Saturday, September 20, 2008

All "us" and no "them"


We hear Jesus start off with that familiar phrase in today’s Gospel, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” Jesus often likes to gives us insight, previews, into what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like, how the world will be in its Godly perfection. In today’s passage we hear of a harvest in which some workers put in more work than others. When pay time comes, they are all treated equally and the early birds among them begin to complain and grumble. How often in life do we find ourselves siding with the grumblers? We listen to the voices of our society which would agree – if you worked more, you should get paid more. Equal pay for equal work.

But, imagine if we worked in a situation where we found out that someone was getting more money for the same job we were doing. What if we went to complain to the manager, only to discover that the other person is perhaps supporting several children on their own, or has some serious and expensive medical condition and needs a little extra just to keep the roof over their head. In such cases, our perspective might change. Why? The reason is simple – in those, and other cases, we begin to see the situation not through the eyes of individual competition or even jealousy, but through the eyes of community, of family, of church – in other words, with eyes of compassion.

In the Kingdom of Heaven that our Gospel speaks of, we are all united into one community, one family, one church, under God our Father, with Jesus our Brother. And, aren’t the norms of behavior, the rules of contribution and reward, in a family different from those in a society of unrelated individuals? When someone in our family is in need, do we demand equal work for equal pay? Or, do we give from the heart, give generously, and do whatever we can to help out our loved one regardless of the cost?

Jesus today speaks strongly of the great generosity of God and asks us to ponder a simple question: Do we see ourselves as family with a common purpose or do we see ourselves as a bunch of individuals, each with our own agenda? We call ourselves brothers and sisters. Why then do we often see and treat one another as rivals and competitors?

Family is the key to understanding today’s parable of the workers. For the early-bird workers who ended up being reprimanded by the landowner it was all a business affair. Their working in the vineyard was preceded by a detailed contract regarding their wages: a full day’s work for a full day’s pay. The latecomers were less legalistic in their approach. They took the job trusting in the landowner’s word of honor. “He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’” And, the ones employed in the sixth, ninth and eleventh hours were told nothing whatsoever about payment. “He said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’“ There is no employer-employee contract here. Everything is based on a relationship of trust. These later workers approached the work with a family spirit.

As Matthew was relaying this parable, he surely had his fellow Jewish-Christians in mind. God called them a long time ago to build the Kingdom of Heaven. Now, at an apparently late hour, God was calling the Gentiles to work with them in building up the same divine kingdom. It would be wrong for the early-bird Jewish people to see the Johnny-come-lately Gentiles as deserving of a lower status than themselves “who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” The problem of Matthew’s Jewish audience was their difficulty in seeing that God was intent on building, in Christ, a kingdom where all peoples -- Jews and Gentiles; everyone -- would be one family.

This parable reminds them, and us, that the Kingdom of Heaven is a family much more than a society. Society is too often characterized by us-and-them, by rivalry and the survival of the fittest. But a family, on the other hand, is all “us” and no “them.” It is characterized by a spirit of co-operation and compassion, rather than competition. If the latecomers were family members of the early birds, the early birds would have rejoiced with them at their good fortune rather than grumbling.

Today we are called upon to review our own notions of the Kingdom of Heaven and we are challenged to see God’s promised Kingdom truly as a family where we are happy to expect from everyone according to their means and give to each according to their need -- as generously as God our Father does.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a family drawn together by the love of their Father, lead and guided through the example of their Brother, motivated out of their love for each other, driven by their desire to help one another, called to be holy, working towards eternal life, saved and transfigured and united as one.

What is the Kingdom of Heaven like for you?

May God give you peace.

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