Each of us enters life like a bit of a blank slate. It’s not a totally blank slate, however. There are pre-existing conditions for each of us, such as our basic physical characteristics and the physical realities resulting from the genetics of the bodies with which we have been blessed. Nevertheless, for the most part, we are set to learn and develop into adults through the example and support of the family and community into which we are born.
Once we get here, we begin to experience the expectations and knowledge of our families and communities. How are babies expected to behave? How do we expect them to eat and sleep and learn to sit up, crawl, walk, and eventually run? How do we teach them to carry out their expected roles? Will the boys learn to be fathers? Will the girls learn to be mothers? What else will they learn to be? Are roles strictly divided by physical sex? Where does gender fit into it all?
Once we get all of that figured out, then we deal with our cultures. The culture into which we are born plays a huge part in the experience we have of life. What is the creation story of our people? What do we need to do to fit into the larger society in which we live? Are the deities of our people ones who care about us, or do we need to try to please their every selfish whim as they battle for power among themselves?
The people of Israel were used to worshiping and encountering God at the temple in Jerusalem before the invasion of the Babylonians and destruction of the temple. Large numbers of the people were carried into exile – and to their surprise, God was present with them there too. As the end of the exile appeared and they returned to their own land, they took this awareness with them. Yet there was still a sense that it would be important and even necessary to return to temple sacrifice as a major form of prayer and encounter with God.
The Prophet Isaiah reminds them, “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call him while he is near.” He is not far away. He is near. He is ready to listen. He doesn’t follow our ways of thinking or interacting with each other. It’s never too late to turn back to the Lord. Scoundrels should forsake their ways. The wicked turn from evil thoughts and plans. Turn to God for mercy. Why? Won’t God just punish and destroy the evildoers? That’s what would happen in human justice. Isaiah describes God as the one “who is generous and forgiving.” Our God is not one who will take out his spite or anger on his people and break off relationships forever. Our God sticks around and hopes for reconciliation, always ready to respond in love and forgiveness. (Is 55:6-9)
Jesus told a story to his disciples: “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner…” (Mt 20:1-16a) Landowners held a great advantage in their society. They had a resource on which they could count for supporting themselves and their families. They were not dependent on the whims of an employer or the fluctuations of the “job market” – harvest time, planting time, time between seasonal jobs, and so forth.
This landowner needed harvesters. The vines were full of ripe grapes. The harvest was ready. The year’s income was at stake. Time to hire day laborers.
Everyone knew what the regular wages would be for a day of work. It may not have been expressed as an hourly wage, but folks knew what their labor was worth. There was no question of surprises at the end of the day.
A few hours later, the landowner went out and saw more people in need of work, so he sent them into his vineyard too, with the promise to pay them “what is just.” They did not expect full wages. That would not have entered their minds. They expected a reduced wage and would have been completely happy to receive that. Much better than having nothing to take to the market for buying food on the way home.
Around noon, the same thing happened again. The next group went willingly into the vineyard, expecting about a half day’s pay.
Three o’clock, same story. Five o’clock, more idle workers in the market. Off to the vineyard with them too. Same promise – “I will give you what is just.”
Finally, the sun was setting and it was time to stop work for the day. Some of the laborers had worked from dawn to dusk. Others for three, six, nine, or eleven hours less. It was time to receive their pay and head home.
The landlord instructed his foreman, “Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.” Now, one would think this would be very satisfying to the ones who had been working all day. They would see the “slackers” hired at the end of the day get just a few coins in payment. The next group a few more, and so forth. Eventually, they themselves, who had been up and ready to work first thing in the morning, would get their full day’s pay and go home with their heads held high and bragging rights about what great providers they were.
That’s the way the story should end. It would demonstrate the value of hard work and responsibility. The whole pull-yourself-up-by-your-sandal-straps ideal. Those who work hard will prosper and the rest will just fall by the wayside. It’s their own darn fault for being lazy…
But no, that’s not the way the story goes. Those hired last received a full day’s pay, not a penny more. The same for those hired at 3, those hired at noon, and those hired at 9 in the morning. All received a full day’s pay. Well, that boded well for those who had spent all day working, right? Surely, such a generous landowner would have a bonus for the hardest-working among them. Yet no such thing happened. Those hired first received the same day’s wages as those hired at 5 in the evening.
Does that sound fair? Not to most of us. Certainly not to those hired first. But suppose you were one of those hired late in the day? It would be an amazing blessing, to be forgiven for not having worked all day, for having come late to the market, or simply not have been lucky enough to be offered work earlier.
The landowner in the story asks, “What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?”
Most of us live in relative comfort. We have our concerns and struggles. But most of us don’t have to deal with loss of home due to loss of income, or the inability to feed our children, or criminals taking over our farms, or severe, disabling health conditions, or a need to care for others who cannot care for themselves. Most of us have friends on whom we can count and a future to enjoy.
It’s not easy to remember that the Lord’s ways are not our ways. When someone hurts us, we want justice in return. We don’t want to share what we have, especially with the one whom we believe hurt us. We are not ready to forgive quickly. We hold on to the hurt and resentment and anger. It builds and sours in our hearts and interferes with our openness to love and forgiveness. If and when the time comes that we speak about the incident with the person who harmed us, we may discover that they also felt wronged and misunderstood.
But the Lord doesn’t work in this punitive, restrictive way with us. The Lord doesn’t get angry and cut us off. The Lord is as ready to forgive as a parent whose small child has lashed out in anger and screamed at them while running out of the room. As would a loving parent, the Lord gives us a moment to calm down, then begins a game of peek-a-boo, hoping to coax us back into a laughing, loving interaction.
“My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord … As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.” (Is 55:8)
May we be open to see the Lord’s hand in our lives this week, and glimpse him peeking around a doorway playing peek-a-boo with each of us, coaxing us back home.
Readings for the Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle A