Gospel reading: Matthew 20:1-16
We have another parable this Sunday, one that many people find particularly difficult to interpret.
As I said in last week’s meditation guidelines, method is always the root problem with interpreting parables, and to adopt the right method we must have a right understanding of what a parable is. It is not the kind of story where we identify “good guys” and “bad guys” and then draw the conclusion that we must imitate the good and avoid being like the bad.
A parable is like what we call today a “short story”. We enter trustingly into the movement of it, identifying with the characters at the different stages, until we come to a point where we find ourselves saying, “Yes! I recognise this experience” – an experience of sin to which we respond, “Lord have mercy”, or a moment of grace for which we say, “Thank you, Lord”. The parable will then lead us to a new insight, a conversion, so that we have a better understanding of grace, of life and eventually of the nature of God. Of course, it will be an insight “of the heart”, one that touches us deeply, not abstract but based on experience, one that leads to deeper prayer.
In today’s parable, therefore, we must resolutely refuse to enter into a discussion about whether the landowner was right or wrong, and especially to ask how he is like God. Once we follow that route we are into our heads, our imaginations are blocked, we are distracted from the task of interpreting the parable and letting it lead us where it will. The sign that we have interpreted the passage correctly is that we experience the inner freedom to move forward and be more creative in our God-given vocation.
Having got these principles of interpretation clear, we can divide the passage into six movements:
– verse 1 : the hiring of the servants;
– verses 2 – 5 : the fixing of the agreement and the later hirings;
– verses 6 – 7 : the last hiring;
– verses 8 – 12 : the complaint of those hired first;
– verses 13 – 15 : the response of the landowner;
– verse 16 : the final saying.
At each stage, we can identify with either one of the two protagonists – the landowner or the hired servants.
The climax of the story is in verses 8 to 15. The lessons Jesus wanted to teach are to be discovered here. Our meditation must be a slow journey through these verses, taking our time over each one.
We start with verses 8 to 12; they invite us to recall moments when we feel aggrieved at our lot in life: we have been hard done by, did not get what we deserved. On these occasions we always find ourselves making comparisons between ourselves and others, that vague but all-encompassing “they”. “They” did not have to work as hard as we did; “their” families had fewer problems; “their” age is more exciting; life was easier to cope with in “their” time.
We then move to the landowner’s response, which is in several steps. He shows compassion first; he is not condemning, and neither should we be – of ourselves or of others. He calls the man “my friend”, a simple but very touching gesture – the landowner understands how the man feels. We celebrate people who have shown us this kind of compassion, or times when we have been similarly compassionate to others.
The landowner then explains his position, logically and rationally. We think of ourselves having to deal with a friend’s jealousy, a mother reassuring the child who feels left out, a manager reassuring workers who think that their work is not appreciated.
The landowner puts forward three arguments. The first is simply to reassure the worker that he has been justly treated, “I am not being unjust to you, did we not agree on one denarius?” We must be careful to interpret this in the context of the parable, which is that of deep human relationships, even of our relationship with God. It is not therefore an employer negotiating with a trade union delegation, but a mother saying to her child, “I have given you all my love”; it is a moment of prayer when God gives us the grace to be freed of jealousy and resentment and to relax in the “blessed assurance” that he loves us unconditionally.
The landowner’s second argument is also very touching: “Have I no right to do what I like with my own?” We grasp here that envy is closely linked to possessiveness.
We want to possess people (or things) because we are afraid that if we have to share them with others there will not be enough for us. Who are the people who taught us that this is not true, that someone can love us deeply and yet can be close to others in ways they are not close with us? This can happen even between spouses, as we know, and of course between us and God.
The third argument is in the form of a question. “Why be envious because I am generous?” It is a further teaching on envy, through experience as always, the experience of a confrontation between an envious person and a generous one. Envious people calculate, look at what others have and they don’t, what they could have got and didn’t. Generous people are spontaneous, respond to situations as they present themselves, don’t worry about pleasing everyone – but careful to be just. We have been and have met both kinds of people.
That then is the climax of the parable; but it would be good to retrace our steps to verse 1 and the image of the “hiring”. The parable is a living lesson on both the value and the limitations of learning deep truths through images. It starts by inviting us to look on ourselves as workers hired to work in a vineyard. The image is valid. It is a touching way of understanding our vocation as parent, teacher, friend, spiritual guide or member of a community. They are all forms of service, and toilsome ones at that, “in a heavy day’s work in all the heat.” Similarly, the staggered hirings in verses 2 to 5 are a powerful symbol of how the same vocation turns out differently for different people.
With verses 8 to 15 the story takes a radically new turn. It tells us, no! we are not the landowner’s hired servants but his friends, free people, not “hired” by anyone, not even by God. Look on God as a “hirer of servants” and we misunderstand him completely. So too the rewards we receive for our service are not “earnings” but gifts we receive with humble gratitude.
Making the journey from the image in verse 1 to having it corrected in verses 8 to 15 brings new life to the parable. By making the journey from “God as hired” to “God as friend” or “God as lover” we discover the wonder of love, human and divine.
