The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20), September 24, 2023

August 1, 2023 | by Paul Nancarrow

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Exodus 16:2-15 Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 Philippians 1:21-30 Matthew 20:1-16

The readings assigned for this day present various aspects of reflection on the unexpected generosity of God — and on the appropriate human response.

The passage from Matthew recounts the well known “Parable of the Vineyard,” in which a landowner hires day laborers to work in his vineyard, sending out different groups at later and later hours throughout the day, and at the end of the day pays them all the same wage. On the face of it, of course, this is manifestly unfair. We today are particularly sensitive to the justice of “equal pay for equal work,” and the depiction of people working one hour and people working several hours getting the same pay is clearly not just.

But this is not really a story about the value of work, or the justice of comparative wage scales. This is a story about being “made equal.” The workers who were sent into the vineyard at the beginning of the day, and who receive the agreed-upon daily wage for their labor, complain that the landowner’s payment of the last workers has “made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” They resent that equality, and want their superior effort acknowledged. But the landowner points out, quite rightly, “I am doing you no wrong”: they agreed on the regular daily wage, and they are receiving the regular daily wage. It is the landowner’s choice to be equally generous to all who have labored, and their payment is determined by his generosity, not by their labor. The first workers, who think they are being just, are revealed by the landowner as actually being “envious because I am generous.”

The problem with the first workers is that they are trying to measure their status and value according to their rank over against the other workers, rather than by their relationship with the landowner. If the landowner chooses to be generous, that is an invitation for the workers to join in open-hearted and reciprocating relationship in gratitude and generosity. If the first workers were to focus on being grateful to the landowner, perhaps they could be grateful and glad on behalf of the other workers as well, who are receiving enough to live on for that day, even though they had found no one to hire them for the full day. Because of the landowner’s unexpected generosity, the whole community gathered around the marketplace that day is sharing in prosperity, including of course the first workers themselves. The first workers appear to be more concerned with their own status than with this shared prosperity.

This parable has often been allegorized, with various groups being assigned to the first and last workers: Jews and Gentiles; Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians; born-and-bred Christians and deathbed-conversion Christians. With the landowner interpreted as God or Jesus, the point of the parable is then made out to be that everyone is welcomed into God’s Reign, no matter when or with whom or at what stage of life they made their decision to turn to God. The “daily wage” given is interpreted not as literal money, but as the free gift of grace, which is always equal for everyone who receives it, because God’s infinite love is not something that admits of “less” or “more.”

But apart from any particular allegorized interpretation, the central teaching of the parable is that God gives equal love to all, and the proper human response is not to think “I suffered more, I deserve more love,” but to receive love gratefully and to rejoice generously with all who share in that love.

Human grumbling at divine generosity is also a feature of the reading from Jonah. I’ve heard it remarked that Jonah was the most successful prophet of the Hebrew Scriptures: he went to a foreign city, proclaimed that they must repent, and they all repented immediately! Even the domesticated animals! No other prophet in the canon can claim such rapid and total conversion.

It is likely that the book of Jonah is more parabolic fable than actual history. Quite apart from the incident of the fish, it seems implausible that God would send an Israelite prophet to pagan Nineveh to warn them about impending judgment, and more implausible still that they would all listen. So it could be assumed that the point of the story is less the repentance of the foreigners than the reaction of the protagonist.

And the protagonist’s reaction isn’t good. God’s relenting on bringing calamity to Nineveh “was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.” Jonah had been all prepared to see the city destroyed. Having tasted a bit of God’s wrath himself, when God first called him to go to Nineveh and he promptly took off in the other direction, Jonah is eager to see such wrath poured out on a city full of sinners who deserve wrath so much more than he did. When that doesn’t happen, Jonah feels his effort and suffering, “bearing the burden of the day,” as it were, have gone for nothing, that he’s been made a fool, that he’s been cheated of the properly fiery outcome of his prophetically fiery proclamation.

Jonah even complains to God that he knew in advance that God would forgive and allow the Ninevites to survive, and that is why he did not want to come and proclaim God’s message. That God made him do it anyway convinces Jonah that God does not value his life at all, and he asks God to take that worthless life away from him.

But God does in fact value Jonah’s life, and values it enough to want to help Jonah see this whole situation through the lens of divine generosity and not simply through his human anger and frustration. God “appoints” a bush to grow and give Jonah shade, a worm to attack and destroy the bush, and a “sultry east wind” to blow and heat Jonah up to the point of fainting. When Jonah laments the loss of his bush, God acknowledges that loss, and asks Jonah to imagine what sort of loss God would feel had Nineveh perished, with its “more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals.”

God shows unexpected generosity twice in this story: once to Nineveh, and once to Jonah. Jonah’s response to the first generosity is to be envious that God is generous; instead of rejoicing in the blessing shared with Nineveh, he chooses to believe that since he suffered more, he ought to have the satisfaction of seeing others suffer. We are not told Jonah’s reaction to the second unexpected generosity, to God’s special actions to help Jonah see his own life and work from a divinely generous point of view. This leaves it to us, the readers, to consider how we will respond to divine generosities to us and those around us in our present.

