The Un-American Dream?

Matthew 20:1-16 

How would you describe the American Dream? Ever take a moment to think about this? Well, take some time now. Think of your favorite patriotic song, imagine a giant Bald Eagle flying through the air with an American Flag being held in his beak or claws, and think about how you would describe the American Dream today.

James Truslow Adams, in his book The Epic of America, which was written in 1931, stated that the American dream is “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” (p.214-215)

This is a beautiful image; isn’t it? The idea that each individual will be judged on their own merits, and that if you work hard enough, you can reach any goal you set for yourself.

But here’s the problem: this dream is not true for everyone who calls him or herself an American today.

Is the American Dream about making enough money to feel financially secure? It does play a major role in how we live our daily lives. USA Today recently had an article saying that for a family of four, the America Dream, with a house, insurance, education, and transportation, would cost about $130k a year. Today’s average household income is $51,000…that’s it.

What about upward mobility? Is that what the American Dream is about? How we want our children to have more opportunities than we did? Well, it depends who you talk to. Almost all reports show that in the US, the wealthy keep on getting wealthier, and the poor keep on getting poorer. We see this here in our communities often as we drive by trailer parks situated down the road from multi-million dollar gated communities.

And what about recognition? We live in a nation today that reports white women still make on average only 78% of what white men make in a given year. And men and women of color; about 70% and 60% of white men, respectively.

To say that the American Dream of James Truslow Adams is being realized today is simply not true for many Americans. So what is, or what should be our dream for today?

The people that were following Jesus were asking similar questions about their own context. What hopes did they have for success and recognition in their daily lives?   If they worked hard enough, could they provide for a better life for their children and grandchildren? For many of these people at that time, they would never be offered equal opportunities simply because of their race or ethnicity, age, sexual identity, or abilities.

The reality for Israel was that many people were struggling with comparing their dreams with their realities each day, much like we do here today. They wanted Jesus to tell them the good news that they had come to believe from others about the Israeli dream. They wanted to hear that everything was going to be alright; that they didn’t need to worry if they worked hard enough. Instead, Jesus tells them a story about a landowner and some workers.

Now we begin in V. 1  where Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of Heaven. Just previous to this in chapter 19, Jesus was talking to a rich man who wanted to know what he must do to enter the Kingdom. Jesus’ answer: sell everything and give your money to the poor. Needless to say, Jesus is in a bit of a testy mood when he continues here in chapter 20.

He chooses to tell a parable, or a story, about a landowner and laborers…a pretty ordinary story of what many people experienced in their daily lives…and what we also are familiar with today.

In verse 9 we read that each laborer received the ‘usual daily wage’

And then in v. 10 Jesus adds the ‘conflict’ to the parable. The laborers hired first also received the ‘usual daily wage’. Hmmm…

Of course those who have been working their butts off in the heat all day grumble, much like I would have, and in v. 15 the landowner responds ‘Are you envious because I am generous?’

In verse 16 Jesus quickly confirms the people’s worst assumptions and fears about the parable: So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

I can imagine their responses…much like my own: ‘The last will be first, and the first will be last?’ What kind of ideal of life is this good for? What are you saying here, Jesus?

If you’re anything like me, this message of Jesus makes me squirm and grumble a little. I was born and raised in a Midwestern culture in Ohio, where I was taught a life lesson early on: life is tough, so work hard, and don’t complain. If we followed this lesson, we would be alright— this message is similar to how we understand the American Dream.

I feel like the day laborers were living by these lessons as well. ‘If we just work as hard as we can and keep our mouth shut, surely the landowner will reward us appropriately.’

That didn’t happen. Well, it did…but not in comparison to the others who just got there. And even as I read this passage today, it makes me wonder, ‘Is this what Christianity is all about?’ Giving a free pass to those who don’t work as hard as I do?

But then, slowly, life began to reveal to me what Christ was alluding to. I began to understand what the Gospel was about, and my heart & my life would be changed forever.

I began to understand on one of my first mission trips as we worked alongside the members of an African American church in Orangeburg, South Carolina, rebuilding the church literally brick by brick after a racially-motivated arson burnt the church to the ground.

I began to understand when I sat down for dinner with loving and generous families, filled with joy and love, who were homeless with their three children after a series of layoffs during our latest recession.

I began to understand when my friend Hardy sat down with me after class and shared with me the realities of living in the US as a person of color; and how no matter how smart this Harvard graduate was or how hard he worked, people still would look at him strangely as he walked by them on the streets, or in the pews on Sundays.

And here’s what I understand today: Jesus is not offering a gospel of laziness and reward to those who don’t work hard in this world. Jesus is offering the Good News that God works beyond the limits and the brokenness of this world to share in the abundance of love and grace for all of Creation. It was this life lesson that changed my life, and why I call myself a Christian today.

The American Dream is a good dream. It instills within us a hope for the future as individuals and a nation. But the American Dream has its limits, as all human made creations do. We need more.

God’s Dream goes beyond even our wildest dreams. God offers us a new reality, where each of us will share in God’s Kingdom as what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would call a Beloved Community, where each of us will have more than enough, not because of our own hard work, but by the compassion and generosity of our Creator and one another.

Now, this may be hard to hear at first. I’m sure that many of us are internally grumbling just like those laborers who worked all day in the field. After all, such a message may seem like the antithesis of how we were raised, of what we have come to value, of our American Dream.

Still others may dismiss such a message of God’s abundance as idealism that has no place in the realities of today’s world.

But if we allow the message of the Kingdom of God to sit and stew for a while, maybe there doesn’t have to be such a divide between our dreams and that which Jesus describes.  Maybe God’s Dream is not the un-American dream that most people might assume. After all, isn’t the American Dream what we, as Americans make of it?

Here’s my life lesson for people these days, which is a little different than what I was told growing up. God wants us to work hard, especially when life is tough. And you know what, I don’t think God minds too much when we complain—in fact, God listens. And here’s the thing: we work hard in this world, not for our own wages and gains, but for a common good of realizing God’s abundance in this world…and God has more than enough. Yes, we will encounter those who may not work as long, or have the same skills as what we have developed, but we realize that they are just as essential to understanding and realizing God’s abundance as we are.  We are bound and destined as one Beloved Community.

God works beyond the limits and brokenness of this world to share in the abundance of love and grace for all of Creation. This is our Good News, this is our hope,  and this is our dream.


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