The Pharisees did not make the journey, and we have all been like them at one time or another. How often have we Christians (and the Church) made him into a cold calculator of rewards – a computer even! The parable throws out a challenge: do people experience in our words and actions the generosity and magnanimity of God?
The parable is a lesson in economics too. The word’s economic system is based on the notion that everyone must receive only what they have worked for. The result is the ever-widening gap between rich and poor. The parable tells us that the wealthy are afraid to share God’s gifts, they might not have enough for themselves! If humanity could enter into God’s generosity, there would be plenty for all.
We can also focus on the concluding statement in verse 16 which is found many times in the gospels and in varied contexts. A deep wisdom saying, it can express our feelings when, in our meditation, we have moved from “God as hirer” to “God as friend.”
We celebrate moments when we have experienced the unpredictability of life as a grace; humble gratitude that we who were “last” found ourselves “first”; the conversion of recognising that someone we had rated “last” was really “first”; accepting to be “last” and leaving it to God to make us “first” whenever his time for doing so comes.
Lord, we thank you for the people in our lives who taught us that true love is always generous
and helped us move beyond possessiveness and envy:
– one of our parents when we complained that they were paying more attention to a truant
brother or sister than to us;
– a very dear friend of whom we began to be possessive;
– a spouse whose care for an in-law made us jealous;
– a leader trying to keep peace in the parish community.
They did not reject us, but were understanding, like the landowner in the parable:
– they took time to reason with us;
– showed us that in fact their love for us had not been compromised in any way;
– gradually brought us to the point where we could accept their love and go our way.
They were Jesus for us, teaching us the kind of person you are
and leading us to enter into your unconditional love,
and to be generous ourselves in welcoming every member of our human family.
Lord, our modern culture is ruled by envy, not generosity,
and is tearing our human family apart.
Our contemporaries often think that life’s rewards should be calculated
on the basis of work done, and as a result they are obsessed with rights,
– forever comparing their lot with that of others;
– grumbling that they have done a heavy day’s work in all the heat;
– on the lookout to see if others who only work for an hour are treated the same as they are.
Lord, we thank you for the times when you give us a glimpse of your kingdom,
invite us to enter into your generosity and set us free from the bondage of envy.
Forgive us for when we grumble at you for the way you share out your blessings,
comparing ourselves with others who we think had things easier,
– they were born in wealthier circumstances than we were and ended up being
more successful in their careers;
– they didn’t need to study hard to succeed in examinations;
– they got a lucky break when we didn’t;
– they led a dissolute life and then became fervent members of the church.
We thank you that you send us spiritual guides
who walk with us and help us move beyond these feelings:
– a priest or other community leader,
– one of our children,
– a stranger with whom we found ourselves in conversation,
– a member of another church.
They do not condemn us, but call us “friend”;
gently they show us that the root of our problem is being calculating
instead of welcoming life as your gift;
they remind us of the many ways in which life has been fair to us too:
– we have had our successes,
– got our own lucky breaks,
– enjoyed many beautiful moments.
Now we find that we can face the challenges of life with inner peace,
– allowing you to do what you like with your own,
– entering into your generosity,
– knowing that at the end of the day you will be faithful to your covenant of everlasting love.
Like contented labourers who at the end of the day take their earnings and go,
we accept what life brings us
and move forward to do the work you want us to do in the world.
Lord, we pray that your church will be the presence of Jesus in the world,
showing the wealthy nations of the world and the wealthy people within individual nations
how false is the argument that they hold their position
because they have done a heavy day’s work in all the heat,
and proposing to them the vision of your kingdom, marked by generosity, not envy,
where those whose circumstances have allowed them to work only one hour
receive a full reward.
Liturgical Resources for the Year of Matthew
Introduction to the Celebration
When we assemble around the Lord’s table we bless God for his forgiveness, mercy, generosity and love: he has sent us his Son to bring us pardon, to transform us from being isolated individuals into the community of his love, and he gives us the hope of everlasting life. So, as God’s holy people, we recall that God is merciful and forgiving; God is life-giving and generous; and that God is love.
1. Parables are little tales that are intended to shock the perception of an audience; they are not little moral stories that we are to learn from by decoding each element. Alas, we do this so often that we destroy them.
2. So [asking for a show of hands] how many people think that this parable is unjust? After all, surely if you have worked all day you deserve more than people who have only worked an hour! If you do not find it unjust then the whole basis of arguing for the rights of workers, that has been part of the church’s social teaching for more than a century, is flawed.
3. The simple fact is that if you have had to work all day, you deserve recompense pro rata.
The interesting thing is that we are all associating ourselves with the group who have laboured all day, not with the last group that have been indulged.
4. Yet, we are looking forward to the fullness of the kingdom not because we deserve it because we have worked so far and for long, but because God is forgiveness, mercy, generosity and love.
5. We are one-hour workers, but we are looking forward to the fullness of life.
Sometimes we question God’s dealings with other people because they seem to receive better treatment from him than we think they deserve. They do not measure up to our often impossible standards. They may be lazy and unreliable. Perhaps they argue and fight constantly. Or they may not have our talents and skills. Consequently, in our opinion, they are unworthy of any favour or special status. So why would God treat them differently?
