The economy of Grace

Some years ago I spent a few weeks volunteering full-time at Edmonton’s Bissell Centre, an agency which exists to help the city’s underprivileged people. One of the programs they had was a work exchange program. People could call the Centre looking for day laborers, and the Centre would send workers out as they were available. On occasional days there was more work than people, but mostly there were people left behind after all the jobs had been allotted. Some worked, others did not.

The Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for September 20 always reminds me of this program. The parable of the workers in the vineyard begins with a farmer needing to bring in his crops. He goes to the town square and finds people available for a day’s work. He hires some and leaves the others behind. Perhaps he grew fearful that the work would not all be done that day, so he returns to the square three times to get more workers, even recruiting some unlucky folk who had hung around until five o’clock because no-one else would hire them. It’s a pretty simple and predictable story — so far!

The twist (there’s always a twist in a parable) comes at the end of work when he doles out payment to the workers. To the astonishment of all and the anger of the early birds, he pays everyone the same amount – one denarius, a normal day’s wage.

The Workers in the Vineyard | The Catholic Word

Now, as my grandson would say, “How is that fair?” Surely there should be equal pay for equal work, and the late comers should not get the same as the first hired. But no, the farmer pays a day’s wage to everyone.

Here’s the rub, as I see it: the pay of one denarius would allow the worker to feed the family for the day. In this economy everyone gets to eat. There’s a parallel here to the story of the feeding of the 5,000: Jesus shows up, and people get fed. It doesn’t matter what we might have done to earn it, how much labour we might have put in, or anything. God is generous to all, even to those whom we may not believe deserve God’s generosity.

The economy of grace is not nice and neat. It can’t be reduced to an input/output table, or the law of supply and demand. God’s grace is poured out on all. Our economy doesn’t usually work that way. Instead, we put limits on how God’s generosity is apportioned among the populace and are often outraged when someone seems to get what they don’t deserve. Are we similarly outraged when someone doesn’t get what they do deserve? It seems to me that such responses tend to be more muted.

In God’s economy, all are fed, all are treated as deserving of respect, all contribute what they can as they are able.

How should we respond to this divine generosity? Surely not by grumbling about someone else’s good fortune. God has provided for them. Who are we to complain? I am reminded of a verse from “The Servant Song,” one of my favorite hymns:

I will weep when you are weeping,
when you laugh I’ll laugh with you.
I will share your joy and sorrow
till we’ve seen this journey through.

Richard Gillard © Scripture in Song

The journey in and with Christ is not a race with the winner taking home the medal. Rather, it is a journey of fellow-travelers, all seeking each other’s good.

Jesus shows up, and people are fed. Hallelujah!

The most difficult parable?

I preached today at St. Timothy’s Anglican Church in Edmonton. I was glad to get the invitation, because their Rector is a person whom I hold in high regard, and I was aware that the parish had been going through some troubles in recent times. If I could help, I would!

However, my gladness abated a bit when I realized what the appointed Gospel was. Because of the situation of my most recent parish, I had not preached on this text for about 20 years, and I recalled struggling mightily with it in earlier years.

Following arethe notes for the sermon I preached today on Luke 16:1-13, with a nod to Jeremiah 8:18-9:1.


There may be no more difficult parable in the Gospels than the story of the dishonest manager (or steward, as some translations give it). Scholars have turned themselves inside out for many centuries trying to give a coherent account of what at first glance appears to be Jesus condoning dishonesty.

There are several issues here, not least how we read parables. We usually just want to know what it means, expecting a straightforward answer. A few parables allow for this kind of reading, but most of them do not. Especially not this one!

Many people try to read parables allegorically, making each aspect stand for something else. Again, some parables can work this way, but trying to make this story an allegory of anything is an exercise in frustration.

The point of a parable is (as a friend has put it) that Jesus is “messing with us.” Parables generally take well-known situations, and then give them a twist, disturbing the sense of familiarity in the rest of the story. The theologian Sally McFague said that parables open cracks in our reality, making new possibilities available. As Leonard Cohen wrote:

There’s a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.

What is that light that gets in? When the crack has appeared in an unexpected place, the light comes from an unexpected source, often revealing an unexpected truth. We should not be surprised that the truth is at times hard to perceive. Jesus said on several occasions: Let anyone with ears to hear listen! He knew, of course, that many people would not have ears to hear.

