Maybe some of you have heard of this candy bar – the Whatchamacallit?
I have never actually eaten one (yet!) but I remember when I first learned about them. I was a kid, and a friend of mine and I were walking to the store to get a candy bar. I asked her what she was going to get, and she answered, “Whatchamacallit!”
And I responded, “Oh, Snickers? Milky Way?”
And she answered, “No, Whatchamacallit!”
We went back and forth, and it was a little like that old skit, “Who’s on First?”
This was on my mind this week because the word “manna” actually means something like “whatchamacallit” – actually, “what is this?”
The story about manna coming from heaven is the first of two stories we heard today about the economics of God. This first story is where the Hebrew people have been free from slavery in Egypt for a month. Their rations have run out and they are saying to Moses, at least in Egypt we could eat! But you’ve brought us out here to die. God’s answer is quail and whatchamacallit – manna – a fine flaky substance. Scholars have no idea what this really was. So this was weird food, but also – a totally different way of existing, of having their needs met.
In Egypt the Egyptians determined what, when, and how much they could eat. They had to work, back-breaking labor, in order to eat.
Now, they are alone. They are free, but being free is scary. God didn’t fix things up so that they would escape Pharaoh and then have it easy. It was hard, and now they were being asked to trust – trust is something that is in short supply in a brutal system such as slavery – but they were being asked to trust that the quail would come, that the whatchamacallit would fall from the sky, that this strange substance that they didn’t understand would somehow be sustenance for them.
Of course, what God was inviting them into was a recognition of reality, which had been obscured for them in the exploitative economic system they were in – that, at its source, everything we have belongs to God, and comes from God. Not from Egypt. Not from Pharaoh. Today, I might say, not from Amazon. Not from Wegmans.
In God’s economy, everyone gets the food they need. The manna falls on the righteous and the unrighteous. This, out in the wilderness of the freedom from slavery, is how God would like to run things. Everyone gets what they need. Everyone gets to be free. And any time that is not the case here on earth, we can understand that it’s a perversion of what God intends for life on earth.
The manna falls on the righteous and the unrighteous – this is a riff on a quote from the Gospel of Matthew, which is the Gospel our reading comes from today. The actual quote is part of the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus says “God causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” The Gospel of Matthew is, overall, very focused on this idea of the economy of God and the idea that the first shall be last and the last will be first – a total inversion of the unjust systems of the world that privilege some people over others. And that’s continued in the parable that we heard today. In this parable, a wealthy landowner needs to hire laborers to work on his vineyard. So he hires some at daybreak, and promises to pay them the daily wage. He goes back a couple of hours later, and hires some more. And he keeps going back and hiring more workers. At the end of the day, he surprises everyone by asking to those who arrived last – and therefore worked the fewest hours – to come be paid first, and when he pays them, he gives them a full days wage. And he does the same for everyone. Those who worked earliest are seeing this and expecting that they’ll get a bonus since they were there all day – but he surprises them, too, and gives them the same daily wage.
Now, if this feels a little unfair to you – it clearly felt unfair to those who labored all day, as well. They, like us, were part of an economic system that looked down on those who had less wealth or less ability to work. Laziness is the cardinal sin of the American way.
But I want to offer an interpretation of this that might make it make a little more sense.
Do you remember what it was like to be in gym class? Do you remember when we had to pick teams, and there were always the kids that got picked last? (I was one of those kids, btw, which might surprise you given my incredible softball skills, but yes, I was one of those kids.)
Maybe you were too – maybe you remember what it was like to stand there and watch everyone get picked as you stood there, idle.
We can imagine at the marketplace in this ancient city something sort of akin to that. The people who would be “picked first” to work at daybreak, I imagine, were likely the stronger ones, the younger ones, the ones who looked like they could really put in some good work at the vineyard. Or maybe the ones who weren’t taking care of someone sick at home, or children at home, so they could get up early and be available to work.
As the day goes on, more people are picked up by various landowners looking for laborers. And as the end of the day draws near, the only people who might still be looking for work are those who are maybe scrawny, or disabled, or weren’t able to come earlier for work because of commitments at home. The people who were used to *not* being paid a full days wage because they were never given the opportunity to earn it.
In the parable, the landowner doesn’t seem to mind this. He continues to hire people throughout the day, even those who probably can’t do the work quite as well as the others.
And then he pays them. He pays them all the same wage. And is disappointed, maybe even a little shocked, when those who were more able-bodied and hireable were angrier that they didn’t get a bonus than they were happy for their neighbors who perhaps earned a full days wage with dignity for the first time in their lives.
This is an ancient parable but it’s so human, and it still happens today. I think about arguments this nation has had over welfare for those living in poverty, and this insanity of people with means being so concerned that – god forbid! – someone who is lazy might benefit from such a system, therefore “cheating” those who have been blessed with more resources. Or the debate around student loan forgiveness, and the idea that somehow people who had had the ability to pay off their loans would somehow be being “cheated” if others had their loans forgiven.
This is baked into the culture of our time, and it was baked into the culture in the time of Jesus, too: This idea that resources are so scarce that we have to fight to get as much as we can and hold on to it tightly.
But that’s not the way things work in God’s economy, and it’s what we’re called to live into as much as we can here on earth. We are called to live and share as generously as God has shared with us, to hold what we own lightly because we know that all we have belongs to God and comes from God and we are only stewards of it very briefly.
It is through this that we find, like the ancient Hebrew people, true freedom. Thanks be to God.