Ironically, as much as we want God to be involved in our lives and as much as we wish to be part of the kingdom of heaven, we do not always want to let God be God. Instead, we want God to be God as we would choose, relating to people on our terms and influenced by our prejudices and biases.
Fortunately, however, God’s ways are very different from our ways. Unlike many of us, God is not envious or spiteful. He does not have a ‘pecking order’, placing some people at the top and relegating others to the bottom. God has no favourites. As far as God is concerned, everyone has a unique dignity and equal worth.
It can be very difficult to appreciate that, with God, all people are special. Because everyone is important, God’s generosity is marvellous and God’s mercy is limitless. That is how God chooses to be God and we are challenged to respect God’s will. After all, God is our Creator and we are God’s creatures. God has rights too and these rights demand that we let God be God.
The lesson of the parable of the landowner hiring workers for his vineyard is that it challenges us to be grateful to God for what he gives us, and exhorts us to avoid feeling cheated and complaining about the seeming good luck and better fortunes of other people. Also, if we believe that we are made in the image and likeness of God then we need to imitate his generosity and compassion in our behaviour towards other people. Rather than applying human standards to God, we need to apply God’s standards to ourselves.
The Good News is that God’s love and mercy are available to all, saints and sinners alike. When we are privileged to know that God loves us in all circumstances and saves us from our sins, why would we permit rivalry to emerge between ourselves and others whom God treats differently from how we treat them? Is it not sufficient to be assured that our eternal destiny with God is secure because of our faithfulness to Christ’s great commandment, without being jealous and resentful of other sinners’ opportunities for salvation?
When God is generous and merciful to other people, he is not being unfair to us. He is simply being God. Our understanding of God, then, needs to change and we need to let God be God.
Why be envious because I am generous? (Mt 20:15)
Fr Donal Neary, S.J
Deserving our rights
We often say that people don’t deserve welfare or food if they don’t work. We can be stingy in judging what others deserve and need.
Jesus has a new way. We deserve our rights even when we do the least. The denarius was a day’s wage, enough to live on. There are certain rights we all have – to have food and a job are two of them. These people wanted to work. We are rewarded by God for who we are, not for what we do.
Jesus’ vision is that everyone deserves to earn enough to live on.
To believe in a God who is an unconditional Friend, is to have the most liberating experience that one could imagine. On the contrary, to live in the presence of an avenging and threatening God could change us into the most dangerous and self-destructive neurotics. We need to learn not to confuse God with our own narrow and stingy plans. We sometimes wish to distort God’s unfathomable goodness. (Jos<§ Pagola).
That’s the way the kingdom of God grows. It grows within us in thanks and sharing. That’s what we do at every Mass. Success for Jesus is not the amount we do, but that we do things with a full heart.
FROM THE CONNECTIONS:
THE WORD:The parable of the generous vineyard owner (which appears only in Matthew’s Gospel) is the first of several parables and exhortations challenging the Pharisees and scribes and those who criticized Jesus for preaching to tax collectors and sinners.
Jesus makes two points in this parable:
First, the parable speaks of the primacy of compassion and mercy in the kingdom of God. The employer (God) responds to those who have worked all day that he has been just in paying them the agreed-upon wage; they have no grievance if he chooses to be generous to others. God's goodness and mercy transcends the narrow and limited laws and logic of human justice; it is not the amount of service given but the attitude of love and generosity behind that service.
The parable also illustrates the universality of the new Church. The contracted workers, Israel, will be joined by the new “migrant workers,” the Gentiles, who will share equally in the joy of the kingdom of God.
HOMILY POINTS:Today’s Gospel strikes at our tendency to judge everything and everyone in terms of how it affects me. How someone else benefits or is lifted up doesn’t matter — my hurt feelings trump their joy. Christ calls us to embrace the vision of the generous vineyard owner: to rejoice in the good fortune of others and their being enabled to realize their dreams, instead of lamenting our own losses and slights.
We have our scales, yardsticks, actuary tables and market indices to measure what is just and what is not; but God is generous, loving and forgiving with an extravagance that sometimes offends our sense of justice and fair play.
Christ calls us to look beyond labels like “tax collector” and “prostitute” and seek out and lift up the holiness and goodness that reside in every person who is, like each one of us, a child of God. The parable of the generous vineyard owner invites us to embrace the vision of God that enables us to welcome everyone to the work of the harvest, to rejoice in God’s blessings to all, to help one another reap the bounty of God’s vineyard.
Small ‘c’ churchOn a business trip to South America, he visited a small church in one of the poor barrios. He was deeply moved by what he saw: the joy-filled faith of these families despite the overwhelming poverty of their daily lives. When he returned home, he was telling some friends after Mass about what he had seen. The group wondered what they could do to help, so they contacted the pastor of the barrio parish. The priest expressed gratitude for any help, especially for the parish’s school and small clinic. So the group collected school and medical supplies and shipped them; next they gathered up blankets and clothes; now they are raising money to dig a new well for the community. They see themselves as just a group of friends doing what they are able to do for their South American brothers and sisters. But, in truth, they are being church.
