21 Sep 2014
“My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.” (Isa 55:8) (+)
That Jesus never gets old is no more real than in His words to us in today’s Gospel. First of all when Jesus says, “‘The kingdom of heaven is like …’” I don’t think He means what I think we hear. I get the feeling that when we today talk about the kingdom of heaven we’re thinking about up in the sky and after death. That’s not where Jesus puts the kingdom of heaven. Think about the biblical words that we all know as familiar: Our Father who art in heaven. O.K., God the Father is addressed with eyes looking up toward the sky. But Jesus continues: Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done. On earth as it is in heaven. Now our glance is no longer up to the sky. Now as we say these words we’re looking around us. We’re looking at the faces of people who are next to us and they’re looking back at us. Let this earth become as much your kingdom as the one above, in other words. So when Jesus says today, “The kingdom of heaven is like,” we shouldn’t think only about divine grace and salvation. We should also think about our situation right here and now, and our moral responsibility to this world as God’s kingdom.
And when we do that, this morning’s parable then becomes not only a story about God’s graciousness. It becomes a mirror held up before us of the world we are creating. And when we do this we should be able to see what Jesus would have us see. I like the way God’s prophet put it for us in the Lesson Sharon read: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.” Today’s parable is like the clipart on today’s song sheet. It gets us to thinking “It’s not fair.” But this morning Jesus is not telling us a story about fairness. Jesus is going to use our resentment about “It’s not fair” to make us listen and to think. In the other clipart on the song sheet, we see the guys at the end of the line looking over at the first guys who have just been paid. We’re lucky enough in life to be those guys. The first labourer is looking at his wage in confusion and in wonder as he walks away: “What happened here? How come I got so much?” This gets the guys at the end of the line to thinking that they also may be pleasantly surprised by their paycheck. This is part of Jesus’ mastery as a story-teller. What we expect isn’t the message; it’s only the method of getting us to think about the message.
Jesus is telling us that the kingdom of God is not about fairness. It’s about compassion and generosity. We love that in God, but God is telling us that He loves that in us. We want more than fairness from God, but we protest when Jesus asks for more than fairness from us. In today’s parable, the lessons we have learned since childhood about fairness are passed over, and Jesus asks us to think larger. He challenges us to think not only about what’s fair, but about others. Before we silently list all of our practical objections to this message of Jesus’ parable, let us try and understand where Jesus is coming from. The pool of workers in the early morning were all in the same boat. They all knew each other. They all lived next to each other. They were all desperate for work. None was more qualified or enthusiastic than the other. They all knew the drill. If they were hired that day, the family ate. If they weren’t, the family went hungry.
The first ones hired are ecstatic. They are going to sweat and ache and come home exhausted, but they’re ecstatic. They are relieved that they are among the ones chosen to work and not among the ones left behind resting in the shade. These others are not lazy men; they are unemployed workers. In the parable, the owner asks at 5PM, one hour shy of quitting time, “Why do you stand here idle all day?” It’s not because they prefer welfare and state checks. The only reason they stood there hour after hour with diminishing hope as the day grew longer was that they were utterly desperate. “No one has hired us,” they tell the owner. Those are the words of thousands upon thousands of our neibhours who are unemployed today. They don’t have the skills sometimes, and sometimes there just aren’t the jobs. Jesus asks us to think about them with compassion and generosity.
When the owner pays the last ones hired the full day’s wage, he is being extremely generous. The problem comes with the guys who worked all day long. The owner doesn’t treat them unfairly. He pays them what was promised. They can’t complain that this was unfair, but we can sympathize with their feeling “It’s not fair!” It’s not fair, in their minds, because they had witnessed the owner’s generosity. If they were paid first, they would have been happy as pie. It’s only that they saw the owner’s generosity that causes them to grumble. But the offense is intentional. The owner set-up false expectations. But why? Because the owner was trying to get the full day workers to think and act like he did, to understand why generous is more important than fairness. Everyone of those neighbour’s families ate that night. Couldn’t they rejoice in that shared fact? Why would they resent his generosity?
I had breakfast with a friend this past week at a diner. He’s pretty offended by what he sees as greed in the world. As a couple was leaving from a nearby booth, they came over. They were from the Bronx, a community called Gun Hill. The husband, before leaving, interrupted our conversation to say thank you to my friend for his overheard comments. In them he felt a bit of concern for all the people that he knows who suffer in his old neighbourhood. The empathy that this man felt in my friend’s words was meaningful to him to the point that he came over to our table as a stranger, introduced himself and said “Thank you.” That kind of empathy and compassion is what Jesus is trying to impress upon us today when He says, “The kingdom of heaven is like.” We tolerate generational poverty. We accept wealth disparity that has never been known before in this country. Some will do exceptionally well, but too many must remain hopeless. That’s the mirror today’s parable holds up for us so that God’s thoughts can be our thoughts, and His ways our ways. That we as church may be brave enough to look into Jesus’ mirror and see the world, God’s kingdom, as Jesus sees it, for this may we pray in His name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo