Are You Envious Because I'm Generous?

For Sunday, 20 September 2020: Matthew 20:1-16

[Jesus said,] “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

This beadwork was crafted by Jennifer Jordan, an enrollee of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. More of her work can be seen at www.facebook.com/jennibeads.

“Are you envious because I am generous?” I do not want to admit it, but I guess the answer is yes. After all, that story is so unfair. What justice is there in paying farm laborers who work for one hour the same as those who work for twelve hours? It simply does not make any sense from a human perspective. I suppose, however, Jesus told this story especially for folk like me, those who identify with the laborers who work from dawn to dusk, those who need help in remembering that grace is “God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved” (BCP 858), and that none of us gets what we actually deserve—we get better. Jesus is consistent about this. In another place he reminds his disciples that “when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Luke 17:10).

St. Benedict, in his six century Rulefor monasteries, also dealt with the question of whether fair treatment of members of his monastic community was synonymous with equal treatment when he wrote: “We do not imply that there should be favoritism—God forbid—but rather consideration for weaknesses. Whoever needs less should thank God and not be distressed, but whoever needs more should feel humble because of his weakness, not self-important because of the kindness shown him. In this way all the members will be at peace” (RB 34.1-5).

A deeper dive into this text, however, reveals even more treasure. We encounter that familiar biblical word denariusor “daily wage.” My understanding is that a denarius was the equivalent of enough money to provide an agricultural worker and family with the necessities of life. If that is the case, the landowner in Jesus’ story is providing each worker, regardless of whether they worked twelve hours or nine or six or three or only one, with what they needed for their families’ provisions. “Give us each day our daily bread” (Luke 11:3), we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. Is not this what God is doing through the landowner in Jesus’ story, providing them with their daily necessities?

God often provides what we need through the generosity of others. Generosity is an important value of many tribal peoples. The Lakota word for it is wacantognakawhich means to show concern not only for one’s people but for all of creation by contributing freely for the well-being of all. It includes sharing not only food and possessions but also time and attentiveness, without expecting anything in return! Charles Eastman Ohiyesa of the Santee Dakota Nation, born in 1858, became a physician, author, reformer, and advocate for his people. He is quoted as saying: “Children must early learn the beauty of generosity. They are taught to give what they prize most, that they may taste the happiness of giving.”

Generosity is not only a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22), it is a virtue sorely needed in our world today amidst a global pandemic and divisive political season. It is a good time to repent of our envy of God’s generosity and to give ourselves over to a spirit of big-heartedness, not expecting anything in return. Such a move just might give us a taste of the happiness of giving.

 

Giving Up My Rights

Sunday, 13 September 2020: Matthew 18:21-35

21 Then Peter came and said to [Jesus], “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Today’s Gospel reading continues the conversation and teaching about restoring harmony in the Church, the community tasked with the mission of reconciliation to the world, when peace has been lost due to its members offending and even scandalizing one another. After all, how can the Church work for Christ in the restoration of unity between God and people and with one another if we are at enmity with one another? How can God’s people serve as instruments of unity when we ourselves are divided? The action of forgiveness now takes center stage as a crucial step in the process of reconciliation and restoration. How are we to understand forgiveness then? I know it is not the same as forgetting and sometimes is a gradual process. There is a helpful definition from an anonymous source that has stayed with me over the years: “Forgiveness is me giving up my right to hurt you for hurting me.”

Peter appears to be interested primarily in the limits of forgiveness, what he must do to get by. How many times is one obliged to forgive another’s offenses? Peter wants to do the right thing and most likely thinks his proposal of forgiving seven times is a generous offer, so he must have been surprised by Jesus’ response: “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times” (Matt. 18:22). In other words, there are no limits to our obligation to forgive. I am reminded of others, including myself, who like Peter are prone to the human tendency to rationalize our behaviors and are interested in the minimums of what we must do to get by.

It was my privilege to serve for ten years as the vicar of St. Columba of Iona Church on the White Earth Nation in northwestern Minnesota. St. Columba’s is an historic congregation founded in 1852 by missionary James Lloyd Breck and Enmegahbowh, the first Native American priest in the Episcopal Church. One story that is told of Enmegahbowh is about a time when a man insulted Enmegahbowh’s wife, Biwabikogeshigequay. It seems that Enmegahbowh was torn between Jesus’ injunction to “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39) and defending his wife’s honor. In the end, he held the man down so that his wife could kick him!

My sympathies are certainly with Enmegahbowh’s moral dilemma and the justification of his behavior, but there are more serious rationalizations in the story Jesus tells about “the unforgiving servant.” Human nature being what it is, it is not difficult to identify with the servant in Jesus’ story who was forgiven a debt by the king of millions of dollars! After all, the king could afford to do without that money for he was the richest person in the land. The servant, on the other hand, worked hard for a living and could not afford to forgive a one-hundred-dollar debt. After all, he had a family to feed, clothe, shelter, and send to school. He was barely squeaking by. He really needed the money.

That is usually the way rationalization works. Justification of our actions is an easy trap into which to fall, but if the king in the story represents God, forgiveness becomes a profoundly serious matter in our lives to consider. The Lord’s Prayer expresses the same concept when we pray to the Father: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” In the same vein of thought, Jesus also goes on to say: For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:12;14-15). It sounds like this is more than a good idea and something God demands of us. Yes, if God forgives us the debt we owe to Holy One, then it appears to be a divine expectation that we in turn forgive the debts others owe to us.

Clearly, forgiveness is not an easy task and sometimes feels like an impossibility, but God is on our side in this work. Even a forced willingness-to-begin-to-get-ready-to-think-about forgiving provides a space for God’s assistance and grace. As difficult as it is to forgive others for their wrongs against us, it is a responsibility given us by God to fulfill. If we neglect it, we just might find ourselves on the outside looking in. Today is a good day, then, to ask: “How has God shown me mercy and forgiveness?” and “What debts of mine has God cancelled?” so “Who do I need to give up my right to hurt because they hurt me?”

Michael G. Smith, OblSB, is a bishop of the Episcopal Church, an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and holds a doctorate in preaching.

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The Rt. Rev. Michael Smith is an Assistant Bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, an Assisting Bishop in Navajoland and a former bishop of North Dakota. He is in an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.