Isaiah 55: 6-9; Phil 1: 20-24, 27; Matthew 20: 1-16
This is a rather unusual gospel we hear today and some proof that God really does have a sense of humor as to what we think is important in life. All of us have been indoctrinated into a capitalist system, everyone of us. We know what the rules are and what to expect. We often know how to take advantage of it and when it takes advantage of us, even at the expense of others. We want what’s fair. Whoever works the hardest gets the most in return. Whoever works the least gets their share but not as much as others. We know the system. But the passage was never meant to be a critique of such a system. It was more a critique of the culture. However, in the age we live, that system of capitalism has creeped its way into religion as well and certainly a part of Christianity in this country. It’s about winners and losers. It’s about who’s deserving and not. It’s about whoever works the hardest should get the most returns. In other words, we think it’s about us.
But it’s not. This is where we get it wrong because as much as we feel we might have to prove all of that to our boss, God isn’t our boss. As a matter of fact, God’s trying to work for us and through us more than anything. Isaiah tells us today that our ways aren’t necessarily God’s ways and our way of thinking is not necessarily God’s way of thinking. That we can be thankful for. At the same time, we feel the plight of the workers who have slaved all day in the heat. We’ve been there and we’ve seen people get treated better than us and it immediately begins to poke holes in the system. For Matthew it was the early Jewish community that had been around all along and they were seeing the special treatment of the Gentiles who were converting. Like most parables, they’re meant to turn things on our heads, to try to see our own lives, including our failings, through the lens as God sees not as we do.
As much as it’s not a critique of the system it is a critique of our lives that have become consumed by the system. For Jesus, he was constantly butting up against a similar system that divided folks into greater and lesser. It wasn’t just about the early community feeling this way. For Jesus, it was the distaste of the Pharisees that he often had to confront. They saw him hanging with people that they considered less than for one reason or another. They saw themselves and deserving and entitled and if Jesus wanted to make a difference, he was going to have to hang with those who considered themselves the respectable members of the community, not sinners nor fishermen. We’re better than that. We’re deserving of better treatment. Don’t you know all we do? God’s not our boss and we have nothing to prove. We may have to work like that in our lives, but really shouldn’t, but not with God. Isn’t even funny how the generous landowner makes sure they’re all there to witness the generosity. No hiding but in the process of this generosity to deeper truth is revealed, hearts that were closed off to seeing each other for who they are rather than what they did or didn’t do.
Even some of the prayers we use at Mass have language like that that just sends the wrong message. We use words like merit and attain in our opening prayer. In our language and in this capitalistic system, those words connote a way of thinking that isn’t of God. As Matthew’s gospel reminds us, this God is an abundantly generous God who is constantly giving when we allow ourselves to be open to the grace, to the forgiveness and love. Like they did with Jesus, we sometimes become jealous and envious because we think God has somehow blessed others better than ourselves, somehow someone less deserving than ourselves got something and we didn’t. That’s where the system has infiltrated our faith. We’ve associated the things we’ve accumulated as somehow a grace from God. But you know what? Eventually that’s all taken away when we begin to question what’s most important to us, what we value and we begin to see how little opening we have in our lives for God’s true grace that frees us from the systems that we often make into our own gods.
Paul sees it as a choice. For Paul it was a matter of life and death and for him, when you choose God you always choose life even if it means martyrdom. He finds himself in prison, and although we will be freed this time, he knows if the choice is to be martyred he will go with it rather than giving up what he values the most. For Paul, the simple desire was to be open to the Gospel. You know, even for Paul the greatest threat was calling to mind and making others aware of how they had become attached to something that was only benefiting a few. More often than not Paul had to call out his own communities for falling into the traps of the world rather than being open to God’s thinking and God’s way. For Paul, the choice was easy. You choose the relationships, the values, love of God and neighbor, over using people for our own gain. It’s what the system feeds on when be buy into the illusion that all benefit when we know full well it only benefits some and poverty continues to grow.
No, it wasn’t meant to be a critique of the system. It was a critique on how they treated one another, especially the new folks that come later to the game. It’s not about us but it is about us and how we become consumed by it in all aspects of our lives, even in the way we see God, the big boss in the sky, cracking the whip, working us to the bone, and so on. But that’s not God’s way and that’s not God’s thinking. Thank God. We pray for the grace to be aware in our own lives of where we are feeding into and buying into the system as it tries to work us to death, somehow proving our worthiness and creating divisions. My guess is we can never be totally free of it but we can be aware of it. Once we’re aware, we can finally begin to let go of and be freed of all that our entitlements in life that prevent us from loving neighbor, caring about people, and being open to a generous God who’s always inviting us, as with Paul, a fuller way of life where we value what is most important to us. Not an accumulation of things but rather a surrender of it all to an experience of life with greater depth and meaning.