MS Westerdam at Sea
Isaiah 55, 6-9 + Psalm 145 + Philippians 1, 20-24, 27 + Matthew 20, 1-16
Today we open chapter 20. In the chapter before Matthew moves Jesus from Galilee back to Judea where great crowds are still following. With our Gospel today the location is the same, but a new topic comes up when Peter asks how God will reward our sacrifices. The apostles are promised a glorious role in the age to come. Then Jesus expands the idea of rewarding sacrifice by saying that all who sacrifice family relationships or property for the sake of Jesus will be rewarded extravagantly which levels the playing field in a sense by reminding the twelve that they are not to think they are special since everyone will receive a great reward. “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” Jesus says. Then comes this parable that challenges our sense of fairness and justice.
There is a little 5 year old in my family, my great nephew, who frequently puts on a stern face and announces: “It’s not fair!” about anything he doesn’t like. When I am nearby I always respond to his complaint by saying: “Who told you that life was fair? If someone did, stop listening to them.” He looks at me as though I was a ninja turtle or someone who had just arrived from Mars or Pluto. He is a credible witness to a great problem in our society: the idea that we are all “created equal.” This has been distorted into the idea that we are all identical. When we discover the truth that we cannot all do, experience, and enjoy the things that others do, experience and enjoy, we get angry or all upset because we think it isn’t fair or someone has done us wrong. Of course, this thinking is made all the more complicated by our constant competitive attitude. We are forever looking at one another judging what they have, how much they have, and wondering why we cannot have the same thing or more.
Something about this behavior and thinking makes the parable Jesus speaks today challenging to us. The best sign that we have been trapped into this competitive and the “It’s not fair” thinking comes when the complaint of the ones who worked all day seems reasonable; because this complaint by those who worked all day seems completely understandable. Some scholars think that this parable preserved by Matthew is intended for the early church which is beginning to push back against all those who have recently come into the company of the faithful and are assuming roles of leadership with no interest in seniority. We can understand those tensions and how easy it is to grumble when some people receive more recognition or importance than those who have worked hard and long.
This may well be true and understandable, but it is not the point of the parable as Jesus tells it. Other than the fact that some communities today push back against “foreigners” or think that young people should wait their turn, the focus here is not about the workers. The focus of this parable is God. All parables are about God. They reveal or confirm something important about God as way of suggesting that it is God who should guide our behavior and influence our attitudes. These workers are looking at one another instead of looking at God. What Jesus says through this parable is very simple. Quit looking around at what others have. It has nothing to do with who we are. Quit counting and measuring to see if someone else has more than we have. Pay attention to God and imitate and continue God’s extravagant generosity. This is not a story about workers. It is a story about a God who is generous to the point of seeming extravagant. It is a suggestion to the workers that they ought to be like God.
Those workers hired first in the morning got exactly what they agreed to work for. They were not short-changed or cheated. They agreed to work for the usual daily wage. There is not a hint of injustice here. When the master promises to give the others who work less “what is fair” the little trick of parable telling emerges, and we should be ready for a surprise. What is “fair” for us always seems to have limits and be very exclusive. What is “fair” for God is always much more than we can imagine and pushes at the boundaries we always seem to set up to justify our behavior.
Fix your gaze upon God is the message of this parable. Stop looking around at others. It is distracting, useless, and never calls us to greatness and nobility. It’s too bad that no one in this parable seems to get the point. If they had, at least those hired last who were paid as much as those who worked all day would have invited those who were probably worn out from their long full day’s labor to join them for a round of drinks and they might have picked up the tab!