Pentecost 17, Proper 20A
In the name of God who knows us, and loves us anyway. Amen.
I have a friend who, in recent months has decided to cut back on her participation in social media. I learned this because she was apologetic – she said that she was missing out on what was going on in a lot of her friends’ lives. But, she said, the cost associated with her less frequent exposure to the goings-on of her friends’ lives was worth it, because she was disconnecting herself from what she experienced as toxicity in her life from overexposure to social media.
She said that she missed seeing all the wonderful things that her friends were up to, but she admitted that seeing all of those wonderful things was starting to make her put unrealistic expectations on herself about what her own life should look like.
The thing about social media is that it’s a highly curated representation of what a person’s life is like. It shows what we want to show – and, to whom we want to show it.
Maybe you remember that movie, The Truman Show from a few years ago? It was the story of a man who, from birth was the subject of an extreme kind of reality television. Thousands of hidden cameras observed and documented every moment of his life – all without his knowledge. For Truman, the world was like social media – it was highly stylized and structured to simulate life in the real world, but for a television audience. For the audience, however, it was less like social media. It captured everything he did – no matter how embarrassing, no matter how mundane.
But social media is edited. During the pandemic lockdown, Michael and I posted pictures of the delicious meals we prepared and the new recipes we tried. We didn’t post pictures of how we paid less attention to housekeeping than we did when we were having people over more regularly. We didn’t post pictures of the hours we spent sitting on the couch when there was nowhere else to go. We didn’t post pictures of the anxiety we felt watching the news each day.
If social media was the only truth there was, you might have thought everything was perfect during those days. But, of course, it wasn’t.
Over the past couple of weeks, our focus in the gospel has been on these several moral teachings of Jesus. There was the part about addressing conflict – about strategies for conflict resolution in the Christian community. The twist was about when conflict is unresolvable, and about how we are then to respond: by loving harder and deeper and with more conviction.
Then, last week, we heard Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness – about how forgiveness is an ongoing process, and about how it is more about changing us than it is about granting that grace to others.
This week, the moral teachings continue. But there are a couple of ways of looking at it. At first glance, this moral teaching seems to be about equity. About God’s commitment to ensuring that all of God’s beloved children have enough. Dorothy Day pointed to this parable as an argument for supporting a living wage. God didn’t pay according to what people earned, she said, but according to what was needed. It may not seem fair, but it is equitable.
And that is a teaching that runs throughout the Gospels. When Jesus taught us to pray he said, “Give us this day our daily bread” not, “Give me this day my daily bread.” The focus was on the needs of the community – not the needs of any one individual. In the story of the feeding of the 5,000, we see not only the miracle that they were all fed with such meager supplies but also the lesson that they all had enough.
When we look at this parable of the workers in the field through the lens of equity, the same teaching emerges.
But what happens when we hear this parable through the lens of grace – through the lens of mercy?
Our nature is to hear this story as one of equality – the laborers didn’t do equal work, so why should they have equal pay? True equality would have been for each worker to have been paid an amount that was in proportion to how much each had worked. That’s how the workers who’d been there all day saw it – through the one-sided, social media way of seeing things. They saw the landowner's generosity with those who’d worked less, so they imagined a world where they would get even more. Then, when they got what had been promised, they were disappointed.
Part of the point of the story is that God doesn’t see us through our social media feeds. God doesn’t see just the flattering side that we like to show everyone else. God sees us and knows us as our whole selves, and thus is guided not by what we earn, but by who we are. Mercy recognizes that there is more to the story than any one perspective could give. With that wide-angle view, God, as landowner, doles out grace through mercy. Grace that isn’t earned, but given.
For most of us, I think our starting point is to see ourselves as the ones who have worked all day – the ones who expected more and were then disappointed with enough; the ones whose envy is rooted in expectations of equality.
But here’s where God’s mercy is key: that isn’t always who we are. None of us is “the model citizen” in God’s reign. Very often we’re the ones just squeaking by before the bell. Probably most of the time we’re in the middle of the pack – probably a little late to the party, but still willing to pay our dues. But wherever we fall, God’s mercy is key. Through God’s mercy, we are given exactly what we need. We are given the love and support and understanding that we need. Just like those around us who seem to have earned more, and just like those around us who seem to have earned less.
Thank God we are not paid grace in proportion to our earnings. Thank God that God’s love and forgiveness and mercy transcend our limited visions of the world around us.
That’s the moral trajectory of Jesus. When we think we’ve done everything we can to bring our community together, love more. When we think we’ve gone far enough in our grace toward those who hurt us, forgive more. When we find ourselves asking God to distribute mercy and grace and resources and blessings according to worth, remember that in God’s eyes, we are all worthy. God sees all of us, not just the parts we like to show. And God loves us, still. Strengthened by that love, we are called to go and love likewise. Amen.