Transmuting an experience of personal burden into a learning opportunity in divine generosity is also a theme in the Philippians passage. Paul writes to the Christians in Philippi that God has granted them “the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.” In most cases, we would not think of “suffering” as a “privilege” — but Paul is referring here to a very particular kind of “struggle” that he says the Philippians are sharing with him.

As the verses just before the assigned passage indicate, Paul is writing this letter while imprisoned, unsure of the outcome of his trial, and facing the real possibility of execution. When he contemplates the relative values of living and dying, it is no general speculation, but concern for his own proximate future. Paul sees in his imprisonment, however, a new kind of opportunity for mission and proclamation: “the whole imperial guard,” he writes in verse 13, as well as everyone else who has heard of Paul’s situation, has now also heard about Jesus, and has been at least passingly told about the Gospel. Even though Paul can not move about, more people than ever are spreading the word, and Paul cannot see it as anything other than good that “Christ is proclaimed in every way” (verse 18).

It is this perception of a wider good of proclamation that supports Paul’s contemplation of his own living and dying. Whether he is executed and can “depart and be with Christ,” or whether he remains “in the flesh” in order to further the work of mission, he will be carried along by the larger movement of the spread of the Gospel and the love of Jesus. Either course is a way for Paul to receive the generosity of God and to gratefully share that generosity through service to others.

It is the unexpected generosity of God in opening an opportunity for proclamation even in prison, and Paul’s response of gratitude and sharing, that makes his vision of living and dying so broad. It is because the Philippians also face controversy, as Paul has, that they can now have the same opportunity as Paul to find new ways of proclaiming and serving that they had not expected. This is what makes their “suffering” a “privilege” and an opening for grateful generosity in sharing Jesus’ love in their actions.

Transmuting suffering into an opportunity to experience divine goodness is also at work in the reading from Exodus. Having observed the first Passover, and then having escaped the Egyptian army at the Red Sea, the Israelites are in the wilderness, and are hungry, and are complaining. So badly do they regret leaving their cooking pots and fill of bread that they wish God had killed them in Egypt, rather than rescuing them from oppression.

God responds by providing food for them, and it is unexpected food that arrives in an unexpected way. In the evening the wind switches direction, blows a flock of quail off their course, and drops them in the camp. In the morning the dew rises as usual, leaving behind an unusual “fine flaky substance” that the Israelites discover they can gather and eat. So unexpected is it, so unrecognizable to their ingrained culinary habits, that they have to ask “What is it?” — in Hebrew, man hu? — and their question becomes the new food’s name. Moses, discerning God’s agency in these events, as God has inspired him, interprets the unexpected sustenance, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”

In the Gospel and Jonah passages, God acts with unexpected generosity and is met with human anger and grumbling at what is perceived as unfairness. In the Exodus reading, the sequence is reversed: the people grumble (over a previous generous act of God, it should be noted) and God responds with more generosity. But the question of the appropriate human response to divine goodness remains. God says to Moses that the gift of manna is also a test “whether they will follow my instruction or not.” Will the people gather only what they need for that day (and extra for the Sabbath day, when gathering would be prohibited)? Or will they be greedy and fearful and attempt to keep more than they can actually use? Will they put their trust in the continuing generosity of God? Or will they attempt to secure the satisfaction of their hunger on their own terms? Whether the people will respond according to their own measure, or in grateful and open-hearted relationship with God and with each other, remains to be seen.

All these readings leave the present-day reader — and preacher — with the question of how we can respond to the generosity of God in our own personal and social experiences. God is always and everywhere offering to us initial aims, new potentialities for co-creating occasions of justice and peace, right-relationship for mutual well-being, receiving and offering freely and graciously. God is always and everywhere receiving our actualized occasions into God’s own feeling, the Adventure of the Universe as One, and re-sharing our feeling as influence for co-creating new occasions. We can respond to this continual generosity of God by grumbling when we don’t get the opportunities we think we deserve, or the rewards we calculate we have earned, or the satisfactions we hunger for and desire. Or we can discern what God is doing in and through and around us, unexpected as that might be, to draw us into co-creating with God and with others real occasions of real mutual well-being. Instead of being envious when God is generous, we can join in that generosity in our own actions and works of love.

The Rev. Dr. Paul Nancarrow is an Episcopal priest, whose theological work has focused on process-relational interpretations of spirituality and liturgy, and especially on the co-acting of divine action and human action in sacramental work and worship. He has taught Theology for ordination training in Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia, and is currently the author of the theology blog “Transfigurations” at He can often be found contemplating the Adventure of the Universe as One from the saddle of his bicycle on back roads and rail-trails in the Midwest.