Reflections on the readings for Sunday 18 September 2011
Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18; Philippians 1:20c-24, 27a; Matthew 20:1-16a
What truth does the parable of the workers in the vineyard awaken in us? This is one of those texts that powerfully illustrates that what we read out of a text is conditioned by what we bring to the text. When I have read this text with people who are more economically secure, they highlight the unfairness of it. How can you pay a full day’s wage to someone who pitched up just before closing time? Other readers more acquainted with economic hardship recognize the helpless desperation of the workers hired later in the day. In first century Palestine, as in much of the world today, being able to earn a living required more than a bit of initiative and a willingness to work. Then as now it usually took money to make money. Day labourers were completely dependent upon work given them by the land-owners. They could only stand in the market place and hope that they were chosen. Imagine the increasing hopelessness of those who were passed over, especially those who for various reasons always seem to have been chosen last, if at all.
What does this parable tell us about the kingdom of God? It tells us of the extravagant generosity of God, and of the upside-down nature of God’s kingdom. God’s ways aren’t our ways. If we identify with the first-hired, it gives us real food for thought about our own motivations and expectations. We praise God for being compassionate toward all God has made and speak of the unmerited grace of God in our lives. But for those of us who have worked diligently at our own faith and at partnering in God’s mission in the world, there can be the temptation toward jealousy at God’s generosity toward others. We’re happy for them, but we think that we deserve bonus points!
Perhaps we identify more with the last-hired. If those who had stood hopelessly in the marketplace all day had had an inkling of the generous nature of the landowner, they may have had the courage to ask him directly for a job. Indeed, the landowner seems to have been surprised at their passivity. The Kingdom of God is there for the asking. The Lord is near to us to respond when we call. In the words of the prophet: “Seek the Lord while he may be found”. Our desire for God is proof that this is the time for finding God. If we call to God we will discover God’s generosity. And it is always so much more than we deserve.
Paul was one of those who could identify with those who weren’t hired at the beginning. In fact, he began by making life as difficult as possible for the fledgling Christian movement. But he got pulled into working God’s vineyard, and in the time available to him, he worked with all his might. He knew that, whether he lived or died, whether his time was long or short, it was all about Christ. He wasn’t about to grumble about his pay – God’s generosity in Christ had given him everything.