25th SUNDAY(A) September 24, 2023
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, rivers, bays, foliage, racial and ethnic blends, size, 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 to, these population centers have something else in common – the sight of day laborers along the side streets and at the entrance 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, and assembly lines. 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.
We hear that some of these workers are taken advantage of; they work in unhealthy conditions for long hours, low wages and, even when they have done their work, some get reported to the immigration agents to be carted off without their pay. Day laborers face uncertainty and risk. They have little security and a lot of anxiety about earning enough to feed their families, pay the rent and other necessities of daily life.
You don’t have to be a day laborer to have financial worries. People at the lower end of the pay scale know how even a brief interruption in work can be a hardship for themselves and their families. When you don’t make a lot of money, 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.
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 most physically fit, the ones most likely to get work, would know this fear. Most likely, they would be the ones chosen first – if there were work. But suppose there was no work. Even the most likely to get hired would not.
Multiply and compound these fears by still another 100 if you were elderly, a widow with children, a child laborer, injured, or disabled. 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. Would you rather be those who worked a whole day or those who stood around, waiting and despairing for yourself and your family, 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?
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 – a most rare employer indeed! This one noticed and cared for those he saw who needed work. And he was extravagant!
The parable certainly rubs us the wrong way. Somehow we 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. We live up to the training and sense of justice we were taught by our forebears and apply them to God. We have worked hard, have earned and have a right to God’s payment, we reason. That’s what is just – we reason.
We need to pause here with our sense of indignation and feelings about not being treated "justly" by God. After all we are dealing with a God who knows it all. Do we really want a strict accounting of everything we have thought, said and done? We’d be infinitely better off by 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 a conclusion 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. Some of us need, at this point in our lives, courage, perseverance or relief. We feel in need, but may conclude we don’t deserve a lot from God. But, 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 "worthy" we think they are. We need to put on the eyeglasses today’s parable provides and see ourselves and others as God sees us.
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