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.
As the son of a union business agent, I kind of view the parable of today’s gospel with a prejudiced eye. Having grown up with the concept of a fair and living wage, and a just hour by hour accounting of a laborer or a truck driver, the story of the parable seems to violate concepts of justice and rights of the working person. These hard-fought rights brought forth labor unions and economic growth in the last century. But, and it is a big but, the parable was spoken centuries ago, in the Judaic countryside in a culture and time far removed from us. It was not meant to be an economic lesson, but a description of what the Kingdom of God was like and perhaps how he acted. In that time, an employer invited workers to work and terms were negotiated as to what would be paid.
In this story, the householder chooses to pay all the workers the same, whether they worked all day or just one hour. Red flags, sirens, etc. all arise as we listen. It is not fair, the men should be paid by the hour and not all the same. Yet, we forget they agreed to what was fair. What call does anyone have to ask or demand more than what was fair. The translation we have says the householder was “generous,” but a careful look at the original say more like the householder paid out of his “goodness.” And there we find the whole point of what the kingdom of heaven is. It is there out of God’s goodness and He treats all the same. The kingdom is not a reward or something earned but where God has invited us to be. We are all equal and God doesn’t play favorites of one over another.
We are all called to his kingdom, some with years and years of faith and love, others answering for lesser time. Yet, from the infant who died in childbirth to the martyrs of the many centuries to the exalted saints we honor in the church, God welcomes and treats each as his own and each with all his love. Yes, we need to labor as we are called to the vineyard.
Forgiveness is something we all encounter at one time or another in both directions, giving and receiving. This was an important part of Jesus ministry and is subject of one of his sacraments. If we know and realize that love is an important part of relationships and of our relationship with God, we can hopefully realize the importance of forgiveness. To quickly understand, let us look at a married couple in love. It is inevitable in living that two people living together are going to have disagreements and arguments as a normal course of living. But truly, living out their lives involves give and take and forgiving slights and differences, even large ones. Forgiveness is not a one time thing, but an integral part of life and love and relationships. Forgiveness looks to the future and has its own way of putting behind what was the dispute. To say, “I’ll forgive but never forget,” is not Christian and certainly not what we ourselves ask when we ask forgiveness. I ask where would we be if God himself said he would not forget? Yet the words of the sacrament are “I absolve you of all your sins.” His love is unconditional and so should ours be.
Each of us knows the weakness and failure that sometimes only we know and the many times we ask for forgiveness for our actions. This access to forgiveness we seek, is something we should be prepared to give and share to those who in any way need our forgiveness as we live our daily lives.
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 9-17-17 Sirach 27:30-28:7, Ps 103:1-12, Romans 14:7-9, Matthew 18: 21-35
We use the word “forgiveness” at every single Mass. Let’s spend a few minutes talking about what forgiveness is, and is not.
Let’s start with what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not forgetting, like Christians are a group of people with voluntary memory loss. Forgiveness is not reconciliation. To reconcile means to establish a friendship or shared understanding of something; to come to agreement. Forgiveness is not condoning. When we condone an act, we simply overlook it without protest. Likewise, forgiveness is not dismissing. When a court case is dismissed, the legal action is withdrawn and nothing else is done. Forgiveness is not some vague sort of tolerance. Tolerance is when we allow or respect something as permissible. Finally, forgiveness is not pardoning. When the governor pardons someone in jail, he releases them without further punishment, he excuses their crime.
Most of us, including myself, would have used one or more of these words to define “forgiveness.” But we would have been wrong. Forgiveness is not about excuses or overlooking or tolerating or withdrawing. One dictionary definition I like is “to renounce anger or resentment against.” It is a decision to not carry negative emotion against something some one else did. It is not a judgment but rather a decision about our own behavior. It is not something we create, but something we learn from the Spirit of God. Our relationship with God shows us that we can be loved even when we are at our worst. This discovery is so enormous that we want to pass it on to others.
For starters, forgiveness is gift from God; it is an act of faith. Two very familiar scriptures might help. First, is Matthew 18:22, when Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive a brother and, I suspect, tries to appear generous by suggesting 7 times. Jesus responds, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” Please understand that the number “7” is the number for complete or finished, or even perfect. That’s why creation in Genesis is a “7” day event. Peter thinks if he forgave seven times, it would be perfect. Jesus tells him that he must multiply his answer by 10, and then add another 7 for even more perfect. What? It means infinite, limitless, endless. That must have taken the wind out of Peter’s sail, as it does mine. Incidentally, that 77 is a direct quote, using the exact same Greek phrase, from Genesis 4: 24, and is referring to limits on revenge against Cain for the murder of his brother. Jesus is talking about unlimited forgiveness- of a terrible crime. This is what brings peace to our families, our communities, and our world.
The other familiar scripture is the Our Father, Matthew 6: 14-15. “If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.” It sends a chill up my spine every time I say it. It’s very clear. Can we say, “Of course we are forgiven; Christ’s death on the cross forgave my sins,” and still not forgive others? There are many Bible verses that respond very clearly to that. One is Colossians 3: 12-13, “Put on, then, as God’s chosen ones, holy & beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must do also.”
Forgiveness is one of the most powerful actions a Christian can perform. The only thing harder than forgiveness – is to not forgive. To not forgive is like carrying a brick around with you, every day, always, everywhere. To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and then find out that the prisoner is not someone else, but yourself. And to not forgive tends to grow into something even more ugly. If we are angry and hold a grudge against one person, we are likely to begin to generalize that anger to other people. Ethnic hatred and racism, for example, are often based in anger against one individual or event.
We may say we will “try” to forgive people. Here I need to quote a famous movie character, Yoda, in Star Wars. Yoda said, “Try not! Do or do not! There is no try!” When we try, we leave open an expectation of possible failure; better to decide to do. Forgiveness is not wimpy; instead it tends to be an attribute of strength and confidence.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until we have something to forgive.” It might be well to look at forgiveness as purposeful commitment or a jouney. A therapist, when writing about forgiveness, suggested that forgiveness is a long-term plan, and may require a wait 10 or more years before the other party is willing to respond. He urges people to continue to make regular contract for however long it takes.
The tragedy of the 2006 Amish schoolhouse shooting in Pennsylvania will always be with me. When a man entered a schoolhouse and killed 5 little girls, the Amish families not only offered forgiveness but also food, help and friendship to the shooter’s wife and children. They did it because they knew the Gospel, not to look good. They had a firm commitment to obey the Word of God, knowing that, despite the pain and trauma in their lives, it was the right thing to do, and it was that choice that would restore love and peace. It was a powerful witness to the world. We also have that choice available to us.
So we can boldly say, “I will show Christ’s love by forgiving those who do not even ask for forgiveness. I will leave fairness and justice in God’s hands. I will forgive others just as the Lord forgave me. Today I will give myself the gift of forgiveness. ” Is there someone I need to forgive?