Allowed? Yes. Wise? Well…

While in seminary, I brought in some extra income by working with the maintenance crew at the seminary.  I learned all sorts of interesting things: how to run a backhoe, how to thread pipe, how to test for a gas leak, how to epoxy a basement floor, how to rebuild a Sloan flush valve, and how to stretch your breaks for as long as possible without getting in trouble.  Part of stretching your breaks was learning how to make trips to the store last.  Always drive the speed limit.  Stop to pick up donuts for the rest of the crew.  Be very specific about which stores you will go to.  On trips to the Home Depot, I also learned a theological lesson about the parable of the laborers in the vineyard.

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Day laborers were a big thing in the DC metro area.  There were spots all around town where (usually) young Latino men would congregate waiting for work.   One popular spot was near an apartment complex on Route 7.  As the day went on, the crowd would dwindle, but like in the parable, there were some who, desperate for any work to feed themselves and their families, would wait all day, hoping to get hired.  In the parking lot of the Home Depot, it was a whole different story.  Here the competition was fierce.  Men who were ready, willing, and able to work would all but open your van door and jump in.  If you had an open bed on your pickup, the situation was made even more interesting.  These men were dying to work, and by stopping at the stop sign in the parking lot, you were inviting them to join your crew.

As I think about the parable of the laborers, I can’t help but think of those guys and how much they wanted/needed to work.  I wonder what the end of the day might have been like if the situation Jesus described took place.  Would some have grumbled that those who worked one hour got paid the same as those who worked all day?  Sure, that’s human nature.  Is it the prerogative of the landowner to pay whatever he chooses?  Absolutely, the landowner is allowed to do whatever she or he pleases.  Is is wise to operate that way?  The Invisible-Hand-Capitalist in me says no way.  This system would mean that the next day, nobody will be in the parking lot looking for work until 5pm.

Of course, Jesus isn’t suggesting an economic model in this parable, which is where the theological lesson comes in.  The Kingdom-of-God-Theologian in my says that this is a brilliant model upon which to build God’s reign.  Sure, there are some who might wait until the eleventh hour to come on board, but for so many of us, the sheer delight of working alongside God as the Kingdom is being unveiled is worth more than any day’s wage.  Maybe it wasn’t that the men in the Home Depot lot needed the money so much as they found delight in being useful.  To take our part in the building of something larger than ourselves can be a source of true joy.  Each morning, God invites us to take join in the work of building the Kingdom.  The payment, eternal life, is good, but the satisfaction that comes from the work itself, is inestimable.

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Who are you?

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There is a natural tendency to place oneself inside a story.  This is perhaps especially true in the parables that Jesus tells.  I suspect it is because they are both generic and hyperbolic, it is easy to read oneself into the story, to stay there for a while, and to feel what is happening.  Of course, who we think ourselves to be in the story will have a large impact on how we interpret it.  In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the meaning of the story can change drastically if you think of yourself as the injured traveler or the Levite, rather than everybody’s favorite Samaritan.

As we read the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man this week, I can’t help but think that the gut reaction of most listeners will be to place themselves in the role of Lazarus.  Very few people actually consider themselves to be rich.  It is very easy to push that title at least one tax bracket above our own, and given the erosion of the Middle Class and the ever-widening chasm between the haves and the have nots in the last 40 years, it isn’t too difficult to place oneself as a beggar, lying outside the gates of those who wear purple, and step over you in order to feast sumptuously everyday.

Very few of us will place ourselves in the position of the rich man, and to be Abraham would be awfully presumptuous, but this morning, as I read my usual preaching resources, I realized that I’ve always missed a character in this story.  Barbara Rossing, Professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, points out in her commentary that maybe our place in this story is the brothers and sisters of the rich man.  We have Moses and the Prophets.  We even have one who proclaimed a ministry of compassion and rose from the dead.  Do we have ears to hear?  Do we have eyes to see?  Or, are we too busy making excuses for our lack of compassion; pretending  instead to be the sore-covered beggar by the gate?

Who are you in this story?  The answer seems to be of eternal consequence.

Pray for your Leaders

The Track 2 Old Testament lesson, the Track 2 Psalm, and the New Testament lesson for Sunday seem to be tied together thematically.  Or at least they seem to be related in this heightened political season in the US.  So much of the rhetoric around the American Presidential election has to do with caring for the poor.  The right suggests that the best way to care for the poor is to invest in businesses so they can hire more employees, pay them better wages, and lift them out of poverty.  This is a good theory, and certainly there are many business owners who do their best to take care of their employees, but it seems that even in the days of Amos, it didn’t always work.  For as long as there have been humans, there have been those who “trample the poor” and “sell the sweepings of wheat.”  To them, the word is clear, “God will not forget how you treat the poor.

On the other hand, the left suggests the best way to care for the poor is to create safety nets that keep them from falling through the cracks.  This has its merits as well, and the latter half of the Psalm for Sunday seems to indicate that it is the will of God that we care for the poor through charity.  “[God] takes up the weak out of the dust * and lifts up the poor from the ashes.  He sets them with the princes, * with the princes of his people.” Though as we have seen in this country, when the responsibility for safety nets left the confines of the Church and became the government’s responsibility during the Great Depression, it became susceptible to fraud and pork spending.  Who indeed is like the Lord who sits enthroned on high, but stoops to behold the earth?.

The battle lines having been drawn between right and left, the American public has been convinced that we exist in a zero sum game.  One side agrees that to invest in business means to leave the poor to fend for themselves.  The other says that to offer safety nets creates a culture of laziness that kills the economy.  Both are, of course, wrong.

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So what are we to do?  We who live in this world of competing goods, how can we ensure that somewhere in the midst of all the rancor and wrangling, we are living up to the call of Jesus to care for the poor, the widows, the orphans, the oppressed, and those in prison?  Aside from revamping the US tax code to return to the Church these responsibilities, our task is, as Paul tells Timothy, to pray that our leaders make wise decisions and live lives of godliness and dignity.  Thankfully, the Book of Common Prayer has all sorts of prayers to help with such praying.  Here’s but one example, a Collect for the President of the United States and all in Civil Authority.

O Lord our Governor, whose glory is in all the world: We commend this nation to thy merciful care, that, being guided by thy Providence, we may dwell secure in thy peace. Grant to the President of the United States, the Governor of this State (or Commonwealth), and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do thy will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in thy fear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

Pray for your leaders today, and everyday, for it is right and acceptable to God.