It’s known as “the list” — names and telephone numbers of folks in the parish who can be called day or night. An elderly parishioner needs a ride to the doctor? Call Susan. The young couple struggling through her difficult pregnancy? Sheila and Pat will make sure they have supper and groceries this week. The one car of a family whose parents have been out of work for some time breaks down? Neil knows what to do. It is more than a list of numbers. It is church.
When they were in grammar school, they participated in the parish’s vacation religious education program every summer and always had a great time. Now that they are in high school, they return every July to serve as leaders and counselors — and often become big brothers and big sisters to the kids. The adults who are responsible for the week’s program will tell you immediately that these teens make the program go. They are more than a terrific group of generous teenagers. They are church.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of the “church” — not the institutional capital ‘C’ Church, but the lower-case ‘c’ church that is you and I, human beings who struggle to follow Jesus. That is the important lesson of today’s Gospel: the ability of individuals who come together as disciples, inspired by the Gospel Jesus, to accomplish great works of compassion, reconciliation, healing and justice. May the grace of God bring us together, even just two or three of us, in Jesus’ name, enabling us to mirror God’s love in our midst.
From Fr. Jude Botelho:
A cry we often hear from people's lips is: "It's not fair!? We tend to believe that the way we are treated is not fair; we are not getting what we deserve. Other people seem to get all the benefits they don?t deserve. It?s not fair! Deep down we have to admit that we are not happy when people get more than they deserve. The truth is God is not fair! He gives all more than they deserve! Have a grateful weekend thanking God for his goodness to all peoples! Fr. Jude
In today's first reading from the book of Isaiah the last two verses draw our attention and tie up with the message contained in the gospel parable of the labourers in the vineyard. ?My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways?, says the Lord. God is completely different from what we human beings imagine and we often create and imagine our God to be petty and parochial like we ourselves are. Isaiah will remind us that we are both at opposite extremes and the more we believe, the more we draw close to God, the more our attitudes, our behaviour and our lives should reflect the God we believe in.
The man who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace has been a slave trader and had taken part in the most inhuman and cruel treatment of people. He called himself a wretch who deserved nothing but contempt and punishment but instead found himself pardoned and raised to a position of trust and responsibility. How could he otherwise describe it but as Amazing Grace? Many people seem to feel poor always because they never give themselves to the cause of God, whereas, people like John Calvin felt that his life was always rich because his one purpose in life was to serve the Lord. Therefore when the physician told him that he must cease from working so much or he would die because he had a complication of a painful disease, he replied, ?Would you have my Master come and find me loitering?? No servant of God can get tired of serving the Lord. He may be tired in the service, but never tired of it.
Vima Dasan in His Word Lives?
In the Gospel we have the parable of the landowner who goes out to hire labourers to work in his vineyard and makes a deal with them with regard to their wages. The Gospel does not tell us why he went out at regular intervals almost till the day was done and invited labourers to come and work for him promising to reward them. When evening came and the time for receiving their wages all the labourers were in for a surprise. Those who had work for only an hour received a full day?s wage. But the real bomb shell came when those who had worked the whole day also received the same day?s wage and they protested and grumbled against the landlord. ?It?s not fair! We have worked more that those who came in at the last minute, we have shouldered the burden of the entire day and why should we not get paid for it? Surely we deserve more than we received.? At the outset we have to say that the parable is not a moral lesson in labour relations! How could the
landowner, who obviously stands for God in the parable, treat his dependants in such a shabby manner? What could come as a shock to us is that the whole thrust of the parable is that nobody can bargain with God, or claim the right to a reward from God. What Jesus is here stating in a rather striking way is that God is not in the business of bargaining, that eternal life is a sheer gift that comes from God?s generosity. In today?s gospel we have a fantastic insight into the wisdom of reversal of values which is at the heart of the Kingdom of God. The context in which it was originally told must have been a complaint of Jesus? opponents that he was paying more attention to outcasts than to the respectable members of society. If the parable referred to the Pharisees complaint at Jesus? generous treatment of sinners, then it means that Jesus is treating sinners, the latecomers into the kingdom with the same mercy as he has for those who have borne the burden of the Law.
On every side, people are more conscious of their rights with less concern for the real needs of others. The unemployed, the homeless, the less fortunate experience themselves more and more excluded by the better off. Those who have want more. Such attitude was there from the beginning, apparently. While Adam and Eve had everything they needed, they were tempted to desire something extra with disastrous consequences. The early workers in the vineyard were not satisfied with their agreed wage and begrudged the latecomers a similar wage. Today?s gospel is a stern reminder to be aware of the destructive selfishness that can so easily take over our hearts. We tend to ignore the fact that we have no claim to this world?s goods over and above our brothers and sisters at home or elsewhere. Creation and life itself are God?s gifts, given for all equally. Talents and work opportunities are not entitlements to self aggrandizements but rather make one responsible for building a better world for all. No matter how small is the contribution we make to our neighbour?s welfare, it is ours to make.
