Exodus 16:2-15 | Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 | Philippians 1:21-30 |Matthew 20:1-16
Many of you probably know CS Lewis’ famous series The Chronicles of Narnia, but maybe fewer of you know about his sci-fi series, The Space Trilogy. In the second book of the The Space Trilogy, called Perelandra, the protagonist, Ransom, arrives on Venus, which is also called “Perelandra.” After a bizzare landing, Ransom ends up on a kind of floating island. As the book progresses, we come to discover that Perelandra is essentially the Garden of Eden before the fall, and like the Garden of Eden, the human-like beings he meets, a male and a female like Adam and Eve, are innocent and uncorrupted.
But, before Ransom meets any people, one of the first things he does is eat some fruit. I’d like to read this section of the book for you. Read Perelandra, p. 42 (Ransom eats a delicious fruit, but is content with only one, despite how delicious it is).
Ever since I read Perelandra, at least 5 years ago, this scene has struck me. In fact, I had forgotten most of the book and had to read a summary of it for this sermon, but I never forgot this scene. The first time I read it, I couldn’t really understand it. What’s the significance of this fruit. Why is it important to Lewis that this is Ransom’s first impression of paradise: a fruit that is beyond anything he’s ever tasted and yet one is…enough? One is enough.
I’ve rolled this idea around in my head, off and on, over the years, and the more I think about it, the more it makes sense to me. As I look around, I see that so much of the world’s sin is greed and so much of the world’s brokenness comes from inequality – some have too much while others have not enough. In this Eden-like world of Perelandra, there is no desire to take more than you need. All you want is enough. That’s paradise. To take more than enough is beyond reason.
But reason tells us something very different in our post-Eden world. We live in a world where success is gauged by excess, success is gauged by excess. We live in a world where hard work should be rewarded, and that reward is almost always in the form of money, and with money we buy things. Bigger houses, nicer toys, more extravagant vacations. We always want more, even if we work good, morally acceptable jobs. We always welcome a promotion, or a raise, right?
We’ve been told that one’s standard of living reflects one’s work ethic. We’ve been told that in America anyone can make it, which implies that if you’ve “made it” you earned it, and if you haven’t “made it” you haven’t earned it. And beyond simply “making it” or “not making it” there are degrees of how successful we’ve been in “making it.” It’s a pretty simple rubric: the more money you have the more successful you are. And since we’ve been taught that there is – or at least should be – a correlation between how much money you make and how hard you work, your money – and therefore your success – reflect your work ethic. They reflect your value as a person. How much money you have reflects your worth in our society.
Apparently, this isn’t a new way of thinking. The first group of workers in Jesus’ parable also think that their pay represents their worth. They’re angry that by paying the late workers the same as them, he has made them all equal (v. 12). They are worthy of more than those who came late. They worked more, so either they should make more than a denarius, which represents a day’s wage, or the workers who came late should make less than a denarius. Either way, they shouldn’t be paid the same. The question of how much someone needs, how much is enough, doesn’t seem to cross their mind. That’s not the point. It doesn’t matter if the late workers won’t make enough to eat that night, and it doesn’t matter if they, the early workers, will have more than enough. What matters is that the ratio of work to pay is proportional.
The landowner, on the other hand, isn’t concerned with all that. The landowner is only concerned with whether or not everyone has enough.
We see this debate in our own society as well, one clear example is debates over the minimum wage. Those who oppose raising the minimum wage aren’t usually concerned with what a livable wage is, they’re concerned with whether or not the work done merits an increase in pay. What’s important is not the value of the worker – the worth of the worker – but the value of the work.
Those who argue that the minimum wage should be a livable wage, on the other hand, are less concerned with the value of the work and more concerned with the value or worth of the worker.
When it comes to the poor, it’s fairly easy to see the effects of inequality. More and more, it seems to me, many of us are becoming convince that all people should have at least enough to survive, no matter what their job is, or how many hours they work, or any other reason. Everyone should have enough.
But we are a bit slower to question the system that produces such great disparities of wealth. And we are a bit slower to address those on the other side of the spectrum, those who have more than enough. We still operate under the assumption that, if you work hard and are able to become wealthy, then, by all means, go for it.
I recently read a fascinating article in the New York Times titled, “What the Rich Won’t Tell You,” by Rachel Sherman. I would highly recommend giving it a read. In this article, Sherman interviews “the working rich” in New York City: people who belong to the 1 or 2%, but, contrary to most of our assumptions about the rich, don’t like to flaunt it. Instead, despite their wealth, they want to be seen as normal. They take the price tags off their purchases, everything from bread to furniture, so their nannies won’t see how much they spend. They’re okay spending that much, they just don’t want those with less to know about it. They’re insecure about living in Penthouses, but they still live in Penthouses. They don’t want to look ostentatious, they want to look normal, while still reaping the benefits of being rich.
They want people to know that they worked hard for what they have, that they’ve earned it. Sherman says that that these wealthy New Yorkers feel pressure to “appear to be worthy of their privilege for that privilege to be seen as legitimate…Being worthy means working hard…[and] spending money wisely.”
What the article gets at is that these wealthy New Yorkers, and much of society, is not concerned with obscene wealth, so long as those who are wealthy appear to be morally responsible. If they earned the money through hard work, and if they give back to the community and don’t flaunt their wealth, then that’s okay.