The parable is puzzling, so we need to consider its context, both in the Gospel and in the culture of 1st-century Palestine.

First observation: it is explicitly addressed to the disciples, but the actual audience is more complex. In Ch. 14 we are told that large crowds are traveling with him, and he takes time to sort them out. The audience for the next few chapters consists of an inner circle (the disciples), a crowd, probably “people of the land,” and some scribes and Pharisees.

Although this parable is addressed to the disciples, we can be confident that the others, especially the Pharisees, are leaning in to hear what he’s saying. I believe we can be just as confident that Jesus was aware of them.

Who were these two groups? The people of the land – the ordinary folks – probably made up the bulk of Jesus’ hangers-on. They were people looking for some relief from an oppressive social situation, with rich landlords (many in league with the Romans) using their labour to amass great fortunes. This is nothing new. We heard from Jeremiah how the prophet weeps for his “poor people,” who are not saved even after the harvest has ended. And look at Isaiah 5:8, from more than a century before:

Ah, you who join house to house,
   who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you,
   and you are left to live alone
   in the midst of the land!

The dominance of the “1%” is nothing new. That’s our second primary observation – the socio-economic condition of the times.

The Pharisees sought to keep the Torah to the letter. In their own way, they were also responding to the times, attempting to purify a land that they saw as defiled by foreign occupation. They were a middle-class movement. They were not associated with the ruling class, many of whom were economic sell-outs to the Romans. They were also not associated with the people of the land, who were too involved with their daily work to observe the finer points of the law or to remain ritually pure.

So… let me offer some thoughts about the parable that make sense to me.

Rich landlords hired managers (“stewards”) to keep their estates producing their profits, profiting from the labour of the people of the land. This manager has been fattening his own wallet by cheating both the people and the landowner. When he is caught, he realizes that his source of income is about to come to an end. No more skimming the profits for himself! He has lost favour with his boss, so he turns to the debtors to curry favour with them. He will no doubt lose money, but he will rise in the esteem of those whose debts he has forgiven. He is still shorting the boss but note what he has done: he has changed his priorities, from amassing wealth to building relationships.

His life before this has been devoted to building up his bank balance, using whatever means were at his disposal. What he seems to be missing is the responsibility that comes with wealth. The question for all of us is, not how much we possess, but what we do with it. Faced with the loss of income, the manager turns to the only alternative – to make friends.

Now here’s the big twist in the story: instead of damning the manager further for reducing his take, the rich man commends him for doing what he can to amend his life. This really is Jesus messing with us: any ordinary rich man would be doubly angered by being cheated once more.

The verse after our reading is this:

The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.

Maybe they did – but how did the crowds hear him?

Let’s hear what St. Augustine said:

God gives us people to love and things to use, not things to love and people to use…

Another quote, this one from Julian DeShazier, writing in The Christian Century:

The most important thing about money is what we do with it in our hearts.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with money. But there’s a lot wrong with how some people use it. As it is often said, we are blessed to “be a blessing.” The manager discovered this almost by accident and was commended for his shrewdness. The true wealth of our lives is not found in the bottom line of financial statements, but in relationships we build with other people. Through those relationships, we can build up not just ourselves, our acquaintances, or our friends and family. We can also build up the people of God, and as N.T. Wright has put it “build for the Kingdom of God.”

All that we have, all that we are, all that have been and will become, is given to us for one purpose, and one purpose alone. We are called to build up God’s people with the many and various gifts God has bestowed on us.

Together blessed, may we as God’s people live into God’s now and future kingdom.


On Earth as In Heaven

Notes for a sermon preached on July 27, 2014 at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Edmonton.
Text: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Recent world and local news has given me occasion to give thanks.

Two weeks ago, my spouse & I were at a family gathering, which included a BBQ on a beach. No incoming artillery threatened the crowd enjoying the BC sun. Thanks be to God.

This week, we will travel by air to Vancouver Island. We can be quite sure that no one will aim a surface-to-air missile at our flight. Thanks be to God.

The reports about the condo fire in SW Edmonton made me grateful that we live in a building with a full sprinkler system and a non-combustible exterior. Thanks be to God.

None of these—or any other bits of dire news—point us toward God’s Kingdom, except in a negative sense. This is not what God desires for his people. For that, we turn to the Gospel—the Good News!