Tom Clancy in ?Living the Word?
Last shall be first
A VIP had been invited to perform the prize-giving ceremony. The first three runners home were waiting, all smiles, to take their places on the victory podium. The first sign that something unusual was about to happen was when the VIP said he wanted all the runners present at the ceremony. The runners were duly called, and all was now set. Then what did he do? He called the man who came in last and gave the gold medal to him. He gave the silver medal to the man who had come second last, and the bronze medal to the man who came third last. There were gasps of astonishment from the crowd, and sighs of embarrassment from the organisers. The mistake was pointed out to him. But he said, ?This is the way I want it.? Then he proceeded to give a warm handshake to each of the other runner's right down to the man who came first. When the latter came forward he was very angry. ?This is not fair!? he exclaimed. ?So you think it?s not fair? The VIP replied calmly. ?I do,? said the man. "I won the race. So I deserve to get the gold medal." ?Friend,? said the VIP, ?haven?t you got enough already?? ?What do you mean?? the man asked. ?You?ve had the satisfaction of winning the race. You've had the applause of the crowd and the attention of the media. On top of all this, you?ve had lucrative contracts offered to you. Now consider the man who came last. He finished the race too. And what did he get for his efforts? Nothing. Would it be fairer if you got everything while he got nothing?? With that the victor was reduced to silence. Still fuming, he turned and went away. The aim of this story is not to down-play the achievement of the winner but to make a point. It seems wrong that one person should get everything, while another gets nothing. I know this is exactly what happens in our world ? the winner takes all.
Flor McCarthy in ?New Sunday and Holy Day Liturgies?
The 1954 movie On the Waterfront is considered a classic in film making. It features Marlon Brando as longshoreman Terry Malloy, who gets locked in a brutal battle with the ruthless labour boss Johnny Friendly, played by Lee J. Cobb. The issue is the rights of the dock workers. Not only are the longshoremen being exploited by the ship owners, but they are also being shaken down by their own union leaders. With the help of Fr. Barry (played by Karl Balden) and Edie Doyle (played by Eva Marie Saint) Terry Malloy undergoes a transformation after his brother is murdered by Johnny Friendly's goons. From being a tough and uncaring street fighter, he becomes a crusader for his fellow workers ad testifies for them to the crime commission against their corrupt labour bosses. Today?s gospel also deals with a labour problem. At first it appears that the parable is setting up a model for management and labour relationships. Such is not the case. The parable by our
Lord is more about the generosity of God than about working conditions. The story is more about the supreme goodness of God than about wage settlements. The punch line in the parable is the statement at the end: ?I intend to give this man who was hired last the same pay. I am free to do as I please with my money, am I not? Or are you envious because I am generous?? In his book The Parables of Jesus, Joachim Jeremias says that today?s gospel portrays the behaviour of a large-hearted man who is compassionate and full of sympathy for the poor.
Albert Cylwicki in His Word Resounds?
Who the hell's in heaven?
1. From Fr. Tony Kadavil’s Collection:
1: “That’s not fair!”
How many times, in the course of a given day, have you heard someone protest, “That’s not fair!” Children on a playground shout when they detect a foul play: “That’s not fair!” Siblings doing household chores may complain, “I’m doing more work!” or “My chores are more difficult; that’s not fair!” Students at school may resent the extra attention given to a classmate... “She’s the teacher’s favorite; that’s not fair!” A brother thinks his piece of pie appears to be smaller than his sister’s -- “That’s not fair!” Someone at work receives a raise in salary when another person thinks he/she is more deserving: “I have seniority. I’ve been here longer; that’s not fair!” The coach of the Little League baseball team always puts her child in as starting pitcher; other players are annoyed... “That’s not fair!” Taxpayers bristle at the fact that increasing numbers of people are applying for and receive welfare from the government... “I have to work hard to make a living for me and my family. So should everyone else... that’s not fair!” In each of these several examples, human sensibilities regarding fairness and patience have been offended, precisely because of the fact that they are human. Most of us think that good work, seniority and experience should be rewarded, that all should be subject to the same rules, like “First come, first served,” that everyone should be treated impartially and that there should be no exceptions and no favorites! Therefore, when confronted with a situation such as that put before us in today’s Gospel parable of identical wages for different numbers of hours of work, our sense of fairness in provoked. (Patricia Datchuck Sánchez)
2: Deathbed conversions:
Conversions at the point of death have a long history. The first recorded deathbed conversion appears in the Gospel of Luke where the good thief, crucified beside Jesus, expresses belief in Christ. Jesus accepts his conversion, saying “Today you shall be with me in Paradise." Perhaps the most momentous conversion in Western history was that of Constantine I, Roman Emperor, later proclaimed a Christian Saint. While his belief in Christianity occurred long before his death, it was only in 337 on his deathbed that he was baptized. A famous literary genius who entered the Church at the final moment was Oscar Wilde. He had written plays like "The Importance of Being Ernest" and novels, such as "The Picture of Dorian Gray." Wilde lived a notorious lifestyle. He did things that scandalized, even repulsed, his contemporaries. What most do not know, however, is that at the end of life he converted to Catholicism! On his death bed Oscar Wilde asked for and received baptism and anointing of the sick from Fr. Cuthbert Dunne. But he was unable to receive the Eucharist. As in today's parable he entered the vineyard - the Church - at the last hour. While Wilde's conversion may have come as a surprise, he had long maintained an interest in the Catholic Church, having met with Pope Pius IX in 1877. He described the Roman Catholic Church as "for saints and sinners alone – for respectable people, the Anglican Church will do." Some might consider this type of eleventh hour, deathbed conversions unfair. They might feel like the workers who started working early and received equal wage with the late comers. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deathbed_conversion )
2. From Sermons.com
One day a rich young ruler came enthusiastically running up to Jesus and asked: "What must I do to be saved?" Jesus answered: Keep the law. "This I have done from my youth up," came the reply. Yet one thing do you lack said Jesus. Go and sell all that you have and give it to the poor. Then come follow me. We are told that the young man walked away sorrowfully, for he had great wealth. Concluded the Master: It will be hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.
The disciples had been watching the dynamics of this happening and they were quite disturbed. Jewish tradition had always taught that God had especially blessed rich men and that is why he was rich. In their way of thinking, if a wealthy man could not receive salvation, then how could a poor man have any hope? They asked of Jesus: who then can be saved?
It reminds me of the movie Fiddler on the Roof. The poor Jewish milkman who lives in early 1900 Russia sings what he would do "if I were a rich man." His wife reminds him: money is a curse. He immediately shouts up to heaven: curse me God, curse me. Jesus has just turned away a wealthy man, and in the Jewish way of thinking it doesn't make any sense. In fact, I am not sure how many Methodist preachers would have the courage to do it. My entire ministry I have been waiting for a sugar daddy to come along.
But it was Simon Peter who drew the question even more clearly into focus for us. He asked what is on the mind of every one of us, only we are too sophisticated to ask it and too self-righteous to admit that we even think it. Peter didn't have any problem with that. He simply laid his cards out on the table. He said, "Lord, we have given up everything, riches and all, to follow you." What then shall we have?" In others words, what's in this for us Lord. How do we stand to profit? Where's the payoff?
In response to Peter's question, Jesus told a story. It was the harvest time of the year...
In a world more inclined to take up the sword than take up the cross, let's begin today with a recognition of the power of the cross, the most recognizable symbol of Christianity. When you think of Islam you think of a crescent, even though technically Islam does not have a symbol - the crescent is the symbol of Pakistan. But still, when you think of Islam, you think crescent. When you think of Judaism, you think star of David. When you think of Christianity, you think . . . cross.
The Logos has a logo . . . two lines that intersect to form a cross. Not a plus symbol. A cross, the symbol of the depths of human degradation and sin, but also the symbol of the heights of divine love and forgiveness. The cross is a paradoxical symbol of death that can be crossed out with life, a symbol of the crossing of opposites: transcendence and immanence, the vertical and the horizontal, a symbol that God does God's best in our worst.
This is glaringly evident in today's epistle lesson, part of the rich prison literature of the Christian tradition. Some of the most beautiful and exquisite literature ever written comes out of prison...think Cervantes, Voltaire, Diderot, Dostoevsky, Defoe, John Donne, Henry David Thoreau, Oscar Wilde, Jack London. Christianity's prison literature includes classics like Martin Luther's translation of the New Testament into German, John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress," Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "Letters and Papers from Prison," Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," Nelson Mandela's "Conversations with Myself."
Today's text is from one of the "prison epistles"- Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon - so named because they were written by the apostle Paul during his incarceration in Rome...
__________________God Has Five Aces
In her wonderful collection of poetry called, The Awful Rowing Toward God, Anne Sexton examines her life like someone in a canoe rowing against the stream of life, encountering hazards along the way, and finally docking at the island of God's home. The concluding poem in the book is called "The Rowing Endeth." In it she sees herself called by God's great laughter to join him for a game of poker. When the cards are dealt, she is surprised and thrilled. She has a royal straight flush. She will trounce God and win for herself whatever prizes God has brought to the table. In great excitement she slaps down her cards, claiming her winnings. Nothing can beat this hand!
But God only laughs, a great, rolling, joyful exuberance that energizes everything around. In rich good humor, with no malice at all, God throws down his cards. Five aces! That's impossible! But there it is. And when Anne loses to God, she knows that really she wins. For God is not stingy with his wealth or his earnings. There are never any losers when they sit at table with God. God's laughter is always without malice or one-upmanship.
This is the gospel according to Jesus' parable. In spite of our good fortunes or savvy playing skills or sheer hard work, we never really win at the game of life when we play it by our own rules. But if God is bending them in the direction of grace, something wonderful always happens.
Wayne Brouwer, Political Religion, CSS Publishing Company, Inc.
Wayne Brouwer, Political Religion, CSS Publishing Company, Inc.
