21 Sep 2008
“‘“Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”’” (Matt. 20:15) In the name …
Fr. Randy Calvo
I’m out to lunch with my dad this past week at a little restaurant in Westfield. The news is on the television and they’re talking about the 85 billion dollars the government had just given to AIG to keep them afloat. The owner leans over to us and says that if he has any financial problems running his small business that he knows he can count on the government to come in and help bail him out too. He rolls his eyes because we all know that there’s not a snowball’s chance in August that he could ever get the same attention as a company as big as AIG. Then shortly after that news we started hearing about the Treasury getting ready to spend 100’s of billions of dollars to bail out other big companies.
There was a picture in the paper of some run-of-the-mill employee at the now defunct Lehman Brothers investment bank. She was clearing out her desk and carrying a cardboard box out the door for the last time. Outside on the street they had a picture of the CEO, the Chief Executive Officer, of the bank, and employees were invited to write messages on it. One had written: “I sure hope his villa is safe.” These people don’t have jobs anymore, but the guys at the top, the ones who got their companies in these messes in the first place, they’ll keep their obscene salaries, and bonuses and perks. They argued that they were worth this kind of money because of the results they could get. Now that we’ve seen what they can do, how come they’re still bazillionairs and the average working person, the average tax payer, is going to have to pay for all of their mistakes and all of their greed?
None of this seems fair, and nobody has great difficulty in seeing that all of this is unfair. It’s almost an innate sense. It seems to be as natural a sense as seeing and touching and hearing. How come the big companies get the help, but the little ones can go under? How come the rich executives can keep their villa, while the little guy working in a cubical has to go on unemployment? It just doesn’t seem fair. And without belittling the severity of this lesson because these are dangerous economic times, people are losing their homes, my brother-in-law told me of someone he knows who lost 40% of his paper wealth this past week, and with the government giving out these billions of dollars I worry where all that money is going to come from and what else is going to have to be cut back to afford it. So the example is real and current just as Jesus meant it to be when He first said it; and it’s impact is, therefore, unavoidable and unnerving. I don’t want to minimize any of this, but that’s exactly the power of the example that Jesus uses today in His parable to teach to us what Isaiah reveals of God: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” (55:8-9) God’s common sense is not ours, in other words, His logic, as St. Paul says elsewhere, is judged “foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:23) by the world. It doesn’t necessarily make sense in a common sense kind of way. God’s sense of fairness is not our sense of fairness. And Jesus makes this clear to us this morning.
The parable of the vineyard owner is one that can cause people to stop and wonder, to question what it’s actually saying, and to then make us do it all over again. We’ve just read the story so I won’t tell it again, but I’m guessing that all of us here were surprised by the conduct of the vineyard owner. I think all of us here would by rights side with the disgruntled employees who worked all day long and received the same amount of pay as the workers who worked for only an hour. I worked a punch-clock kind of job throughout high school and college. I worked for a supermarket, the DPW, I worked on a garbage truck, I worked for Columbia Manufacturing, and throughout college I worked as a janitor at the student union building. If I worked 12 hours and someone else came along and worked one hour, and we were then both paid the same amount, “unfair” would be the tamest statement of how I would be feeling. But that’s exactly what the vineyard owner does to his employees in today’s parable.
To make matters worse, he does it in their face. He makes the full day workers watch as the others are paid first. If it was a parable only about the owner’s generosity, if it only wanted to teach that God’s ways are way different than our own, he could have paid the full days employees their “usual daily wage” as they had agreed upon, and then more discreetly paid the others with ever-increasing generosity so that in the end they were all paid the same amount without offending anyone. Instead, he makes the guys who worked 12 hours watch while all the others are paid first. Why?
I don’t do the parable justice by giving an answer because it’s really supposed to knock-around in our own thoughts. Its intent is to make us each struggle for meaning and lesson. But let me throw out for consideration that the vineyard owner who represents God is hoping that we can reach beyond our gut feelings, reach beyond common sense ideas of fairness that are so strong and obvious, and start first of all to appreciate the generosity of God and secondly to become like God, to narrow the differences between His ways our ours. All of the labourers in the parable come from the same pool of desperate people. If they don’t work, they don’t eat. The full day guys lose nothing by the generosity shown to the ones who worked but an hour. The hope is that they can get past the sense of unfairness, and rejoice with the ones who have been favoured by the owner’s generosity for no reason other than the good fortune of another. That’s why they’re asked to watch, to see the reaction and relief of the other workers. This is what motivates God: not fairness, but generosity and empathy, and Jesus is challenging us to make it the way of God’s people. This parable is immediately followed by Jesus’ third and final prediction of the cross: The cross that Paul calls human foolishness. But that’s our standard of logic. Morality is a power shared by the presence of God. It’s not logical and it never can be. Are we willing to be this unfair? This is what Jesus asks of us today as we gather in His house as His people. We have been challenged by Christ today, that we may meet the challenge, for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
A young boy asks his mother for a bike. The mother replies no way because he’s been so miserable for so long. The boy persists. The mother finally says, “You’ll have better luck writing a letter to Jesus and asking Him for a bike.” The boy stomps upstairs to his room and starts to write: “Dear Jesus, I’ve been really good and I was wondering …” He thinks better of it, crumples up the paper and throws it away. He starts again: “Dear Jesus, I promise that I’ll be really good in the future …” He thinks better of this too, crumples it up and throws it away. He stomps back down the stairs and out the door. The mother asks where he’s going, and he says, “To church.” After about an hour he comes home dragging a statue of Mary. He goes back up to his room and begins again to write his letter to Jesus asking for a bike: “Dear Jesus, I have your mother here as hostage …”