September 21, 2014, Pentecost 15 – The New Physics of Generosity
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About five hundred years ago, a mathematician and astronomer named Nicolaus Copernicus caused quite a commotion by proposing a radical idea – that the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth like everyone thought – but that the earth travels its orbit along with all the other planets with the sun at the center. People didn’t take to that change easily. The church especially was skeptical of these new ideas, and they banned his books. And a man named Andreas Osiander, a Lutheran minister who worked on the publication of Copernicus’s book added a note in the preface that what Copernicus said in the book wasn’t particularly true or even likely. Osiander said of Copernicus, “This fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside down.”
Well, Jesus, the Divine Fool, came to bring about a much greater revolution than that of Copernicus. He came to turn – not just astronomy or science – but the whole of creation upside down and inside out – because he was coming to replace the kingdom of this world with a new kingdom – a kingdom where things work completely differently from what we had always thought, a kingdom with its own radical laws of physics – where the last will be first, and the first last, where the greater serves the least of all, and where what we receive from God does not depend at all on our piety or our righteousness, but purely on his generosity and compassion – in a word, his grace. And in the story about the workers in the vineyard, Jesus revealed the way that the new kingdom has turned things inside out, which is by placing the grace of God at the center of our universe in the place of all our human efforts or human merit.
The workers who come to the master of the vineyard to complain have a fairly good reason for being upset, we might think. They’ve done a full day’s work, they are tired and hot and sweaty, and these slackers who barely had time to carry their shovels and hoes out into the field are receiving the same paycheck they are. It’s not fair. And we hate unfairness. But when the workers come with their grievance to the master, he gives them a choice. “Friend,” he says, “You know I haven’t done you any wrong. We agreed on a denarius for a day’s work – that’s the going rate, and you know that. If I want to be generous with what belongs to me, how does that hurt you? If my generosity offends you, then take what you have earned and go home.”
The new physics of the kingdom of heaven is that God is not fair. He is faithful to fulfill every promise he makes to his children. He rewards our faithfulness, however small that might be. But essentially, this is how things work in the kingdom of heaven. In the kingdom of heaven, God is not fair, because he chooses to be generous instead. He could be simply just and righteous, and sometimes we think that’s what we want him to be – but instead he is gracious and merciful, abounding in lovingkindness. It isn’t always what we want him to be, but it is absolutely what we need him to be.
Sometimes the kindness of God is a scandal to us. But it depends on how you hear this story. Where do you see yourself in it – who do you identify with? I think it is a natural thing for us to read this parable and to see ourselves as those guys out in the heat of the day – and we think Jesus is teaching us how we should behave towards those other people who seem to receive the grace and mercy of God, even though they aren’t good Christians, or maybe not Christians at all? People whose lives are a mess, people who have been foolish, or lazy, or careless, or whatever – this story, we think, tells us that we need to not be offended by God’s grace, even when he is gracious to the very unworthy.
But we haven’t really understood the scandal of God’s grace until we begin to see that we are the unworthy – we are the ones who come to the manager and hold out our hands, and receive with amazement what we have not earned; we are the ones to whom God has extended his grace, for no other reason than because he chose to do what he liked with what was his.
God has not been fair to us. He has been infinitely more than fair. He has loved us completely when we have not done anything to earn his love. He has sought us out when we were standing idle and unsure in the marketplace. He has given us good work to do, and before we have served him he has given to us far more than we can ever earn.
And now – now that we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven this physics of generosity is our physics as well – the radical laws of our new kingdom. We are not called not to be fair people, but we are called to be generous people. We are not sent forth to dispense justice and require righteousness, but to reach out in mercy and lovingkindness. If we hear the radical message of this story, it has to change the way we intersect with the kingdom of this world. The world has come to expect morality and judgment from the church. People who claim to represent the church of Jesus Christ all too often offer self-righteousness and condemnation, but what the world needs from us is to find instead the kind of generosity our God has shown to us. It is natural to recoil in horror at the cruelty and immorality of the world around us; the world itself is often sick with its own sin. But what healing would there be if we met cruelty with gentleness instead of condemnation, and immorality with grace instead of judgment? How can we not offer generosity, when we have received it?
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