Sunday, September 21, 2008

set up

(Matthew 20:1-16) Our celebrant reminded us this morning, that any time we hear Jesus saying "The kingdom of heaven is like..." (fill in the blank), he really means: this is what the world would be like, our world, if we acted according to God's purpose and not our own. And Jesus' mission, he said, was to bring God's kingdom to earth.

I always feel a little differently about that. Whenever I hear Jesus say "The kingdom of heaven is like..." I know to look out, because he's going to say something that makes no sense, does not seem fair, and will take me a whole lot of contemplation to finally get it. If I ever do finally get it.

Today's Gospel is a prime example. The vineyard manager goes out early in the morning to hire day laborers. After a bit, he sees he needs more help so he goes looking, and hires a few more. And again, and again throughout the day, right up until an hour before quitting time, he hires the last ones he can find. So far so good.

Then he sets them up. Really. He deliberately sets them up, calling them in reverse order to be paid. No sealed envelopes in this company, everybody gets to see what everybody else gets paid. Well look at that! Those guys who only worked one hour just got an entire day's wages. Wahoo! Whoopie! We're gonna get a bonus, nyah nyah nyah..

Only that doesn't happen. The final payout for everybody is one day's pay. Grumble, grumble, grumble. So what's with this? You give those slackers the same as us? And the vineyard owner says, "What? I can't do what I like with what belongs to me? You feel cheated? We contracted for a day's wage for a day's work. That's what you got. Take your money and scram."

Then he proceeds to rub salt on the wound by saying "Maybe you're just jealous because I'm generous." Okay. Intellectually I get it. His money, he can do what he wants. And if I had been one of the five o'clock workers I'd be ecstatic. Maybe feel a little guilty about the other guys with the sunburns, but nevertheless ecstatic.

But what about the dawn workers? I think they have a legitimate gripe. If they had been paid first and sent home none the wiser, wouldn't that have been easier to swallow? Of course word would have spread, but it's going to spread now anyway. 

With my protestant-work-ethic-mentality, all I can think is if I can sleep til noon and I'll still be paid for the whole day, why should I kill myself to get there on time?

Our celebrant told a story from his own experience that helped with an answer. When he first came to New York, he had seen men early in the morning, waiting... They were mostly immigrants, day laborers, waiting for construction foremen to come by in their trucks. A truck would pull up and the driver would roll down his window and hold up two or three fingers, to indicate how many workers he needed. The men would start running. The first ones to the truck were the ones who got the jobs. Jobs were scarce. These men had families to feed. They could not afford to be picky, or late, or slow to move. 

That's a good point. If the whole story is a metaphor for God's abundant grace... and the emphasis is on grace, then none of us can afford to be picky. Or late. Or slow to move. Our souls are on the line. 

If the emphasis is on abundance, though, then gratitude is the only appropriate response. I may have been up since dawn today, but there were times when I grossly overslept. I cannot begrudge another that same grace.

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