A Day’s Wages

Exodus 16:2-15    Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 Philippians 1:21-30 Matthew 20:1-16

The landowner/employer of our parable from Matthew’s Gospel does not follow the expectations of society in his decision to pay all the laborers the same amount regardless of whether they worked all day or only one hour.  We might agree that it seems outrageous, but we cannot deny that the employer does not violate the commitment he had made to his workers.  The employer is free to reward his workers as he determines is best, and he does so. 

As for the gift of God’s grace, the wages are distributed by the good employer without discriminating who came early and who came late.  God’s grace does not differentiate.  Fortunately, none of us receives what we deserve; our heavenly reward is not based on our rank or our place in line – God’s grace is that that we receive that we have not earned – that that we cannot earn.  God’s grace throws earthly human conventions to the wind and God’s grace is awarded freely and in keeping with His eternal covenant.

God’s promise is to provide for our needs.  Each time we pray together our beloved prayer as the Lord has taught us, we ask God to “give us this day our daily bread” – not just “Give us our daily bread,” but “Give us just for today the bread we need.”  

The daily bread of the Israelites was manna in the wilderness about which we read in our lesson from the wonderful story of the Exodus.  Like this daily bread for which we pray, the manna was perfectly tailored to the needs of the sojourning Israelites just for that day with adjustments to meet their needs for the Sabbath.  It could not be hoarded or held for another time – sustenance just for that day, anything beyond the daily amount became infested with worms. 

The manna was not earned; it appeared with the morning dew without any effort required by the Israelites to prepare or provide it.  There was no differentiation between those who had the ability to work for it and those who did not.  It was sufficient to satisfy hunger, but it was not fancy.  In fact, it’s a little gross to describe.

The manna is explained by Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim as a natural phenomenon in the Sinai Peninsula – the area through which the Israelites fled when they escaped from Egypt.  I quote in detail, “a type of plant lice punctures the fruit of the tamarisk tree and excretes a substance from this juice, a yellowish-white flake or ball.  During the warmth of the day [the flake or ball] disintegrates, but it congeals when it is cold.  It has a sweet taste.  Rich in carbohydrates and sugar, [the substance] is still gathered by natives, who bake it into a kind of bread (and call it manna).  The food decays quickly and attracts ants.” 

We read also of the quail provided by God for meat for the Israelites.  Regarding the quail, [Fretheim says] “migratory birds flying in from Africa or blown in from the Mediterranean are often exhausted enough to be caught by hand.  Such gifts of God’s good creation are placed at Israel’s disposal; but what they do with the gift [says Fretheim] is not an insignificant matter.”[1]

So, even though miraculously provided, the food from which the Israelites are fed is just the ordinary stuff of life – God taking the ordinary gifts of nature and making them holy – providing sustenance for His people.  Neither the Israelites nor God considered this system of food provision to be any big deal.  It was God’s way of satisfying the grumblings and ungratefulness of His people in the wilderness, which even for God seems to be an impossible task.  We read the words of the Israelites from our text this morning, “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Would we, like the Israelites, prefer to be in bondage and well fed rather than free and hungry?  Would we, like those in our parable from Matthew, prefer to be standing idle in the marketplace as the laborers who came late to the vineyard, rather than coming early to work in the heat of the day?  After all, the reward at the end of the day is the same.  

Just the ordinary stuff of life – a day’s wages.  Whether we come early or late, God’s grace is the same.  But, let’s think again of those laborers who worked all day in the heat.  Let’s think of that day as the time of our lives spent with the knowledge of the presence of Christ.  God’s grace is the same at the end of time, but what of our time spent on earth here and now in the knowledge of Christ – in the work of the vineyard.  Is that not itself our special gift?  Are we not rewarded every day that we spend in the Body of Christ doing the work God has given us to do? 

Give us this day, our daily bread.  Take us and all the ordinary stuff of life and make it holy in your sight – just for today, that’s all we can ask.   This is the gift that is turned aside by those who stand idle in the marketplace or those whose existence is in earthly rewards while held in bondage by their ignorance of the love of Christ.  Our daily labor within the Body of Christ is our gift.  We have no need to grumble with God’s providence – though we do grumble like the Israelites.  And, God continues to respond to our grumbling by continuing to take that that is gross and ordinary – making it holy for his purpose of good.

God’s eternal grace is the same for all, but our gift for today is to live in the knowledge and love of Christ. 

Give us this day, our daily bread.  Heavenly Father, give us this day to spend in your presence; your provision is enough – the gift of your grace freely given – just for today. 

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