“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
With all the complaining going on in the Exodus reading this morning, I like to imagine there had to have been at least one woman in the Israelite camp who wasn’t complaining. She knew what she’d signed up for. She was faithful. All during their Egyptian captivity she believed that freedom was coming and when she first saw this new kid standing up to Pharaoh she knew that God had sent him. Of course the Red Sea parted for them. Of course they had a long journey ahead. That’s what she’d prepared for. She was responsible for a family of six and even though their departure had been hasty she had gathered their provisions, bare essentials but also tools for foraging in the wilderness, and not only tools but a mentality bent on survival, a rationing of just enough for each day they were on the road. And so her heart filled with bitterness when she heard her friends complain. She could have told you these women would be in trouble weeks ago. They hadn’t prepared. After the Egyptians had been crushed they celebrated for days with elaborate feasts which cleared out half their stock. And now they were complaining about not having enough. “What do you think he brought us out here for,” one mumbled at the entrance of her tent, “to die?” “I heard his parents aren’t even Jewish,” “oh yea well you know they found him in the river, can you imagine? Probably why he mumbles so much.” The last straw was when one showed up after the kids had been put to bed one night and said, “There’s going to be a revolt tomorrow at noon, join us in the camp square, we won’t stand for this starvation any longer, we’re going home.” She didn’t say a word in reply. She waited for the woman to leave, found a quiet place to sit down, and prayed. “Oh God and Ruler of the Universe, Awesome in Renown, Worker of Wonders, how much longer must I tolerate these fools? Let your strength be known. Punish them. Teach them that they can’t just do whatever they want and waste their lives away and expect everything to be handed to them on a platter! Amen.” She was sure that God would make himself known. So the next day she did not go to the protest. And she waited patiently for the next day after that and for the end to come. She imagined her friend coming back to the entrance of the tent again, tearful, repentant. She imagined herself being gracious but also firm, not so much of an “I told you so,” as a, “well our choices do have consequences, don’t they?” When her friend finally flung wide the tent flap she was not prepared to see her standing there with a platter full of perfectly rotisseried golden quail. “The Almighty has provided! Quail appeared, we can eat again, we can make it after all!” She rushed back out as quickly as she had come, the sound of exultation could be heard in the camp once again. The woman stands and walks to the entrance and looks out across the feasting just as one of her own young boys comes running up to her, half eaten quail leg in hand, “momma, we can eat again!” She doesn’t say a word in reply. Her face only goes blank with rage.
I imagine it wasn’t easy for the day laborers who came late in Jesus’ story. I imagine one of them showing up to a bar after the shift had ended and the whole business about each worker being paid an equal wage no matter how long they had worked for had been settled. When he walks in, a hush falls over the room, all eyes on him. He finds a seat far removed down the bar from everyone and it seems like an eternity before the bartender takes his order and when she does she barely speaks. It’s not like he planned to be a total slacker. He didn’t mean to con anyone. He’d been passing through town, he’d slept late that day, he’d been asked if he could work and obliged. He hadn’t asked to be paid the same as everyone else. “Hey,” suddenly one of the other men is towering over him. He recognizes him from the field, face burnt and covered in dirt from a full day’s worth of work. “The rest of us were talking and it seems like you owe us one. Seems like you could buy the next round of drinks. Maybe the next couple of rounds.” This is not an option. The man has a mother he needs to take care of. Unfair as it may have been he’s going to use that money to help her, she’d been rationing out what little they had all year and if there was going to be any good fortune he was determined to bring some of it her way. “I don’t think that’s going to happen,” he tells the tall man. What happens next he can’t remember. He wakes up the next morning bruised, bloody and empty-pocketed on the outskirts of town. The day laborers meanwhile have unionized, if you don’t show up by 6am you’re not working that day, period. No matter what some crooked landowner says.
Fast forward two thousand years. I’m yelling at a computer screen. On it is a clip from the Emmy’s in which the former Press Secretary of the President of the United States is rolling out on stage in an imitation of an imitation of himself, one that had satirized the farce he had made out of the press during his brief tenure. “No,” I’m yelling, “No, this man does not get to redeem himself. No, this man does not get to laugh at his own ridiculousness. This man is in cahoots with the end of western civilization as we know it. This man is responsible for the unraveling of truth. This man is a part of what threatened to jeopardize the future of 800,000 dreamers, the healthcare of millions of Americans with preexisting conditions, and may or may not lead us into nuclear winter on the basis of personal insults. He does not get to laugh at himself. He does not get to be redeemed.” This is the point at which Jesus gently takes the mouse out of my hand and clicks the window closed and asks, “Why are you mad, though? Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
I wake up as if from a nightmare. I am utterly mystified by the generosity of God. I am confident that the generosity of God has nothing to do with who gets struck by hurricanes and who gets to sit in air-conditioned offices, but beyond that my confidence begins to wane. I gather from scripture and the stories Jesus tells that God is someone generous beyond all human measure, antithetical to human measurement, even, but I really only have human terms to compare that to. I only know that generosity is hard for us. I only know that generosity can get mired in human envy and comparison and judgement. I know that most of us love the feeling of being generous but are also confined by a sense of what is just or simply reasonable. I know that Father John used to say, “never resist a generous impulse,” and that that maxim has led many members of this parish down paths of self-offering that have often led to God. But I do not know what to do with the unfairness of it all, with the resentments that arise when grace collides with human standards of what someone does or does not deserve. When God asks, “am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” I only know that it feels like a fight waiting to be picked if I say no, but that thankfully, by God’s standards, most of the folks who do all the complaining still end up getting fed anyway.
the Rev. James Michael Joiner
Exodus 16:2-15, Matthew 20:1-16