16th Sunday after Pentecost
September 24 2017
Exodus 16.2-15; Psalm 106.1-5, 48; Philippians 1.21-30; Matthew 20.1-16
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
Our Father, our King
Hear our prayer
We have sinned before you
Have compassion upon us and upon our children
Help us bring an end to sickness, war, and hunger
Cause all hate and oppression to vanish from the earth
Avinu Malkeinu is a prayer recited by our Jewish cousins in services during the ten days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It asks God to forgive our wrongs and failings, to accept us in our human frailty. It asks God to help us rise from our brokenness to build a world of shalom, a world of peace. In Shlomit Levi’s gentle understatement, it asks God “to treat us with kindness and generosity even when we haven’t always lived up to God’s ideals for us”.
Jeremy Milgrom is a friend of mine and a Rabbi for Human Rights. Avinu Malkeinu, he notes, is in the first person plural. If it “had been composed by today’s spin masters, there would be no confession here, rather blame and mudslinging against the other side.”
And then he segues into satire, directed against himself and his fellow Rabbis. “Of course,” he admits, “it’s hard for us to employ the first person plural here, because in reality we are a small minority of sensitive people among a vast majority of indifferent Israelis.”
But, he insists, for Avinu Malkeinu it’s not just “the settlers, the Civil Administration, the IDF, the Border Patrol, the police, the High Court of Justice, and the politicians who are cutting down olive trees, demolishing houses, putting up road blocks, arresting demonstrators, giving the occupation a green light, and preventing electricity from reaching Gaza” who are at fault. In the days of repentance, we point the finger at ourselves. We have sinned before God.
We Christians have our own seasons of repentance: Advent and Lent. But we don’t need to wait until then.
Paul reminds us that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. In these ten days of repentance, we can say with our Jewish cousins, “Avinu Malkeinu, almighty and merciful, we have sinned before you.”
This is also the last day of the week of prayer for peace in Israel/Palestine.
On Friday evening, I was in Bethlehem for a service to mark the week. We met in the garden of the Wi’am conflict transformation centre, in the shadow of the wall that now surrounds the traditional birthplace of Jesus on all four sides. There were good speeches and great songs. But my personal takeaway was a line from a prayer by my colleague, Carrie Smith, who shepherds the English-speaking Lutheran congregation in the Church of the Redeemer:
“How many times must we meet here, in this place, with this ugly wall as the background of our photos and of our lives? How long, O Lord, until this long night is over? … Now even this wall is in its teenage years.”
There is the diaspora way, where Jews live with others in a shared life that expresses both solidarity and an independent identity, a life of equals despite the differences. These Jews believe in democracy for all. They are found at the forefront of solidarity campaigns and struggles for equality. They recognize that no one is truly free as long as all society is not free.
This is not the Israeli way. “Paradoxically,” he says, “Israel, one of whose original purposes was to solve the Jewish problem, has cloned the ghetto experience rather than found a solution to it. Our walls of hostility are nurtured as a matter of policy, in order to separate Jews from anyone or anything that’s not Jewish while constantly denying the existence of others.”
Jews can open themselves to others or close themselves off from them. Judaism suggests they should do the former.
There are, of course, the same two ways of being Christian. We can define ourselves over against others, or we can understand ourselves with them. We can see ourselves as the people of God, with the implication that others aren’t. Or we can see ourselves as children of God, like all God’s children.
And then we can try to figure out what that means for our lives.
Matthew’s parable of the kingdom this morning is tricky, but only because we read into it things that are not there.
It’s not about the grace of God or about justification by faith. Jesus of Nazareth is not a 16th-century Protestant or a 19th-century Evangelical.
It’s not a critique of the economic arrangements of first-century Palestine, even though the gulf between rich and poor then was as great and as offensive as it is today. Jesus of Nazareth is not a 20th-century Marxist.
The life of a day labourer in Judea or the Galilee was hard by any standard. The usual daily wage was one denarius (or, as we used to say in the British Isles, a penny). An annual income of 200 denarii was barely enough to keep a small family, and without that you were below the poverty line. Getting enough money to live on was a constant challenge. You could stand idle in the market place all day because no one hired you.
