this concept, one woman could go back and look at a situation where her father had said something painful to her, and from this new position, she realized that he was tired, and that it had nothing to do with her. He was just off-loading his pain. It is a little like the hot potato. When someone hands you the hot potato, all you can think about is your burning hands, and who is the nearest person so you can get rid of this pain as quickly as possible? Never mind whether they are the best person to give it to, the appropriate person, etc. There is almost no thought involved, because you are in pain! There is also no thought about trying to hurt the person you are handing it off to, you just want to get rid of this pain. If you can put on some gloves, metaphorically speaking, then it is possible to hold that potato and think about where it really needs to go, and to look at the person who handed it to you and to ask them about their pain. It changes the situation, and diffuses it. Somehow, Moses got, that the nasty language that the Israelites were sending his way was coming out of their fears, and he refused to take it personally. This is God you are mad at, he says, let’s go complain to God. And then, the story goes on to say that God did listen, and send bread and even meat. Eventually they got tired of the bread too, and complained again, but that is a different story.
So there is a basic conundrum here. The Israelites expect God to be generous with them, and we want God to be generous with us, but when it comes to dealing with others, we want God to be fair. It doesn’t work that way. We get one or the other, and fortunately, God has already chosen to be generous. We can either rejoice looking at God’s generosity, or we can be envious and angry about God’s generosity. And then we get to decide if we will play the game of life like God does, paying it forward, being generous without reserve, just because it makes you feel good when you do it. You just have to be ready to have some people get mad at that kind of generosity. They will tell you it’s not fair. And there is a nice reply to that. Here it is: God is generous, not fair, TBTG.