___________________________Generosity Is the Secret to Our Joy
There is an old rabbinic parable about a farmer that had two sons. As soon as they were old enough to walk, he took them to the fields and he taught them everything that he knew about growing crops and raising animals. When he got too old to work, the two boys took over the chores of the farm and when the father died, they had found their working together so meaningful that they decided to keep their partnership. So each brother contributed what he could and during every harvest season, they would divide equally what they had corporately produced. Across the years the elder brother never married, stayed an old bachelor. The younger brother did marry and had eight wonderful children. Some years later when they were having a wonderful harvest, the old bachelor brother thought to himself one night, "My brother has ten mouths to feed. I only have one. He really needs more of his harvest than I do, but I know he is much too fair to renegotiate. I know what I'll do. In the dead of the night when he is already asleep, I'll take some of what I have put in my barn and I'll slip it over into his barn to help him feed his children.
At the very time he was thinking down that line, the younger brother was thinking to himself, "God has given me these wonderful children. My brother hasn't been so fortunate. He really needs more of this harvest for his old age than I do, but I know him. He's much too fair. He'll never renegotiate. I know what I'll do. In the dead of the night when he's asleep, I'll take some of what I've put in my barn and slip it over into his barn." And so one night when the moon was full, as you may have already anticipated, those two brothers came face to face, each on a mission of generosity. The old rabbi said that there wasn't a cloud in the sky, a gentle rain began to fall. You know what it was? God weeping for joy because two of his children had gotten the point. Two of his children had come to realize that generosity is the deepest characteristic of the holy and because we are made in God's image, our being generous is the secret to our joy as well. Life is not fair, thank God! It's not fair because it's rooted in grace.
John Claypool, Life Isn't Fair, Thank God!
____________________________________We Need Great Trust in God
Johnny Carson tells a story about the time when, as the host of the Tonight Show, he made a joke about there being a toilet paper shortage in the city.
The next day there really was a shortage because all the viewers who had watched his show ran out afterward and bought up extra toilet paper just in case. There was no trust in the fact that people, if they chose to work together, could ration out the toilet paper to make sure there would be enough for everyone. People panicked and grabbed not what they needed, but more than they needed, leaving others with nothing at all. When people allow their lives to be directed by this kind of fear and self-love, then they find out when they die and finally have the opportunity to enter into a heavenly community, that it is not really what they want at all.
They shrink back. You see, you need to have a great deal of trust in God and the goodness of others in order to buy into the concept of heaven, and these people don't. They can't anymore, because they have learned here on earth that you take what you can get when you can get it, because if you don't, no one else is going to look out for you. Heaven to these people is a very unsettling place.
Our landowner is like the kingdom of heaven because he seeks to include everyone, he gives freely to everyone so that they each have as much as they need, and he holds up a mirror to the deepest part of our being that asks the question, "are we okay with that?"
Sarah Buteux, The Heavenly Landowner
______________________________Embrace the Sense of Community
There's a play by Timothy Thompson based on this parable in which he depicts two brothers vying for work. John is strong and capable; Philip is just as willing but has lost a hand in an accident. When the landowner comes, John is taken in the first wave of workers, and as he labors in the field he looks up the lane for some sign of Philip. Other workers are brought to the field, but Philip is not among them. John is grateful to have the work, but feels empty knowing that Philip is just as needful as he. Finally, the last group of workers arrive, and Philip is among them. John is relieved to know that Philip will get to work at least one hour. But, as the drama unfolds, and those who came last get paid a full days' wages, John rejoices, knowing that Philip - his brother - will have the money necessary to feed his family. When it comes his turn to stand before the landowner and receive his pay, instead of complaining as the others, John throws out his hand and says with tears in his eyes, "Thank you, my lord, for what you've done for us today!"
God's justice arises out of a sense of community in which we see the "eleventh hour" workers as our brothers and sisters whose needs are every bit as important as our own.
Philip W. McLarty, The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard
Philip W. McLarty, The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard
_____________________________The Worker's Pledge
Washington Gladden, a pioneer for social justice, realized that changing outward conditions will not bring about a better society unless men's attitude toward their work is also changed. So he wrote what he called "The Worker's Pledge" in which he said:
"I will not be a sponge or parasite. I will give an honest equivalent for what I get. I want no man's money for which I have not rendered a full return. I want no wages that I have not earned. If I work for any man or any company or any institution, I will render a full, ample, generous service. If I work for the city or the state or the nation, I will give my best thought, my best effort, my most conscientious and efficient endeavor. If I can give a little more than I get every time, in that shall be my happiness. The great commonwealth of human society shall not be a loser through me."
This is the spirit that has built our country, and when that spirit declines, America is on the decline. There is no substitute for hard, honest, conscientious work under God.
T.A. Kantonen, Good News for All Seasons, CSS Publishing Co., Inc.
It seems that even monkeys, if they could read, would get indignant about this parable.
In the Australian newspaper "The Melbourne Age," there was an intriguing report from the University of Atlanta called: "Monkeys want to see justice done."
