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Johnny Come Lately

Matthew 20: 1-16

Physical Education was my least favorite class. The way teams were picked was the problem. Hopefully it’s done differently now, but then, two students were selected as captains. Each one took turns, pointing and picking whom they want to have on their team. During those few minutes while teams are being selected, a child’s entire sense of self-worth rests in the hands of those two captains. Picked first, and your ego soars. Picked last and, you endure the stigma of being the one who nobody really wanted on their team in the first place. You are a liability.

In today’s parable Jesus turned the selection process upside down. What he said was that whether we are first, last or somewhere in between, God loves us just the same. Now that’s really good news.

But there’s something about this parable that rubs some of us the wrong way. When we get something that maybe we really don’t deserve, that’s just fine. It’s good fortune. But when we see someone else get special treatment we don’t think they that don’t deserve, we’re the first to object.

So in honor of Labor Day, I have decided to shed some light on this parable about work. This story takes place at harvest time, in the middle of September. The owner of a vineyard travels into town five times to pick up field hands: twice in the morning, at noon, in the middle of the afternoon, and an hour before the end of the day to pick his grapes. These temporary workers like itinerant workers today depended on these jobs to feed their families. Perhaps full time work was as hard to find then as it is today.

But when it came to paying the workers at the end of the day, one had to wonder whether this employer had ever taken any classes in business management. Because what does he do? He pays each of his employees in plain sight of all the others. No pay envelopes for him. To make matters worse he paid them all the same amount, the usual daily wage regardless of how many hours they worked.

Those who sweat a whole day in the sun were likely upset when they received the same pay as those who had been there just one hour. They might not have resented his generosity to these late-comers, had he given them a tip to even things out.

A financial balance has to be maintained or there is discord. For example, every time we raise the minimum wage in this country others earning above that minimum wage are not content with what they earn. They more likely to say, “If they’re making more, I want to be paid more too. I don’t want to be even with them; I want to come out ahead.” I want to maintain the inequality.

We build our lives learning to figure what we’re due and what we earn. Early in life we learned that scores count; `A’s’ mean success; `F’s’ mean failure.  It’s not enough to have good grades. We want grades that are better than somebody else’s. We are preoccupied with seeing that everyone gets just what they deserve and not one iota more because then that’s invading my territory. Or then lets live in a meritocracy where everyone gets exactly what he or she earns or is worth.

The world ought to be fair. I believed that it was when I was in high school. A week before the mid-term Spanish exam, Sr. Ortega announced that the student with the highest grade would receive a gigantic jar full of M&Ms. For reasons I can no longer remember that seemed like a challenge I would respond. I studied for hours. During the test I felt confident. I knew the material. For that one hour I was Spanish.

The next day Senor Ortega awarded the M&Ms to the student with the highest grade – a girl who everybody knew could not habla espanol if her life depended on it. I was not just disappointed. I was furious. But there she sat in class popping M&Ms with both hands as though she deserved them. I learned then that the world was not a perfect place.

Justice demands accurate records. The owner of the vineyard didn’t seem to understand that. Jesus offends the accountant in us all when he says, “The kingdom of heaven is like his story.” Does Jesus really mean that God doesn’t keep score? Does God treat us all the same? Shouldn’t God keep a record of who’s doing what? Is God going to greet Mother Teresa with as much joy than He greets a rapist who repents on his deathbed?

Surely God makes some distinctions. God should send at least a little more rain on the evil and a little more sun on the good.

But this parable says that “salvation doesn’t work the way we want it to work.”     Take the scribes and the Pharisees. They were in Israel first, worked hard and should receive more. It made sense to them that they would receive special treatment from God. ……….and……….It’s hard for us not to feel the same way.

When we do something good, how many of us can resist looking over our shoulders to see who might have noticed the good what we’ve done. We visit somebody sick or do a kind act and hope someone will ask about our day.

Think about all the hours we’ve spent on boards, committees, church meals and fund raisers and all the times we arrived early and stayed late.

But have we understood God’s generosity? The only cure for the complaining workers, for the scribes and Pharisees, for you and for me, is a better  appreciation for one who owns the vineyard—the man upstairs. . Why does his generosity bother us so much?”

From the viewpoint of a worker, the vineyard owner gave each a day’s wage that was enough to feed a family. The landowner wasn’t paying on the basis of merit, but of need. He didn’t cheat the all-day workers; he rescued them from a day of poverty. He wasn’t trying to be fair, but rather generous. The master hadn’t held back anything that he had promised. He was demonstrating how to show grace. When our primary way of measuring almost everything is absolute fairness, we lose our sense of grace.

Too often we assume that in this parable, we are the ones who have been working since the crack of dawn. We look on other people as the late arrivals. But is it really that way? Aren’t we just being a bit too proud of our own efforts?

Before her death, Mother Teresa pushed her doctors to release her from the hospital, even though she wasn’t fully recovered from her heart problems, so that she could hurry back to care for the sick and dying in the slums of Calcutta.  I would say that Mother Teresa is someone who has been in the field since the crack of dawn. Certainly if anyone deserved a reward from God, it would seem to be a person like her. Yet her published letters show that she felt:  alone, cut off from God and even doubting God’s existence. Who, then, are we to judge?

When we consider people like her, are we still going to say that we are the ones who have been in the vineyard since the crack of dawn? When it comes time for God to hand out rewards, are we as deserving as those others? Maybe we are more like those workers who arrived later in the day. Only God knows for sure.

We are all recipients of God’s generosity. Sometimes I wonder whether I have worked enough to earn it. Maybe you do too. But it comes all the same.

The faithful fact is that the grace that God shows to you, to me, and to the entire world is the same – whether we are chosen or first or chosen last. We have our Lord’s promise that we have been selected for his service.

May God bless you all. Amen