Fr. Kevin Craik
I was reading through the Gospel lesson appointed for this first Sunday of
Pre-Lent, what we call Septuagesima, it reminded me of seminary. You see, if
throughout the course of your life you discern that you have a vocation to
ordained ministry, one of those things that you have to do is go to seminary.
And most likely in your first semester, you’ll take a course called
Hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is just a fancy term, derived from Greek, that we
use to talk about methods of biblical interpretation. When you sit down, and
approach the text of Scripture, how is it supposed to be interpreted? And
granted, there a several different genres in the bible, which each have their
own unique hermeneutical principles, but this parable in particular, what we
have just read, reminded me of one of the foundational principles that we
should have in mind when we approach any section of scripture. We should never
forget as we read the Bible that God is the main character, he is the main
mover, he is the protagonist. So we should try to read the Bible from his
vantage point. The characters that we see in the text are all supporting
actors. So a foundational, albeit simple question, of which we should always be
mindful is this: What does this text teach me about God? What is God doing?
What does this look like through God’s eyes, as the main character?
Because I could tell you a story about a man who lives just down the road here in Orange. And this man is a craftsman, a master of all trades. He can do plumbing, electric, paint, carpentry, you name it. And he lives with his wife and four children in an apartment that is much too small. And he gets up early one morning and he goes to the hardware store, hoping that someone will come and hire him for a day’s work. And fortunately for him, he is hired for the day. He then proceeds to work hard and honestly all day. When the job is finished, and he goes to collect his pay, he realizes that there are people who have worked half, a quarter, maybe even a tenth of what he worked, and they got paid the same amount. From this perspective, any sane person would cry out at the injustice of this.
But then I could tell you a story of a construction manager. He goes in the morning to look for some laborers to help him with his project for the day. First thing in the morning, he finds several able-bodied people, willing to work, great, so he hires them. But then he goes back a few hours later, and then a few hours later, and then a few hours later, and each time he finds that there are people there who are able to work, but no one has hired them. “Idle” is not a good English translation of the Greek word argos because in English it has a pejorative sense that isn’t present in the Greek. It simply means that they are standing there, without work to do. It’s not that they are lazy, rather, people have merely avoided hiring them. So this construction manager, out of his kindness, out of generosity, continues to hire people, those whom others have neglected. And out of the abundance of his goodness, he pays them all well.
You see, the perspective in a story, especially a parable like this, drastically affects the impression that it gives.
I believe that this parable is meant to serve as a warning, primarily to the twelve disciples, but also a warning for us. Let’s get some context here to better understand this. Right before this parable, at the end of Matthew 19, Jesus tells the twelve about just how hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Remember that, the story of the Rich Young Ruler? To which Peter responds in verse 27 of chapter 19, proclaiming, “we have left everything and followed you, what then will we have?” It’s important to understand what Peter is doing here, because it’s what Jesus is speaking against in this parable: Peter is trying to calculate his reward, he’s trying to calculate his “pay.”
So in this context Jesus tells them the story of some day laborers in 1st Century Palestine, who in many ways were worse off than slaves, arguably at the bottom of the social pecking order. Because if you were a slave, your owner had at least made an investment in you, it’s in his best interest to take care of you. But in the case of a day-laborer, you have nothing. And then a landowner comes, and out of his kindness, hires as many people as he can, even the neglected, even those who everyone else tried to avoid.
It seems to me that this parable is meant to communicate many things. The first is that God is sovereign in his dealing with humanity. God is sovereign, and he will act as he sees fit, he has the right to, and we have to be ok with the fact that this might not always match up with our human perceptions of what is fair and what is not. The point here though is that we are not supposed to be like Peter, and try to calculate our reward. We can’t! You can’t calculate the grace of God. That’s not how it works. You can’t pull out your spreadsheet, and crunch numbers, and arrive at some precise amount of reward that you are due.
This leads into the second lesson that this parable communicates and that is that God does not make contracts with us. A contractual agreement is a cold image, a cold representation of the love and generosity of God and his kingdom. God is not in some industrial office space, in a suit and tie, laboring to create detailed contracts for us to sign. God doesn’t write contracts, he makes covenants, he enters into relationships. He’s out in the market, doing everything he can to get as many as are willing to participate in his covenantal plan for the world. And in this we are assured, that no one will get less than promised, no one will be mistreated, no one will be left out, even those who society rejects and deems unnecessary.
It seems to me that a third point for reflection with this parable is for us to try to work through why it is that a story like this bothers us still. What we might call it the sin of comparison. Why is it that it so often happens that goodness and generosity become an occasion for our anger? Why is it so difficult for us to rejoice when others receive something good? Why do we do the opposite? Why do we try to calculate the good, making it seem like we were somehow cheated, and then cry out at the injustice of all of it. This reveals something about the nature of our brokenness. There’s something inside of us that always thinks that we are better, even if it’s just a little bit more than others, and thus we feel like we deserve more. It’s so easy for us to look outside of ourselves, and identify the problem there, this person does this, or that person does that, but the reality is, as the saying goes, the line between good and evil goes down the center of the human heart. There’s no room for comparison, we’re all on the same level.
Jesus, through his teaching, wants to communicate to us that things are different in the kingdom of God. It’s not about cold-calculation, it’s about overflowing and abundant grace. God is out in the marketplace looking for laborers for his harvest. And in the kingdom of God, both the good that you do, and the hardships that you endure in faith are means through which God brings about his kingdom and his redemption. This is a gift, to participate in God’s work, and we should rejoice that others have been given the same gift. It doesn’t matter if they came into the field after us. The reality is, that as Gentiles, we are all late-comers anyway. Once we were not part of the fold, once we had not received mercy, but now we have. And God is generous with his mercy, we can rejoice in this. We have a God who will not mistreat any of us. A God who will take care of us, who is generous, and the message of this parable is that we need to be very careful if we are going to be upset with the fact that our God is generous, tread lightly there.
And as I begin to close, I want to say that this message is very relevant for us, especially as the church. Because it’s easy for us to feel like Peter, like the 12, like we are the ones on the inside, we are in and they are out, we are the ones who are going to receive the reward, like Peter was calculating. The point of this parable is that while we are here, in the church, calculating God’s grace, comparing ourselves with others, fighting about liturgy, fighting about music, fighting about coffee, thinking that we are better than each other because I said evening prayer last night...while we are busy fighting, and calculating, and comparing, God is out in the world, as Tom Wright puts it, “looking for the people that everybody else tried to ignore, welcoming them on the same terms, surprising them and everybody else with his generous grace. The early church clearly needed to learn that lesson.” And I think that we need to be reminded of this as well, and I’ll close with that, with the question where, in the church, as the church, do we need to be reminded this?