25th SUNDAY (A) September20, 2020
Isaiah 55: 6-9; Psalm 145; Philippians 1: 20c-24, 27a; Matthew 20: 1-16
By: Jude Siciliano, OP
As an itinerant preacher I get to see a lot of towns and cities around the country. There are features that separate one from another and make them distinct –skylines, size, rivers, bays, foliage, racial and economic separations, etc. Other features are found in all of them – chain stores, restaurants, banks, churches, stadiums, traffic signals, etc. No matter what part of the country I travel, these population centers have something else in common – the sight of day laborers along the side streets and at the entrances to malls. In the cities the locals usually know where to find these workers who line up and hope for a day’s work.
People hire them for handy work around their homes, construction jobs, assembly lines, etc. These pandemic days we also learn they work in crowded and unsafe packing plants and on farms without adequate protection against the virus. While their lives are desperate, their families are in need, what other choices do they have? – they would argue. The crack down on immigrants has made the situation of these laborers more precarious; but still, as you drive into a town, there they are, in small clumps waiting for someone to drive up and hire them.
You don’t have to be a day laborer to have financial worries. The pandemic has caused high unemployment, the collapse of small family-owned businesses and the loss of homes. When you are on the low end of the pay scale you can’t afford to lose even a day of work, a day’s pay. It might make the difference between getting a necessary prescription filled on time, having a medical procedure done – or not. These days financial insecurity has even reached the middle of the scale as people face mortgage crises, job loses and rising prices. How many people in the northern states are worried about the approach of winter and whether or not they will be able to pay for sufficient heating fuel for their homes? Or, whether they will even have a home!
Multiply these fears about job security by 100 and you get some sense of what it must have been like to be a day laborer in Jesus’ time. Poverty was severe, over 95% of the people were desperately poor and on the verge of starvation. For many, a day’s wage was the difference between having something to eat – and not. Each morning the day laborers would have had that empty feeling, the wave of anxiety, race through them as they pondered, "Suppose I don’t get work today? How will I feed the kids?" Even the youngest and physically fit, the ones most likely to get work, would know this fear. They would be the ones chosen first – if there were work. But suppose there were no work, even the most likely to get hired, would not.
Multiply and compound these fears by still another 100 if you were injured or disabled, elderly, a widow with children, a child laborer. You wouldn’t be the first hired, or even the second or third – others would be more likely to get work for the day. But you would still need a day’s pay to live on and to feed your family. A day’s pay could make the difference between eating and going hungry; living and dying. Wouldn’t you rather be one of those who worked a whole day, and not among those who stood around, waiting and despairing, hoping to get hired – with your hopes sinking as the day wore on? Even if you got hired later in the day, what good would that do since you would receive less than a day’s pay, less than what you needed for your family?
The landowner was accustomed to hiring harvest workers. He would know all this from experience. Some employers don’t notice their employees’ needs. But this parable tells of a different kind of employer. This one noticed and cared for those he saw who needed work. And he was extravagant!
The parable certainly rubs most of us the wrong way. We probably equate ourselves with people in the first situation, who were hired first. We have worked hard, the way we have been taught by our hard working parents and grandparents. And more. We who live up to the training and sense of justice we were taught by our forebears apply them to God. We are good people who have worked hard, and earned a right to God’s payment, we reason. That’s what is just, isn’t it?
We need to pause here and remind ourselves: God knows everything we have said, thought and done. Do we really want a strict judgment and payment system for all that? We’d be infinitely better off taking what is being offered by the One who is self-described as "Generous."
This is a parable and it is not so much about us and what we deserve, as it is about God! It’s about the reign of God and that means the accounting system is like nothing we have every experienced in our hard-working lives. This parable and others, is about a big and welcoming God, who doesn’t make us feel like 2nd class, or inferior servants. We have heard enough parables to draw some conclusions about God: our God takes outsiders and makes them insiders; our God doesn’t treat us according to our standards, but according to God’s. And the measuring rod God uses is spelled out in today’s parable – Generosity.
Each of us needs forgiveness and it is generously given us; whether we thought we deserved it, or not. During these pandemic days we also need courage, comfort, perseverance and hope. As we hear today, the one in charge wants to be generous, beyond what we think we should receive. We may not feel we have done enough for God to earn a favorable hearing; that we don’t deserve God’s attention. That’s what we might say, but God says, "Nonsense, come right in, you are welcome. I am feeling generous!"
A question: then: what does God require from us? Well, if we believe in the God of this parable, who welcomes us and is so generous, then we have to reflect this generosity in our lives. We have to stop keeping strict accounts. We must stop measuring people by how much they have; how educated they are; how long they have been coming to our church; how long they have been in our country; how "worthy" we think they are; whether they have earned our forgiveness, etc. We need to put on the eyeglasses today’s parable provides and see ourselves and others as God sees us – with generosity.
Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings:https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/092020.cfm