The lectionary provides alternative Old Testament readings each week. This week’s have a similar theme—God’s generosity.
The first option (Isa. 16:2-15) is the story of the Israelites complaining against Moses and Aaron for the hard circumstances they are facing in the wilderness. “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (v. 3) God’s response is to shower the people with generosity, although not necessarily joyously. Instead, God’s generosity will be a test. How will the people respond to what God has done?
The second option (Jonah 3:10-4:11) is the story of God’s patience with Jonah wearing thin. Jonah had reluctantly proclaimed God’s message of judgment in Nineveh, and because of that, Nineveh repented. God, in turn, relented. Jonah was not pleased. “[F]or I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” (4:2) God decides to teach Jonah a little lesson about generosity and provides a tree to shield Jonah, who is off pouting, from the sun. A worm attacks the tree and Jonah is left without the comfort of the shade just as quickly as he had gotten it. God points out the silliness of Jonah’s anger over God’s generosity.
The theme of the gospel reading (Mt. 20:1-16) is along the same lines. It is the story of the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, the last of whom to arrive receive the same wage as those who had arrived first and labored all day in the hot sun. When the first ones complain, the vineyard owner replies, “I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” (vv. 14-15)
Generosity is a whole lot more complicated than it might appear. Here are two things I’ve noticed about it along the way. First, it’s hard for human beings not to compare the grace they’ve received with the grace others have received and cry foul. Still, in reality, grace is just grace, an act unto itself unrelated to any other. It quite often keeps us from recognizing the grace we have received, which goes beyond sad to tragic.
The second thing is that it is precisely those who have received the most of God’s generosity who have the hardest time showing generosity to others. I think that might be because the more grace we’ve received, the more likely we are to confuse what we’ve been given with what we’ve earned, what we have no right to but just have with what we have a right to for one reason or another. More often than not, it’s really just all grace.
And that’s why, Jesus said, in the final words of the gospel passage, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Maybe that will wake us up to see the realities of God’s generosity. If so, it is the greatest grace of all.
Bishop Stacy Sauls