We may think that this is not right, just as we may find the economic arrangements of our own world scandalous and absurd. But this is not what the parable is about. It is simply the background to the story Jesus tells.
In Matthew’s Gospel, this story comes in the middle of a long section emphasizing that we cannot serve God nor follow Jesus without reversing and rejecting the values of the world – values to which we are all attracted and too often succumb.
We are warned not to be seduced by wealth. The rich young man who observes the law asks what he still lacks, and Jesus tells him to practise detachment and compassion. “Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor; then come, follow me.” But the young man fails the test. His fault is not greed but avarice: he cannot serve God, because he is the slave of his possessions.
We are warned not to be seduced by status or power. When the disciples are jockeying for position, Jesus tells them that gentile tyrants may lord it over others, but among his followers greatness lies in service.
And in this parable we are warned not to succumb to envy.
The Tosefta is a compilation of oral law dating a couple of centuries after Jesus. It says that if a labourer works only part of the day, he is to be paid proportionally. But in the parable the owner of the vineyard does not behave as we expect.
The labourers who have worked the whole day are astonished when the owner pays those who have worked one hour a whole day’s pay. And then they fall to calculating: if those Johnnies-come-lately receive a denarius, then – or so they think – we who have worked all day should get 12 times as much. Indeed, since they show up at dusk while we have borne the burden of the day and the scorching Palestinian sun, we should get even more.
But God does not calculate as we calculate. The owner does not reward the labourers according to their work; he pays them according to their need. Whether they come early or late, whether they work all day or but one hour, he gives them all what they need to feed their families. He has compassion on them.
And that, says Jesus, is what God is like.
The punchline of the parable does not come in the saying that Matthew has tacked on at the end. It comes in the question that precedes it: “Are we envious because God is generous? Is our eye evil because God is good?”
The parable warns us against envy. We are not to be covetous or begrudge others their good fortune. We are to be generous as God is generous. We are to be compassionate as God is compassionate.
The Mishkan HaNefesh, the new prayer book of American Reform Jews for the days of awe, introduces Avinu Malkeinu with a chain of images:
Our Rock and Redeemer
Life of the Universe
Close to us always
Accepting our frailty
Decreeing our end
Unusually for a prayer book, it includes a theological footnote:
None of these are true
None of these are you
That’s right, of course. We cannot capture God in words and images; and yet we must speak. So let me end with these two words in season:
We cannot ask God to forgive us if we do not forgive those who have hurt us, and we cannot ask God to be merciful and compassionate if we do not show compassion to others.
We stand as those before us have stood
Summoned to judgment, longing for love
May these words be a bridge
They come from our hearts
May they lead us to you
 Jeremy Milgrom, “Parashat HaShavua for Shabbat Shuva: A happy New Year begins with shopping”
 Romans 3.22. Paul’s point, of course, is that even Jews sin (news that would come as no surprise to the prophets). As a recovering Pharisee, he takes for granted that we gentiles are sinners.
 I’m not decrying Reformers, Evangelicals, or Marxists, just asking that we avoid anachronism. We should read Matthew and hear Jesus in their original contexts, not view them in the distorting mirrors of later traditions.
This is a day of new beginnings (CH4 526)
Give praise and thanks unto the Lord (CH4 70, Psalm 106)
Look forward in faith (CH4 237)
Guide me, oh my great redeemer (CH4 167)
Eternal ruler of the ceaseless round (CH4 269)
Sources and resources
Avraham Burg, “Rosh Hashanah as the battle of Netanyahu vs Soros”
Avraham Burg, The Holocaust is Over: We must Rise from its Ashes (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)
Avraham Burg, Very Near to You: Human Readings of the Torah (Jerusalem and Springfield, NJ: Gefen, 2012)
Lior, “Avinu Malkeinu”
Jeremy Milgrom, “Parashat HaShavua for Shabbat Shuva: A happy New Year begins with shopping”
RebbeSoul/Shlomit Levi, “Avinu Malkeinu”
Klyne R Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008)
Barbra Streisand, “Avinu Malkeinu”
Nigel Westlake, Lior, “Compassion. A Symphony of Songs”