Psalm 31:11–21; Exodus 6:13–7:24; Matthew 20:1–16

Psalm 31:11–21: I am writing from Monterey with the surf as background; a beautiful sunny morning.

Our psalmist is feeling less optimistic: “For my life is exhausted in sorrow/ and my years in sighing.” (11) Apparently he has committed a major wrongdoing and is now reaping the consequences: “Through my crime my strength stumbles/ and my limbs are worn out.” (12) Even the poet’s enemies have joined his friends in withdrawing from his presence: “For all my enemies I become a disgrace,/ just as much to my neighbors, and fear to my friends.” (13) Social rejection leads to a sense that he has died already: “Forgotten from the heart like the dead,/ I become like a vessel lost.” (14)

If ever we needed a dramatic description of what true depression feels like from the point of view of the person experiencing it, it is right here in this psalm, which we presume describes David when Saul was attempting to kill him. The sense of abandonment—to be isolated and then forgotten—is palpable here.  That this abandonment comes as the result of a conspiracy makes it even worse: “For I heard the slander of many,/ terror all round,/ when they conspired against me,/ when they plotted to take my life.” (14)

At the bottom of this dark abyss of the soul there is only one hope for rescue and David remembers, “As for me, O Lord,/ I say ‘You are my God./ My times are in Your —O save me/ from the hands of my enemies, my pursuers.” (15, 16) Rejected by humans, only one agent of rescue remains and David knows who it is: “Shine Your face on Your servant,/ Rescue me in Your kindness.” (17) Only one person can remove his shame: “Lord, let me not be shamed, for I call You.” (18a). And while God is effecting David’s rescue, it would be OK by him if his enemies experienced what he is experiencing: “Let the wicked know shame,/ and be stilled in Sheol.” (18b)

I often wonder that in light of Jesus’ command to love our enemies whether we can pray for bad things to befall our enemies. But here David is not really asking for revenge, he is simply praying that his enemies cease their persecution: “Let lying lips be silent,/ that speak haughty against the just/ in arrogance and contempt.” In this political season where arrogant speech seems to be the currency d’jour, I believe this is an entirely reasonable and proper prayer.

Exodus 6:13–7:24: As is the case so frequently in the OT, it is ancestry that establishes a person’s bonafides, and our authors interrupt the action to provide a detailed list of Moses’ and Aaron’s forebears. This makes them legitimate players in the eyes of our authors to have carried out the greatest exodus in history.

Even more important than ancestry is the fact that his protestations of inadequacy notwithstanding, Moses is obedient even though he once again reminds God of his weakness in speech and argument: “But Moses said in the Lord’s presence, “Since I am a poor speaker, why would Pharaoh listen to me?”” (6:30). Clearly Moses was no lawyer, but he was lucky to have an articulate brother.

Then in a remarkable statement, God informs Moses that he has it all set up to make sure Moses will be able to carry off this enormous task of persuading Pharaoh to release the Israelites: “The Lord said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet.” (7:1)  In order to make sure Pharaoh ultimately accepts that Moses is like a god, it will not be an easy task. God informs Moses, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and I will multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt.” (7:4)God’s logic seems to be that only after a series of showy miracles will Pharaoh truly be convinced of Moses’ god-like status. The brothers accept their roles and “Moses and Aaron did so; they did just as the Lord commanded them.” (7:6)

The authors reminds us that by the time these events are to occur, both Moses and Aaron are relatively advanced in age: “ Moses was eighty years old and Aaron eighty-three when they spoke to Pharaoh.” (7:7)

The first demonstration to Pharaoh is Aaron’s magic staff, which turns into a snake and then back again, followed by the portentous announcement, “See, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall be turned to blood.” (7:17) Which of course he proceeds to do. Unfortunately, the Egyptian magicians are able to perform the same trick, so Pharaoh remains unpersuaded.

So, what is God’s point here? Dueling magic tricks between Moses and the court magicians that leave the inhabitants of Egypt—both Egyptian and Israelite— in desperate straits unable to drink water seems somehow petty. Of course we know how the story turns out, but at this point we can only sympathize with the frustration that Moses felt. After all, Aaron and he were faithfully following God, but God seems to be turning the tables on them. I know I have prayed for an outcome and been obedient but the result has not been the way I had imagined or hoped. At that point it’s difficult not to think of God as cruel trickster.

Matthew 20:1–16: Jesus continues his disquisition on the nature of the Kingdom of heaven. And it’s clear that the kingdom is not a haven of relaxation. There is labor. Worse, the wages of the laborer are not proportionate to the amount of labor expended. Those annoying latecomers that show up at 4:45 receive the same wages as the diligent workers who reported at 8 a.m.

I view this parable as Matthew making the same kind of point that Luke made in the parable of the Prodigal SOn with regard to the relationship between the prodigal and his brother. The brother had done everything according to what he saw as his father’s plan: being the good son and working diligently. He has followed the law religiously. The prodigal in effect shows up at the last moment, yet he has enjoyed—and squandered—the same amount the brother will receive as his inheritance.

What’s clear in both parables is that when we hew strictly to the law we have no concept of what grace and mercy really are: a gift it is the father’s (and God’s) right to give without further explanation. We law-followers live by the quid pro quo. But life’s not fair. Even God behaves this way.

Our culture wishes everything to be equal and “fair.” But to confuse equity—that we have the potential to receive the same inheritance, the same opportunity— and equality—that we have exactly the same outcomes—are not the same thing. To confuse them, as the laborers in the vineyard did, leads only to hard feelings.

God provides equity. We all get to work in the vineyard. What we do with our opportunity is up to us. We may arrive early or late, but God’s grace falls equally on all of us.




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