18 August 2010

The Laborers in the Vineyard 2

When I hear today's Gospel and the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard I almost always have something triggered in me. Today, for whatever reason, I thought of the TV series Star Trek Next Generation. In the episode I am thinking of Captain Picard is explaining to a financier from the 21st C. that in the 24th C they have done away with want. (The man had died, was put in a cryogenic chamber and launched into space; whatever killed him can now be healed and he is "awakened" by Doctor Crusher along with a couple of other characters --- it takes some suspension of disbelief, but it's a good yarn.) Three hundred years have gone by and despite the wonders set before him (including a new chance at life), all this guy can think of is the money he left behind and all the compound interest which would have accrued --- along with the power this would all broker. He is desperate to get hold of his bankers or financial managers, or whatever! Never mind that all of that has ceased to exist! So here he is, faced with all sorts of new possibilities in a world which has done away with poverty or want and which offers him the freedom to be (almost) anything he wants. Of course, this necessarily means they have also done away with greed (for money, power, etc) as well -- and this is the loss which is most challenging to Picard's unexpected guest.

We know that the statistics for our society tell us that the numbers of billionaires is rising. At the same time the number of the impoverished is growing alarmingly. The gap between the haves and have-nots just gets bigger all the time. And we know that one is a function of the other: in a world with finite resources greed ensures that some will go without. When power is a function of wealth the situation is exacerbated because the poor also become voiceless and powerless, and so, if we are to insure a world of limited resources where poverty and want are ended, greed will also need to be ended. I think it therefore also means working in order to be fulfilled as persons, in order to gain just from the fact of working, in order to share with others, and in a way which takes care of need and allows others who must work less, for whatever reason, to have all they need to truly live as fully as possible. Benedictines will recognize this as a very monastic approach to reality.

But the need to accrue, to measure ourselves according to how much we have done or how long we have worked is very deeply ingrained in us, and so too, whether we recognize it or not, is the tendency to exclude and diminish those who cannot give of themselves in the same way or to the same extent. The parable from today's Gospel underscores this and our tendency to judge others on their failure to measure up similarly. Laborers are hired at various times of the day. All agree to the daily wage, but when the time comes for payment, those who worked the whole day through the noonday sun grumble when those who worked only a portion of the day are paid first and given the same wage. The parable says almost nothing about why people only hire on later (as they note in response to the neutral question about their idleness, no one has hired them!) but it is typical to find people attributing motives nonetheless: Lazy sluggards, they were hanging about the middle of town drinking! What losers, this crew has no ambition! Probably were just praying no one would hire them! I'll bet these folks were on the public dole! Rarely do we hear someone lamenting that these people have not been given a chance to fulfill themselves as persons, to give to the community as they can and need to, to garner some small level of self-esteem. Rarely do we wonder if perhaps it is the entire value system that is skewed and dehumanizing.

But in fact, that is one of the things today's parable would like us to conclude. At the very least Jesus' story criticizes "business as usual" and suggests that the way justice is done in the Kingdom of God is very different than in the world we all know so well. It also suggests then that the way we do justice should be different here and now --- if, that is, the Kingdom of God is truly among us! If we are to end poverty in all its forms, then we must also end greed in all of its forms. If we recognize we are part of a reign where ALL payment is gift and everyone is given precisely what she requires (and always more than we can earn or merit) then our efforts can go into helping others accept the gifts God offers. We may even achieve some restructuring of our own society. In short, acceptance, compassion, and generosity become the measures of real achievement. Like the financier in the Star Trek NG episode it takes a complete reordering of standards and vision, but the parable asks nothing less from us, I think.