That gospel passage we just heard could almost make us a bit dizzy, with its repeated refrain “The kingdom of heaven is like…” We hear it five times, associated with five very different images: a mustard seed, yeast, treasure, a merchant, a net—images with no apparent connection with each other—they are just piled up together. The closing comment about the scribe trained for the kingdom adds another layer.

We’re talking about parables here, most of them coming without any explanation. As Fr. Paul Fromberg said from this pulpit last Sunday, explanations actually go against the nature of parables, which are less like object lessons than Zen koans: they just sit there, challenging us to find meaning in them.

The theologian Sally McFague says that parables open “cracks in reality,” to allow us to see things freshly.

As Leonard Cohen wrote:

There’s a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.

Jesus uses parables to open cracks in our carefully built world-view, challenging us to see things in a new light. He takes the stuff of ordinary life, and gives it a twist, and all of a sudden new light is streaming!

He asks his disciples if they have understood, and they answer “Yes.” I recall a saying of Albert Einstein:

If one is asked “Do you believe in God,”
the answer least likely to be understood is “Yes.”

Even the shortest parables have multiple layers and shades of meaning.

Recall that Jesus says “The kingdom of heaven,” a term found only in Matthew, generally in contexts where Mark and Luke use “the kingdom of God.” Matthew’s use of this term is widely believed to be a circumlocution: Jews avoid misusing the name of God by avoiding talking directly about God. It is one of the reasons many scholars believe this Gospel was written for a church composed mainly of Jewish converts. The two expressions mean the same, so it is important not to assume that “heaven” points to something entirely beyond this world. Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for the coming of the kingdom:

Your kingdom come, your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.

God reigns in heaven—he always has and always will—but our prayer is for God’s reign to come in its fullness on earth. God’s kingdom will be fulfilled when the holy will is done in all of creation—on earth as in heaven.

When will that be? How will we know it? The five short parables have one thing in common—they all involve action, as people do things that point to what life looks like when we seek to allow God’s will to govern our lives. Let’s take a look at just the first two of them, beginning with the mustard seed.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field…

It sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? It has a “standard” interpretation, stressing how the very small becomes the very large. That’s correct, as far as it goes, but if we end there, we’ve missed the point. Mustard gives useful seeds and oil, but it is actually a weed—a fast-growing, invasive plant that is almost impossible to eradicate once it is established. What sane person would sow mustard in a field, where it crowds out the wheat, and provides shelter for birds that eat the growing grain? So why does Jesus liken the kingdom to such an apparently counter-productive action? The people who first heard this parable would surely have sat up straight, and scratched their heads at such a suggestion.

And so? The kingdom of heaven is like… well, it’s not always what we expect it to be.

A mustard plant in the middle of a wheat field may be unwelcome, but it can’t be ignored. It is urgent business. The kingdom Jesus announces can also at times be unwelcome, as he challenges us:

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. (Matt 4:17)

The urgency of God’s business puts demands on us: action, commitment, sometimes extreme behaviour, as we work for the coming of God’s kingdom, on earth as in heaven.

Mustard seeds remind us that even the simplest and seemingly most insignificant actions can have big consequences—sometimes unexpected, even undesired. What about yeast? Same thing! The yeast used in ancient Palestine wasn’t the nice domesticated stuff we are familiar with. It was more like what we today call sourdough starter, kept over from the previous batch of bread to leaven the next one. It goes bad or dies very easily, and must be refreshed from time to time. If proper care is not taken, you can produce a loaf of bread laced with poison.

Just so, small actions can produce very large and very negative results, not because people mean to do evil, but more often because they do not take the proper care and attention. This past week, a single cigarette butt caused $10M in damage to a west-end condo, and made 400 people homeless for months or years.

Jesus invites us to be part of that kingdom which has come near. The invitation is a challenge—to us individually, to the church, and to the world around us. The call to follow Jesus can mean being a nuisance like the mustard bush—sometimes unwelcome, but unavoidable in its urgency.

However urgent it may be, the call to follow Jesus is not a call to act blindly or rashly, but to take care in what we do, seeking always to do God’s will, seeking to be good yeast in a world that critically needs God’s leavening.

Far be it from me to suggest that these interpretations are anything more than an opening of a crack—how do YOU hear?

We do have urgent matters before us. Let us therefore seek to know God’s will, through prayer, study, and worship—and then in the holy action—God’s Mission!—that arises from these disciplines. Let us be wise and diligent in attending to them, and may our lives reflect our prayer:

Your kingdom come, your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.