We heard from Aaron Miller a couple of weeks ago a compelling message about “Jesus Math.” Aaron taught us that when one Christian gets together with another Christian in the name of Jesus, it is not two who are present, but three, because Jesus is also there with them. In Jesus Math, one plus one equals three!
It turns out math is not the only subject that Jesus does a little differently than the rest of us. Today I want to talk with you about economics: God’s Economics. We know a little bit (some of you know a lot) about economic systems. You might remember learning about the old feudal system in Europe where an elite class earned most of the income from land worked by the lower classes. The Industrial Revolution came onto the scene with the capitalist system where people own their labor and the market is regulated by supply and demand. It is the system we live in today. When capitalism failed to level the inequalities of the feudal system, socialism and communism were born with the hope of building a world where everyone has equal access to wealth. We know that those systems, too, have fallen short of their lofty goals. (There’s your Econ 101 refresher course!)
Perhaps it is a little dangerous to talk about economics in church. We run the risk of baptizing one economic system (usually the one that works best for us!) and demonizing the others. I do not want to go down that road; however, when we see Jesus teaching in parables about workers and their wages and when we remember that we are citizens not only of this world but also of the kingdom of heaven, we ought to stop and ask, “If Jesus Math says one plus one equals three, then what does God’s Economics have to teach us?
Let’s start with our lesson from Exodus 16. Right here in the early part of the Old Testament we see human economics and God’s Economics facing off in the wilderness. We heard last week about the miraculously successful crossing of the Red Sea and the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. By today’s reading, the taste of freedom has turned bitter as the Israelites find themselves wandering in the wilderness with no food to eat. “Would it not have been better to die as slaves with full bellies than to starve to death as free men,” they wonder aloud. God has compassion on his people, despite their cranky attitude, and he tells Moses that he will provide quail in the evenings and bread in the mornings. Each day, every family should gather enough food for that day but no more. As promised, God sends bread every morning and quail every evening so that the Israelites do not starve. The beating heart of God’s Economics is that God cares about his people and that God keeps his promises.
The Israelites, though, are still living by human economics. They are still living in a world of anxiety, remembering that yesterday they were hungry and worrying that tomorrow they will be hungry again. Anxiety gives birth to greed, and instead of trusting in God’s Economics that could be summed up with “Give us this day our daily bread,” they try to save a little extra food for the next day. Human economics says more is better. God’s Economics says we can enjoy having enough. Human economics says we can only be secure in what we have. God’s Economics says we are secure when we trust in God.
Things really get sticky when Jesus starts talking in parables about day-laborers and their wages. Everything about this parable upsets our settled, carefully balanced human economics. The parable confronts our sense of what is fair and right and just. It calls our very way of life into question. The owner of this vineyard is not what we would call a fair employer. He does not give equal pay for equal work. Those who worked longest and hardest made only one-twelfth the hourly wage of those who showed up last and worked the least. This, Jesus says, is what the kingdom of God is like. These are the economics that govern in God’s market.
We have all kinds of objections, many of them sensible. That kind of system rewards laziness, we say. We might call it unjust because it devalues the work of the early morning laborers. Mostly, though, I think we get upset because we tend to identify with the hard-working people at the front of the line, and we want to be rewarded appropriately and get our fair share. We got here first, worked the longest, and sweated the most so we deserve more. It is only fair. That is human economics, and boy is it powerful!
As threatening as this parable is, I hope we can learn two things about God’s Economics from it. First, we learn something about God: God is not fair; God is generous. We want a fair God because we like to know the rules. Rules enable us to compete and to climb our way into positions of favor and honor. (Interestingly, both before and after this parable the disciples are pestering Jesus about what kind of reward they will get for being his followers!) If God is fair and follows the rules, then we can figure out how to earn our way into God’s favor. Human economics says follow the rules and you will be rewarded. But God’s economy is not based on competition, and climbing, and rewards. God’s economy is based on grace: unmerited, extravagant, irrational, unfair grace. Grace is not carefully measured and doled out judiciously to the most deserving; like manna in the wilderness, it is scattered liberally and extravagantly so that everyone who needs it gets enough.
The second thing we must learn from this parable is about ourselves. We approach this parable as “front of the line” people, but I think there are two possibilities. First, it is possible that we who are at the front of the line and prone to grumble when we do not get what we think we deserve do not realize how much we have already received. Being chosen to work a full day in the master’s vineyard is itself a measure of grace. As a kid, I was scrawny and clumsy. When it came to gym class and sports teams, I knew what a terrible feeling it was to be chosen last. Consider those who seem to wait forever to receive a measure of grace in our world today: the African American boy born into the wrong neighborhood, with no father to guide him, who finds himself exactly where society expects him to be – in prison. Or the young man who is abused as a child. He cannot manage to break the cycle of violence and finds himself hurting the women and children he is supposed to love. Or the addict who, try as she might, cannot seem to break free of the substance the binds her. Human economics says these will get what they deserve. But surely these are the ones last in line who need an extra measure of grace. In God’s Economics, those at the end of the line, those who are chosen last, those who need extra grace will surely find it.
The second possibility is that from God’s perspective, you and I may not be at the front of the line at all, despite our best efforts. We may be basically good people who try follow the rules of our society and traditions, but when we live according to God’s Economics we remember how imperfect and flawed we really are. Part of living in God’s economy is recognizing the ways we have treated others – our spouses, our parents, the clerk in the checkout line – carelessly. It is remembering that we, too, break the rules when the rules are difficult, inconvenient, or otherwise hinder our goals. Life in the economy of God is marked by humility. When we live in that humility, we might realize just how grateful we are that God is not fair but generous. When we live with humility, instead of begrudging God’s generosity, we might just find ourselves hootin’ and hollerin’ and celebrating as those at the back of the line who need God’s liberal and extravagant grace.
Like the ancient Israelites of Moses’ and Jesus’ times, we struggle to live out God’s Economics in the midst of a human economy. The tempter presses on us from all sides, insisting that God’s Economics might be fine for heaven, but they will never work on earth. That is a lie, woven by the master of lies. Life in Jesus Christ is a new life that – with the help of the Holy Spirit – trusts in Jesus’ Math and God’s Economics right here on earth. The church are the people – we are the people – who live their lives based on the economy of God: an economy where God is the trustworthy provider, and we can live with simplicity instead of anxiety or greed; an economy where God is the generous master, and we can live in harmony with our neighbors instead of competition with them or jealous of them; an economy where God is good beyond our deserving, and we can live with gratitude and humility for God’s extravagant grace.
Whether you are lost in the wilderness, a front-of-the-line laborer, or just hanging on in the back-of-the-line, remember that God cares about you and will keep his promises for you – not because of who you are, but because of who God us. So let us all live new lives governed not by human economies of greed, jealousy, and pride but marked by the loving, faithful, and abundant grace of God that never fails. Let us live in the economy of God! Amen.