What is human nature? How do you define human nature? Webster’s defines human nature like this: human nature is the fundamental dispositions and traits of humans. Thank you, Webster’s dictionary, for perhaps the most unclear definition in all history. The problem with this definition is that depending on what human you observe, the meaning changes a great deal. I would even argue depending on the time of day you meet a human, their dispositions and traits might change! What is the human nature you present while stuck in traffic because gawkers find it necessary to slow down and observe an accident on the other side of the highway. Now let’s compare that to the human nature you demonstrate when arriving at Redeemer today. You are dressed in nice clothes, makeup done, and your children sit perfectly in their pews.

To the outside observer witnessing these two events, I would wager that the two people observed might be considered two completely different species! Philosophers from Socrates on have been wrestling with the question; what is human nature? Often when I hear the term human nature used, it is used in the pejorative sense. “Did you see what happened on the news last night? Can you believe they did that?” “Human nature, I suppose.” “I was shocked to hear Billy got caught stealing from the bank.” “Well, that’s human nature.”

In the Gospel reading today, Jesus tells the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. Often when Jesus uses money in his parables, he uses vast sums to represent the greatness of God’s mercy. Today, the sum of money is not so grand it is a denarius, equivalent to a day’s wage. As we read today, the master of the house went out several times to hire day laborers to work in his field. At the end of the day, some of the laborers worked a full day, and others worked only one hour. The master begins to pay the laborers, and he pays each one. He pays the one who has worked the least first and the one who has worked the longest last. He pays each of them the same amount, which was, in fact, the wage the workers who worked the longest agreed to.

As human nature would have it, the laborers who worked the longer day got their hopes up when they saw those who only worked one hour receive such a generous wage. I imagine them like dogs licking their chops as their dinner is brought to them. But when they receive the same wage as those who only worked for one hour, they complained. Now, before we go any further, I have to poll the congregation. Who, among us today, if you were in the same position as the laborer who worked 12 hours, would also complain that it was unfair for someone who worked only one hour to receive the same wage as you?

So, what is this parable all about? To get to the answer to that question, I have other questions each of us must ask ourselves; why is goodness often the occasion for anger? Why is it that we are often made angry, or miserable, over the good in other people’s lives? Further, why do we spend our time calculating how we have been cheated?[1]

Do you all remember Jonah, perhaps the most awkward prophet in all the Bible? On a side note, if I were filming a movie about Jonah, I would cast Mr. Bean to play Jonah, because Jonah is a ridiculous character in the Bible. I will talk more about that at “tell me more” tomorrow night. Jonah is a lot like the laborers who worked the full twelve hours in the parable we heard today. After trying to escape God’s call, being thrown off a boat, eaten by a giant fish, thrown up on shore, and then doing about 15% of the work God asks him to do, he goes into the wilderness and sulks and is angry at God. The reason Jonah is angry at God is, get this because God refused to kill all the citizens in Nineveh. Like the laborers who worked the full twelve hours in the parable, Jonah is angry, and the source of his anger is God’s goodness. So, what is it that we are supposed to learn from these lessons today? That human nature is such that we are all inherently gigantic jerks who are only happy when we get something good? That message does not sound like a message Jesus wants us to take away.

Perhaps the definition of human nature I have been using today is flawed. Maybe Jesus is not teaching us about human nature as revealed by the anger or jealousy we feel at the good others receive. What Jesus is doing is showing us God’s nature. God’s nature is what we must learn to reflect. The Book of Common Prayer defines human nature this way: we are part of God’s creation, made in the image of God. We are free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God.” There is no room for anger or jealousy if we are in harmony with each other and with God. Ask yourself this: what good does it do me to be upset or jealous of someone else’s success? Jesus’s goal was not to be in first place in the world; he came to be the first fruits of the resurrection, of eternal life, and to grant each of us, through his wounds, through his death, immortality. We cannot find life in anger. Anger breeds only death. “If the parable is about the goodness of God, then it asks that we give up envy, and calculation of reward and, rather, both embrace and imitate God’s goodness. That will mean that we give up the quest to be first, knowing that God’s standards are different, that what appears to be first will be last.”[2] Do not be anxious about earthly things, but love things heavenly, and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, hold fast to those that shall endure. Hold fast to faith, hope, and love.

[1] Snodgrass Parables p 378.

[2] Ibid. 378-379.

Sermon preached by the Rev. Christian M. Wood

Church of the Redeemer

Sarasota Florida

16th Sunday after Pentecost

20 September 2020