Sunday, September 21, 2014

A Very Un-Fun Parable

The parable of the workers

We have today one of those parables we've been hearing our whole life. The landowner goes out and hires laborers at dawn, 9 am, noon, 3 pm, and 5 pm, and then when the workday ends at 6 pm, the laborers come forward to receive their wages, and the landowner, being a good Jew, pays them daily because that's what the Book of Deuteronomy says to do (Deuteronomy 24:14-15 if you're interested). But the landowner pays all the of his laborers the same wage, regardless of how long they worked! This parable is usually seen as an analogy about who gets to heaven, and how those who follow God their whole life and those who appeal to his mercy at the end of life receive the same reward. So we need to examine the parable from both sides of the fence today. We need to look closely at the landowner, and we need to look closely at the laborers.

First let's look at the landowner, because we like to get caught up in the various laborers and how they were each paid and how that strikes us as unfair. And we will deal with those questions. But first we have to take the parable on its own terms. Because when we take the parable on our terms, we get preoccupied with how the laborers felt they were treated unfairly, but when we read the parable from the parable's perspective, we see that the landowner is the central character of the parable, not the laborers, and so if we're going to learn the primary lesson the parable wants to teach us, we have to look at him. And if the landowner is an analogy for God, then what emerges is a lesson on justice and mercy. It is justice that the twelve-hour laborers receive the usual daily wage, whereas it is pure mercy that the one-hour laborers also received the usual daily wage.

But we do need to focus on the workers, too. Now, I could beat around the bush and say that Jesus, in today's parable, is teaching us to not worry about what others have and to just be content with what you have. And that's true, that is part of what Jesus is teaching us.

But come on, if we're going to be really honest then one way to understand what Jesus is doing in this parable is handing us this big ball of obnoxiousness, at least what we think is obnoxiousness, and saying "Deal with it." He's telling us that this landowner, who seems to have no regard for justice as you and I understand it, is what the kingdom of heaven is like; this is what God is like. Jesus seems to tell us this, and then he offers no words of consolation but rather throws my injured sense of justice back in my face with this last line of "Are you envious because I am generous?" This is not a fun parable.

When we consider the laborers, why do we find this parable so obnoxious? I think we find this parable difficult to deal with because we often put ourselves in the position of the laborers who bore the day's burden and the heat. If this parable is about who gets to go to heaven, then we like to see ourselves as the hard-working laborers. After all, here we are in Church on a Sunday morning, we try to follow God's commandments, we try to treat others as we want to be treated, and we're trying to do this our whole life. And yet, if someone repents and turns to God at the very end of their life, they get the same reward we do. Where's the justice in that?

The problem with this perspective is precisely that I like to see myself as the worker who bore the day's burden and heat, when in fact I'm not even the worker who showed up at 5 pm. When it comes to my spiritual journey and my walk with God, I'm more like the worker who came screaming at five minutes to quitting time, trying to act like I'd been there all along. I suspect that many of you might be in the same position. So if we're looking at categories of justice or mercy, then I appeal to mercy every time, because there is no way that out of justice I deserve heaven.

When I start to recognize which laborer I really am, then I realize that the actions of the landowner are not unjust or unfair like we normally think of them, they just go beyond these categories into the realm of mercy. Hopefully we understand a little better now that this parable is much more about mercy than it is about fairness. The point of the parable is not whether God is fair to this person or that person, but that he treats each person with mercy.

And in this regard, St Paul's letter to the Philippians can help us. We heard from Paul today, "For to me, life is Christ, and death is gain." Paul was in prison in Rome when he wrote this letter. He was starting to see that he probably wasn't going to get out of there alive, so he was wrote this letter to his friends in Philippi and he was reflecting on the big things of life. And the biggest thing to Paul was his relationship with Jesus Christ. He said "For to me life is Christ." Life to Paul is being connected to Jesus, and to take away that relationship would be worse than death for Paul. Consequently, he doesn't care much whether he lives or dies as an outcome of this prison sentence, he just knows it would be better for his friends if he were to go on living. But the most important thing to Paul, more important than life or death, is being connected with Jesus Christ.

So the takeaway from all this is simple: don't pretend to be the laborer who worked the full day, but rather assume that you're the one who showed up at five and only worked for an hour. Appeal to God's mercy, go to Confession. Make sure that being connected to Jesus is the most important thing in your life so that you can say with Paul "To me life is Christ, and death is gain."

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