At the University of Atlanta, researchers have been testing capuchin monkeys. They gave them the task of picking up a small granite stone and bringing it to the researcher within one minute. If they were successful, they were rewarded with the wage of a slice of cucumber. The scheme worked well. It was happy lab situation as long as each monkey received the same wage. This turned sour when the researchers varied the pattern. They tried giving one monkey a grape for its reward. Indignation broke out. First the others withheld their labor, and later they even took to throwing away the cucumber and the granite stone.
It had offended their sense of justice. That's almost human isn't it? We are happy with our lot until we see someone in a similar situation who is better off. Then we cry foul! We want to go on strike and demand an end to such monkey business.
Brett Blair, www.Sermons.com. Adapted from a sermon by Bruce Prewer.
______________________The Rules of a Family
The parable of the vineyard workers (Matt. 20) offends our sense of fairness. Why should everyone get equal pay for unequal work? Back in Ontario when the apples ripened, Mom would sit all seven of us down, Dad included, with pans and paring knives until the mountain of fruit was reduced to neat rows of filled canning jars. She never bothered keeping track of how many we did, though the younger ones undoubtedly proved more of a nuisance than a help: cut fingers, squabbles over who got which pan, apple core fights. But when the job was done, the reward for everyone was the same: the largest chocolate-dipped cone money could buy. A stickler might argue it wasn't quite fair since the older ones actually peeled apples. But I can't remember anyone complaining about it.
A family understands it operates under a different set of norms than a courtroom. In fact, when the store ran out of ice cream and my younger brother had to make do with a Popsicle, we felt sorry for him despite his lack of productivity (he'd eaten all the apples he'd peeled that day--both of them). God wants all his children to enjoy the complete fullness of eternal life. No true child of God wants it any other way.
Robert De Moor
_________________________Grace and Generosity
Dr. William Power, a professor at Southern Methodist University, describes an experience he had in Sunday school when he was a boy. His teacher was trying to explain to him and his rowdy friends the meaning of grace, but wasn't getting very far. She tried definitions and abstractions, to no avail. Finally, she realized something the boys had known from the start. She was not connecting. She was not getting through to them. They didn't have the foggiest notion what she was talking about.
So she took a deep breath and tried again: "Look boys, grace is the break you get when you don't deserve it. That's the simple explanation. But you won't really understand it till you experience it."
James W. Moore, Some Things Are Too Good Not to Be True, Dimensions, 1994, p. 95.
This parable goes against the business mentality that dominates our lives. We have always been taught: You get out of something directly in proportion to that which you put in it. Yet, that is not what happened in Jesus' story. In our way of thinking, the laborers who came to the field late got something for nothing. This parable challenges us not to look upon the Kingdom of God, or the church, as a business community. Yet, that is difficult for us to do, because that is our point of reference. What do you think would happen if a person joined the church this morning and immediately after receiving the vows of profession of faith I suggested to the congregation that he or she be nominated as the next chairperson of the Administrative Board. What do you think the reaction would be? Well, I think I know what the reaction would be. The laity would protest as loudly as Simon Peter is protesting to Jesus.
You see, we live in a world of tenure and seniority and it goes against our grain when we hear Jesus say: The first shall be last and the last shall be first. God's grace is not based upon what is fair, but rather what helps.
____________________________Jesus Was Just Wrong
One Sunday several years ago when I preached on this text, a church member came to me after the service and said, "You know, preacher, there are parts of the Bible that are difficult to abide, and other parts that aren't. The story you preached on today is one that I find totally offensive! It's just not fair to pay everyone the same wage when some have worked hard and some have hardly worked. Jesus was just wrong about that. I think you should have preached on something less offensive." The following Sunday, I preached about the prodigal son.
Johnny Dean, Exasperating Grace
A man dies and goes to heaven. Of course, St. Peter meets him at the Pearly Gates. St. Peter says, "Here's how it works. You need 100 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all the good things you've done, and I give you a certain number of points for each item, depending on how good it was. When you reach 100 points, you get in." Okay, " the man says, "I was married to the same women for 50 years and never cheated on her, even in my heart." That's wonderful," says St. Peter, "that's worth three points." Three points?"
He says. "Well, I attended church all my life and supported its ministry with my tithe and service." Terrific!" say's St. Peter. "That's certainly worth a point." "One point? Well I started a soup kitchen in my city and worked in a shelter for homeless veterans." Fantastic, that's good for two more points," he says. "Two points!"
The man cries. "At this rate the only way to get into heaven is by the grace of God!" St. Peter smiled. "There's your 100 points! Come on in!"
____________________________Grace and Generosity
A large prosperous downtown church had three mission churches under its care that it had started. On the first Sunday of the New Year all the members of the mission churches came to the city church for a combined Communion service. In those mission churches, which were located in the slums of the city, were some outstanding cases of conversions--thieves, burglars, and so on--but all knelt side by side at the Communion rail.
On one such occasion the pastor saw a former burglar kneeling beside a judge of the Supreme Court of England--it was the judge who had sent him to jail where he had served seven years. After his release this burglar had been converted and became a Christian worker. Yet, as they knelt there, the judge and the former convict neither one seemed to be aware of the other...