25th Sunday Ordinary time, 9-24-17: Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm: 144: 2-3, 8-9, 17-18; Philippians 1:20c-24, 27a; Matthew 20:1-16a
Justice and Jealousy
Our Lectionary has been playing tricks on us. Last week we read from Chapter 18 of Matthew’s Gospel, and now today we have leaped ahead to Chapter 20. Unfortunately, the part we skipped explains why Jesus tells us today’s parable!
But we have some clues. The first reading from Isaiah says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.” Likewise the Psalm says, “The Lord is gracious and merciful… the Lord is good to all and compassionate toward all his works. The Lord is just in all his ways and holy in all his works.” Also in our Gospel, Jesus begins by saying, “The Kingdom of heaven is like a landowner…” Most of the “kingdom” parables use ordinary events and ordinary people to show us that God’s kingdom is NOT ordinary!
So let’s leap back to chapter 19 and find the disciples trying to keep children away from Jesus, but he declares, “The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Such as who? The humble, the powerless, the ones with no “purchasing power”. Then the rich young man comes and asks Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life. He is told to give away his riches and come with Jesus. Then there is the infamous Camel and the eye of the needle teaching. Jesus says it is hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God; but for God, all things are possible. Many people have struggled with that one! But doesn’t God offer grace and mercy to ALL people?
Next, Peter asks what reward the apostles will receive for leaving everything and following Jesus. Then Jesus tells this parable of “The Workers in the Vineyard.” Afterwards, John and James’ mother asks for her sons to be seated at Jesus’ right and left in the kingdom. (She was apparently too busy preparing her request to listen to the parable.) This results in Jesus teaching about the reversal of kingdom values; those who follow Jesus are to be servants. The underlying message this entire section of Matthew’s Gospel is that kingdom values are the opposite of this world’s values. More specifically, the parable is directed against envy, greed, boasting, or any kind of ranking among Jesus’ followers. Said another way, the last sentence of the reading – the first shall be last and the last shall be first – indicates that human perceptions on ranking are without meaning and will be turned upside down in the kingdom.
On to the parable! Our parable has 4 parts. First, the landowner goes out five times and hires workers. Second, the landowner pays the workers. Third, we hear the complaint of unjust wages. Fourth, we hear the defense of goodness (someone is confused if we must defend goodness). God is the landowner; the workers are the disciples – and all of us. Most humans have at least occasional bouts of bad attitude, envy, desire for special treatment and rewards, which mark them as “above the crowd”.
The apostles, for example, are put out to give mere children access to Jesus, when their unrestricted access to the Famous Teacher marks them as unique. The rich young ruler is unwilling to give up his wealth, which marks him as a person of status and privilege. Peter wants to make sure that there will be compensation for leaving the comforts of home and his life as a seafood entrepreneur. Finally, John and James’ mother probably had high hopes for her offspring, and needed to ensure this gig with a wandering rabbi would lead to the rank that was due to such outstanding sons. Surely God would recognize their superiority! (She should meet my grandkids.) Someplace here we each find the reasons we buy lottery tickets, enter Publisher’s Clearinghouse contest, and do all the crazy other things we do to “get ahead (of others).” But while this parable is about the goodness of God, it is not contrasting works and grace, or achievement levels, and is not about God’s extreme generosity. All the workers receive the usual daily wage, although some worked longer. But the wage is “the usual”, it is not generous – barely enough for food for the day – and the landowner is, if anything, charitable rather than generous, just trying to see that all have something to eat.
The parable does show that God’s treatment /judgment of people isn’t based on human rankings or human standards of justice. What causes the workers hired first to complain is the comparison of their hourly wages with that of the later hires. In their eyes, justice is that which gives no one else an advantage; they define justice from a self-centered point of view. Do we define injustice as what happens to our disadvantage, and what is right as what happens to our advantage? The first hired workers complain, of course, because they are jealous. Jesus told the rich young ruler, “If you wish to be perfect… sell what you have and give to the poor, then you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Is giving to the poor one sign of God’s goodness?
For Jesus, to talk about reward is a way to talk about what pleases God and assure us that following Christ is not fruitless. Clearly, this parable is not theology about reward. In contrast, the disciples were into calculating reward and seeking privilege. The workers who were hired first thought they would receive more….in comparison to others. The parable breaks through our ideas of reward and perceptions of what is “right”. Besides, this parable is not about human effort and salvation. Rather, just as no one should begrudge a good man who gives to the poor, so no one should begrudge God’s goodness and mercy as if God’s rewards were limited to strict calculation. Envy and displeasure at someone else’s success is contrary to the kingdom. Jealousy and all thoughts of ranking or privilege must be jettisoned.
“Justice is enormously important…but it should be redefined…too often we dress up as justice what is in reality jealousy, or use justice as a weapon to limit generosity. It certainly is not to be defined by self-centered interests, but requires positive action seeking the good for all persons, especially the needy. True justice… seeks mercy and ways to express love. If the parable is about the goodness of God, then it asks that we give up envy and calculation of reward and, rather, both embrace and imitate God’s goodness. That means that we give up the quest to be first, knowing that God’s standards are different, that what appears to be first will be last.”*
Stories with Intent, A comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, by Klyne R. Snodgrass, 2008, Eerdmans Publishing Company, pgs 378-379. This quote and many of the ideas found here are from this excellent book.