Matthew 20:1-16

Time With Young People

There’s a story you should know, but that we didn’t read directly this morning. It’s from the time when God’s people were traveling in the wilderness after they left Egypt. There was no food in the desert, so God gave them quail in the evening and stuff called manna in the morning. Manna especially was a mysterious kind of bread, either completely supernatural or a natural phenomenon that reflects God’s presence. But as the story tells it, the most remarkable thing is that there was always precisely enough for each family. No matter how much or how little they collected, that was exactly enough.

I think God wants each of us to have enough, and to share so that all people do.


“Manna from heaven” was my philosophy when I waited tables: don’t focus on the money, just let it arrive. Others kept count through the day, but I knew that the work and the money were not always the same. Sometimes you work like a dog for nothing, and sometimes it’s like people are throwing money at you. I found that this works – the good and bad days tend to even out (not precisely as God suggests in Exodus 16, but still…). What’s more, I found a difference with those who worried about the money: it’s harder to deal with the hard days when you’re keeping score. I did get it, at least eventually: it’s hard not to keep score when you need the money; and in Iowa where this was, tipped employees make just 60% of the minimum wage. That’s the real difference between a student and a lifer: I could pretend I didn’t need the money.

We can assume that Israel in the wilderness needed it. The day-laborers in Jesus’ story did too. It’s hard not to worry about tomorrow when you’re dependent on daily food from the sky – even if a shining deity tells you not to worry. The first people hired could easily see that they didn’t make the same hourly rate as the others. Is this fair? Shouldn’t the earlier bird get more of the worm? The landowner surely got more work from them, so basic economics says that the wages should be fair.

“But friend,” says the landowner, “I gave you what we agreed on: one silver coin.” There’s nothing to prohibit unequal contracts, so the defense rests, right? But what’s fair here? The others agreed to work for a “fair wage,” “what is right.” Is it right to pay people 12 times differently?

What’s right? What’s fair? Well, it depends on whose accounting you’re using. For the landowner or a shareholder, what’s right is to minimize expenses and maximize income. For the workers, what’s right is what’s been promised. But of course we hope for more than what went to others who don’t work as hard as we do (in our eyes). And we know we tend to overestimate our self-worth and our own concerns. So not only are we above-average workers, we need the money more anyway. All that adds up to some harsh jockeying and complaining as the workers did. But there’s a different math at work here. God’s math is about finding enough for each person. That math hinges on the landowner’s word ‘what’s right.’ We can define that word as ‘enough.’

Clearly in the story of the manna, there was enough, no matter how much you gathered. After that story, once Israel had come into its land, God told the people to split up the land in equal plots. Technically, the land couldn’t then be bought or sold; it was a perpetual inheritance so that all would have the means to prosper. But before long, people with wealth and power used what they had to get more of it, and they bought and stole fields from their debtors (the prophets hated this). The day-laboring Israelites from Jesus’ story presumably got that way because they or their ancestors had lost the land. That is, someone had failed to share God’s provision with them.

So Jesus tells about this new business model – the kingdom of heaven where the landowner provides for all people, just as the true Owner of all land always meant to. He tells this parable of reversal where the last get paid first and all are restored to plenty. This is patently unfair by human accounting. We see inefficient labor practices, a portion of the top perfomers’ wages given to the slackers, and we’re right about this. The difference is, God isn’t asking that question. God’s not doing that kind of math. God’s math has to do with what’s good for all, not questions of what’s efficient or obligatory. God’s question is what people need. That “fair wage” is not defined by the bottom line or even the hours worked (if any) – it’s defined by what’s enough.

So the kingdom of heaven looks like enough for everyone. God’s realm looks like a place where people are filled with good things no matter what. Where a country of people drowning in cheap calories can figure out a way to supply food to the Horn of Africa – and defend it when it gets there. Where health providers have the freedom to spend less time doing paperwork and postponing death, and more time improving life. Where churches learn to take some time and effort away from improving services for so-called “members,” and put more toward broadcasting the love of Christ for all creation. Where we discover the joy of knowing there is enough, and we find God’s grace that helps us give away our suffocating excess.

The kingdom of heaven comes into the world when we live as if there were enough. Because there is enough. God made that happen and does it again. There’s enough for me to eat – and for every man, woman, and child. There’s enough life to be lived, enjoyed, and celebrated. There’s enough grace that sharing it with others only shows us more of God’s love. And there’s enough room for us to be part of God’s gifts, sharing what we have in abundance, whatever that is – be it money, time, or spiritual gifts. There’s enough. God invites us to discover that again, to know it as we give ourselves to that reality. May we be so bold.