22 August 2018

Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Reprise)

Today's Gospel is one of my all-time favorite parables, that of the laborers in the vineyard. The story is simple --- deceptively so in fact: workers come to work in the vineyard at various parts of the day all having contracted with the master of the vineyard to work for a day's wages. Some therefore work the whole day, some are brought in to work only half a day, and some are hired only when the master comes for them at the end of the day. When time comes to pay everyone what they are owed those who came in to work last are paid first and receive a full day's wages. Those who came in to work first expect to be paid more than these, but are disappointed and begin complaining when they are given the same wage as those paid first. The response of the master reminds them that he has paid them what they contracted for, nothing less, and then asks if they are envious that he is generous with his own money. A saying is added: [in the Kingdom of God] the first shall be last and the last first.

Now, it is important to remember what the word parable means in appreciating what Jesus is actually doing with this story and seeing how it challenges us today. The word parable, as I have written before, comes from two Greek words, para meaning alongside of and balein, meaning to throw down. What Jesus does is to throw down first one set of values -- one well-understood or common-perspective --- and allow people to get comfortable with that. (It is one they understand best so often Jesus merely needs to suggest it while his hearers fill in the rest. For instance he mentions a sower, or a vineyard and people fill in the details. Today he might well speak of a a CEO in an office, or a mother on a run to pick up kids from a swim meet or soccer practice.) Then, he throws down a second set of values or a second way of seeing reality which disorients and gets his hearers off-balance.

This second set of values or new perspective is that of the Kingdom of God. Those who listen have to make a decision. (The purpose of the parable is not only to present the choice, but to engage the reader/hearer and shake them up or disorient them a bit so that a choice for something new can (and hopefully will) be made.) Either Jesus' hearers will reaffirm the common values or perspective or they will choose the values and perspective of the Kingdom of God. The second perspective, that of the Kingdom is often counterintuitive, ostensibly foolish or offensive, and never a matter of "common sense". To choose it --- and therefore to choose Jesus and the God he reveals --- ordinarily puts one in a place which is countercultural and often apparently ridiculous.

So what happens in today's Gospel? Again, Jesus tells a story about a vineyard and a master hiring workers. His readers know this world well and despite Jesus stating specifically that each man hired contracts for the same wage, common sense says that is unfair and the master MUST pay the later workers less than he pays those who came early to the fields and worked through the heat of the noonday sun. And of course, this is precisely what the early workers complain about to the master. It is precisely what most of US would complain about in our own workplaces if someone hired after us got more money, for instance, or if someone with a high school diploma got the same pay and benefit package as someone with a doctorate --- never mind that we agreed to this package! The same is true in terms of religion: "I spent my WHOLE life serving the Lord. I was baptized as an infant and went to Catholic schools from grade school through college and this upstart convert who has never done anything at all at the parish gets the Pastoral Associate job? No Way!! No FAIR!!" From our everyday perspective this would be a cogent objection and Jesus' insistence that all receive the same wage, not to mention that he seems to rub it in by calling the last hired to be paid first (i.e., the normal order of the Kingdom), is simply shocking.

And yet the master brings up two points which turn everything around: 1) he has paid everyone exactly what they contracted for --- a point which stops the complaints for the time being, and 2) he asks if they are envious that he is generous with his own gifts or money. He then reminds his hearers that the first shall be last, and the last first in the Kingdom of God. If someone was making these remarks to you in response to cries of "unfair" it would bring you up short, wouldn't it? If you were already a bit disoriented by a pay master who changed the rules of commonsense this would no doubt underscore the situation. It might also cause you to take a long look at yourself and the values by which you live your life. You might ask yourself if the values and standards of the Kingdom are really SO different than those you operate by everyday of your life, not to mention, do you really want to "buy into" this Kingdom if the rewards are really parcelled out in this way, even for people less "gifted" and less "committed" than you consider yourself! Of course, you might not phrase things so bluntly. If you are honest, you will begin to see more than your own brilliance, giftedness, or commitedness; You might begin to see these along with a deep neediness, a persistent and genuine fear at the cost involved in accepting this "Kingdom" instead of the world you know and have accommodated yourself to so well.

You might consider too, and carefully, that the Kingdom is not an otherwordly heaven, but that it is the realm of God's sovereignty which, especially in Christ, interpenetrates this world, and is actually the goal and perfection of this world; when you do, the dilemma before you gets even sharper. There is no real room for opting for this world's values now in the hope that those "other Kingdomly values" only kick in after death! All that render to Caesar stuff is actually a bit of a joke if we think we can divvy things up neatly and comfortably (I am sure Jesus was asking for the gift of one's whole self and nothing less when he made this statement!), because after all, what REALLY belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God? No, no compromises are really allowed with today's parable, no easy blending of the vast discrepancy between the realm of God's sovereignty and the world which is ordered to greed, competition, self-aggrandizement and hypocrisy, nor therefore, to the choice Jesus puts before us.

So, what side will we come down on after all this disorientation and shaking up? I know that every time I hear this parable it touches a place in me (yet another one!!) that resents the values and standards of the Kingdom and that desires I measure things VERY differently indeed. (Today after Mass, one friend said he thought the reading was contrary to his sense of social justice, so I am not alone here!) It may be a part of me that resists the idea that everything I have and am is God's gift, even if I worked hard in cooperating with that (my very capacity and willingness to cooperate are ALSO gifts of God!). It may be a part of me that looks down my nose at this person or that and considers myself better in some way (smarter, more gifted, a harder worker, stronger, more faithful, born to a better class of parents, etc, etc). It may be part of me that resents another's wage or benefits despite the fact that I am not really in need of more myself. It may even be a part of me that resents my own weakness and inabilities, my own illness and incapacities which lead me to despise the preciousness and value of my life and his own way of valuing it which is God's gift to me and to the world. I am socialized in this first-world-culture and there is no doubt that it resides deeply and pervasively within me contending always for the Kingdom of God's sovereignty in my heart and living. I suspect this is true for most of us, and that today's Gospel challenges us to make a renewed choice for the Kingdom in yet another way or to another more profound or extensive degree.

For Christians every day is gift and we are given precisely what we need to live fully and with real integrity if only we will choose to accept it (and I say this as someone who has known certain kinds of severe deprivation as I grew up, it is not a na├»ve or Pollyannaish kind of statement but one rooted in faith in what God has revealed to me during the past years.). We are precious to God, and this is often hard to really accept, but neither more nor less precious than the person standing in the grocery store line ahead of us or folded dirty and disheveled behind a begging sign on the street corner near our bank or outside our favorite coffee shop. The wage we have agreed to (or been offered) is the gift of God's very self along with his judgment that we are indeed precious, and so, the free and abundant but cruciform life of a shared history and destiny with that same God whose characteristic way of being is kenotic. He pours himself out with equal abandon for each of us whether we have served him our whole lives or only just met him this afternoon. He does so whether we are well and whole, or broken and feeble. And he asks us to do the same, to pour ourselves out similarly both for his own sake and for the sake of his creation-made-to-be God's Kingdom.

To do so means to decide for his reign now and tomorrow and the day after that; it means to accept his gift of Self as fully as he wills to give it, and it therefore means to listen to him and his Word so that we MAY be able to decide and order our lives appropriately in his gratuitous love and mercy. The parable in today's Gospel is a gift which makes this possible --- if only we would allow it to work as Jesus empowers and wills it!