Monday, September 22, 2008

A: Proper 20 (21 September 2008)

      Matthew 20:1-16

 The reading from St Matthew’s gospel that we just heard is an example of a very familiar category of biblical literature—the parable.  When I was a teacher in a parochial school many years ago, I taught my young students that a parable is “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” That may not be an academically precise definition, but, for general purposes, it’s not bad. Parables challenge and puzzle and stretch our imaginations. And this is certainly true of the parable we find in front of us today. It challenges our assumptions about God and the ways of God. It puzzles us, because it turns out so unlike anything that we would have expected. It stretches our minds to the point that we realize that the economy of the Kingdom of Heaven operates under a very different set of rules than those that apply to human economies—something for which I suppose we should be rather grateful, given the state of our human economy there days!

This is not an easy lesson to learn, because all of our conditioning programs us to assume the opposite.  We live in an environment of time cards, union contracts, minimum wages, salary ranges, workplace regulations, human resource departments, and employment discrimination laws. That’s our experience, and we are programmed to look at all workplace relationships in the light of that experience. We are conditioned to assume that God plays by the rules, that the Kingdom of God operates pretty much the same way as a well-run publicly-held corporation whose stock is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. There are certain rules, and we know them, and if we follow them we expect certain rewards, and if we don’t follow them, we expect certain consequences.

It’s that “consequences” part that can become a problem, because many people reach a point in their lives when they look at all they’ve done—harmful things, foolish things, or maybe even really wicked things—and all they have failed to do—saying prayers and going to church usually top the list, but taking good care of loved ones, maintaining relationships, taking care of mental and physical health also show up—people reach a point when they survey this mountain of evidence, and assume that it’s too late to make amends with God.  Much like a terminal lung cancer patient who loves to smoke and does it all the time now that the diagnosis is confirmed, or the chronically overweight person who’s failed at several diets and decides to eat whatever the heck she wants and just enjoy it, there are people who say to themselves, “What’s the use? I’ve already blown it where God is concerned. I’ve known what I was supposed to do and I haven’t done it, so now it’s too late. I’m not even going to try anymore. I’ve got nothing to gain from whatever I might have to deny myself, so I may as well enjoy ‘this life’ to the fullest, and take my lumps from the Almighty when they come. Besides, why would I want to go the Heaven anyway? All my friends will be in Hell!” This is usually followed by a nervous chuckle.

That’s where today’s parable comes to the rescue. Can you hear it—like the U.S. Cavalry charging over the hill to save the day? There’s a landowner, a farmer,  who needs temp workers—casual day laborers—to work in his field, most likely to harvest the crop. At the crack of dawn, he hires several, and puts them to work with a verbal promise and a handshake: they will receive the going rate for one day’s work. It’s all above board; nobody’s taking advantage of anybody, no one’s cheating or getting exploited. At various points throughout the day, the landowner keeps hiring workers, promising only to pay them fairly—everyone assumed, no doubt, that they would get a percentage of a full day’s pay in proportion to their actual hours worked. Even when the sun had nearly gone down, at the proverbial “eleventh hour,” more laborers are added to the crew, with the same promise. When the workday is finally over, all the workers line up to get paid, starting with the ones who were hired most recently. To their undoubted delight, they are handed, in cash, a sum equal to a full day’s pay, even though they had worked only an hour or so. When the people who had been working since dawn saw this, they quickly did the mental math, got out their cell phones and called their travel agents to book a condo at the beach for the weekend! But when they made it to the paymaster, they were given exactly the same amount every other worker had received, which, coincidentally, was the precise amount they had agreed on at the beginning of the day. When they cried “Foul!” they were reminded of this simple fact, and there was nothing else they could say.

At the end of the parable, then, Jesus adds the tag line: “So the last will be first, and the first last.” God’s economy is not like a human economy. Different rules apply, and we would do well to jettison our assumptions. The good news for most of us in this parable—well, all of us, actually, if we’ve ever done something we ought not to have done, or left undone something we ought to have done—the good news is that it’s never too late to make a change. In fact, latecomers get preferential treatment! They get a full share of the blessings of the Kingdom of God, even though they may have signed on at the “eleventh hour.”  And just what is the main benefit of “getting right” with God, whether it’s at the beginning of the day, or the end of the day? In a word—peace. Inner peace, to be specific. Inner peace that flows from the knowledge that God stands ready and eager to forgive us for whatever garbage may be in our past: stupid things we’ve done, nasty things we’ve done, good and noble and virtuous and honorable things we had an opportunity to do, but didn’t. God’s forgiveness gives us a clear conscience, which I might define as the ability to look yourself in the eye in a mirror without shame or regret. What a gift that is!

Forgiveness for the past, and comfort in the present—this, too, is part of the “compensation package” we receive from the hand of God, no matter what time of day we begin working for Him. God’s own Holy Spirit comes to take up residence in our hearts when we are baptized. Sometimes we completely ignore this house guest, but it’s never too late to provide a proper welcome. When we do, we find all sorts of unexpected resources available to us. We find strength. We find purpose. We find a sense of direction. We find the power to change, to become the people we’ve always wanted to be, but never thought we could become. And this all happens in the context of a supportive community of faith and shared prayer—the Church.

Forgiveness for the past, comfort in the present—and, finally, hope for the future. Coming to faith in Jesus Christ in the community of his Church endows us with a future—a future marked by hope, and by the prospect of unclouded joy. Most of us have experienced periods of happiness in our lives, periods of joy, sometimes even euphoria. But there's always a cloud on the horizon of some sort, always an undercurrent of fear of anxiety even in our happiest moments. Today I'm pretty ecstatic about the Cubs clinching the division title! But, trust me, there's a big cloud in the sky called the playoffs, so my joy is conditional. But the promise that accompanies faith in Christ is the prospect of unconditional joy, unreserved joy—joy in the very presence of God.  This hope, in turn, gives stability and shape to our lives here and now.

So the good news is, Come and get it! What’s holding you back? Even if it’s the “eleventh hour” for you, come to work, and collect a full “day’s” pay. We serve a generous and loving God who wants to shower His blessings on us, if we will only open our hearts to receive them. Amen.

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