The Economy of God
Homily by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson
Delivered at the Church of the Intercession, NYC
September 24, 2017
Text: Matthew 20:1-16
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
When I was little – okay, I mean when I was younger, since I’m still little – when I was younger, I was a greedy little girl, particularly where my younger brother was concerned. My mother always told me that I really acted out when my brother was born – I was a little over three years old at the time, and I was not happy at being dethroned from my exalted position at the center of the universe.
I kept this sense of entitlement throughout our childhoods – I always felt that I deserved more of everything, the best of everything, and if I didn’t get it, my favorite cry was “no fair!” Never mind that there was no justification for this whatsoever – the only reason I felt that I was entitled to more of everything than my brother was because I had existed on the planet for three years longer than he had. I just thought it was up to me to decide what was fair and what wasn’t.
Now stick with me here; I’m about to say something that might upset you, because I’m going to jump straight from this point into today’s gospel.
The folks in the gospel who are furious because they think they deserve more money because they've worked longer in the heat of the day also have no right to decide how much they get paid. This offends our sensibilities – we are keenly tuned to our deep beliefs of fairness versus inequality, particularly in economics. I’m no different – I read this gospel, and it sounds very unfair to me! I think everyone in church today would have the exact same reaction – if we were in the worked-all-day-in-the-sun group, we’d feel as though we were done wrong.
But notice – Jesus thinks that paying workers who came along in the late afternoon getting the same wages as those who toiled all day in the burning heat is perfectly okay. There are several conclusions we can draw from this. One is that Jesus is not a capitalist, in the sense that he doesn't believe that money is the true currency of life. But Jesus isn't really a socialist or a communist either – in fact, Jesus doesn't fully sign on to any of the economic systems in our world.
Now make no mistake: Jesus is crucially concerned about poverty and wealth; he speaks often about soul-corroding attraction of materialism, even as he insists that we are to care for the poor. But as a teacher of his time, Jesus’ teachings are set against the worldly kingdom of his day, which was Rome. Jesus compares the values of the Roman empire to that of God’s kingdom in order to show us the Way: The Way of the Good News, the Way of truth, The Way of everlasting life in the midst of the ways of this world which, he reminds us, is passing away.
Let’s return to our world of economics. We all know that the world’s economy is very real and very important – even in the best of times it can be difficult to afford the costs of living in this city, and when the economy turns bad it is not only the quality of people’s lives that suffers, but, in many cases, the very ability to survive is called into question. Without money, the basic necessities of life like food, shelter, and medicine can fall perilously beyond our reach. And after natural disasters like the terrible hurricanes and flooding of these past few months, these problems are multiplied when people lose important papers, like Social Security cards and driver’s licenses, without which it’s impossible to collect insurance and other benefits.
There is a Greek work, ekonimeia, which is translated into English as the word “economy.” But in the gospels it does not have the sense of the word “economy” the way that we are accustomed to using it; that is, in the monetary sense, you know, bank accounts, store prices, credit cards, all of those things that we assign numbers to.
Instead, ekonimeia describes how the kingdom of God operates, which is very different than the economy of the world. For one thing, there is no price tag on any of the riches of the kingdom of God. In our world, we may use a gold standard to measure value; in God’s kingdom, the standard is love. We may use currency to purchase goods in our world; in the world of Jesus’ kingdom, our salvation has already been purchased by his sacrifice and his grace.
In fact, the ekonimeia of God’s kingdom operates with love and grace at its base, and its foundational principles for growth are that in order to multiply riches you must give them away, in order to save them you must lose them, and in order to keep them you cannot hoard them. In the world’s economy this is crazy talk, but in Jesus’ kingdom this is how you grow your investment. The kingdom’s economy does not assume that more for you means less for me, but rather that more for you means more, much more, for me. There is no limit on the love of God, for that account can never be emptied, and there is never any fluctuation in the value of the boundless love of the giver.
So how does this relate to our gospel for today? Jesus is applying kingdom ekonomeia principles to our economy, and reminding us that there is no such thing as “income inequality,” when it comes to God. God is always fair, but God does not abide by the economic laws of the world. For one thing, we can be rewarded in many ways other than money.
Say, for example, that instead of being paid in cash you instead are blessed with being unusually beloved? What if you are given a passion and purpose in life that very few people find? Or perhaps you are given a beautiful family who care not only for each other, but also for others? Or maybe you have a stunning amount of what we call “favor” – unexpected gifts from others? (By the way if God gives you enough “favor,” you don’t need much money at all, because people around you will pay for everything!)
When Jesus, in the words of the landowner, says:
Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last-
Jesus is saying that if you stick close to him, then He himself will decide what is right for your reward, and he will always be generous. The landowner in the gospel had agreed to a certain wage with the workers he hired in the morning; he is sticking to that agreement. We must live up to our agreements with God, then allow Jesus to decide on the reward. It may come in a different currency than that of the world, but we know that God is good, that God is generous, that God knows us better than we know ourselves, and that God loves us more than we can ever imagine.
All we need to do is trust Jesus, and expect good from his hand.
And we know we can trust his hand, because it has a nail hole in it.