But Sherman says this mindset is problematic. She says,
When we evaluate people’s moral worth on the basis of where and how they live and work, we reinforce the idea that what matters is what people do, not what they have. With every such judgment, we reproduce a system in which being astronomically wealthy is acceptable as long as wealthy people are morally good…
…Instead, we should talk not about the moral worth of individuals but about the moral worth of particular social arrangements. Is the society we want one in which it is acceptable for some people to have tens of millions or billions of dollars as long as they are hardworking, generous, not materialistic and down to earth? Or should there be some other moral rubric, that would strive for a society in which such high levels of inequality were morally unacceptable, regardless of how nice or moderate its beneficiaries are?
The landowner in Jesus’ parable is about 2,000 years ahead of Sherman. He agrees with her assessment. Instead of being concerned with “what people do, not what they have,” like our society, he isn’t concerned with what people do, but is concerned with what they have. It doesn’t matter to him how much each person worked. What matters to him is what they have: enough.
Jesus’ parable, as well as our reading from Exodus, gives us a new “social arrangement,” a new “moral rubric” (to use Sherman’s words). In the parable of the landowner, everyone having enough is more important than profit. This is true even of the landowner himself, who could have made more profit by not paying the workers who came late a full denarius, they obviously didn’t earn it. They didn’t earn it, there’s no debate around that. Who knows how much money the landowner had left for himself after being so generous, maybe only a denarius?
We see in Exodus, as well, that God is most concerned with everyone having enough.
God doesn’t reward people based on their rank or their work ethic or, fortunately for the Israelites, their attitude. Instead, God provides manna from heaven and quail from the wilderness, but each person is directed to take only “enough for that day” (v. 4).
The only time they get to pick up more is on Friday, when they pick up enough for Friday and Saturday, because Saturday is the Sabbath. Even then, there isn’t excess, it’s just enough for two days. And the Sabbath is the time when they are to stop striving for more and are supposed to sit back and rest and be content with what they have.
That is what I think our Scriptures are calling us to today: contentment. As far as I know, none of us are in the 1%, but all of us, I think, to some extent, have bought into the “social arrangements” of our society. We want more. We don’t want to get it through unjust means or anything like that, but we’re always looking for that next raise, that next promotion.
Brie and I find ourselves, from time to time, being tempted to “keep up with the Joneses.” For most of our relationship, at least one of us has been in school, which means finances have usually been pretty tight. This last year was the first year we both had “careers.” We aren’t rolling in cash, but we’re no longer taking out loans from a university just to make ends meet. But, instead of enjoying this time of stability, we find ourselves walking around the cute little neighborhood we live in and wishing that we had a house like the ones that line our streets. Then our car breaks down, and we don’t want to fix it, we want to buy a new, fancier car. We keep wanting bigger and better, just like everyone else.
We have an ongoing joke that helps us keep ourselves in check. Say we see someone driving a brand new Subaru Outback, our dream car. We say, “Look at that person with the new Outback. I bet their life is perfect and they don’t have any problems.” By saying this we remind ourselves that having a new car or a new house doesn’t change the fact that life is life. Getting a new car, or a new house, or whatever it might be would do very little to change whether or not we’re content.
I’m not saying that having a house or a new Subaru Outback is bad. Sometimes you need a more reliable car, so you buy a new one. If you are able to buy a house, that’s great! But what’s our attitude when we don’t have the house or the car or whatever it is that we want? Are we content with what we have?
It’s so easy get sucked in to being discontent. It’s much easier than being content. Everywhere we look we’re being told to upgrade this or replace that. Even if we aren’t reaping the benefits of our current society’s “social arrangements,” we’ve fallen captive to its spell, and that spell tells us that we always need more.
One way this parable has been interpreted, and it isn’t the only way, is that the “work” represents this life, and the “payment” represents the next life, the moral being that we all get into heaven, no matter when we came to Christ. But if that’s the case, why would the landowner, who I think we can assume represents God, only provided one denarius – enough for one day. We think of God as being generous. Ephesians 3:20 tells us that God will “do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.” We think of heaven as golden streets and mansions. We imagine living in luxury and opulence, because this life is hard and we’ve earned it. Shouldn’t each worker be given a million denarii if the payment is supposed to represent God’s overflowing grace? You’d think that after all the hard work we have done we should get a reward! But a denarius? Just enough?! This just seems wrong.
But maybe we’ve misunderstood heaven. Maybe heaven won’t look much different than this world. Maybe it won’t look any different than this world. Maybe our environment will not have changed, but we will have. Maybe it will be a place where everyone is satisfied with a denarius, with enough. Maybe it’s a place with a different social arrangement, a different moral rubric, to quote Rachel Sherman.
We are in the midst of a series of readings from the lectionary in which Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” And the kingdom of heaven is a tricky thing, because it seems to be something that, in one sense, is already here. Elsewhere Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven is among you,” or, “the kingdom of heaven is within you” (Luke 17:21), depending on the translation your reading. But it also seems to be something that’s in the future, that hasn’t come yet. It often gets described as the “now, but not yet.” It’s like a light that’s flickering before it fully comes on. It’s on, but not fully on.
When we pray the Lord’s prayer, we pray that God’s kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven, and then, right after that, we pray that God would give us our daily bread. That is, just enough bread for today.What would the world look like if we actually meant that? If we were satisfied with enough?
I’ve heard that the theologian and ethicist Stanely Hauerwas has said somewhere that everyone in every church should be required to tell everyone else in the church their total income and assets. What would that do to the Church? What would that do to us? How would it change us, all of us, those who have more than enough and those who have less than enough? How would it change you? How would it change me? Maybe we would be like the Church in Acts 2, where everyone held everything in common, and people sold what they had in order to provide for those who were in need?
Maybe enough would actually be enough for us.
May it be so today, as it already is in the kingdom of heaven. Amen.