14th Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 25
September 18, 2011
Matthew 20: 1-16
What would you choose? Fair or generous? Justice or mercy?
When I read this parable, I think of Oscar’s father. Oscar’s family lived in the village of San Miguel on the Boca Costa in Guatemala. It’s the coffee-growing region on the west side of the mountains. When I studied in the Mountain School in the Boca Costa, I slept in the dormitory, but ate breakfast, lunch and dinner with Oscar’s family. Oscar taught me to play Gin Rummy in Spanish. Every morning Oscar’s father caught the 4:30 am bus to the City – about a 45-minute trip to Xela, the second largest city in Guatemala. He paid 7 quetzales each way to stand on a corner with a group of men looking for work. If he got hired, he’d make about 20 quetzales, a net earning of 6 quetzales. If he didn’t work, he was just out the money. He was usually not home yet when I was at his house for dinner at 5:30 – he’d usually arrive on the 7 o’clock bus. So which is worse, to work all day and make a pittance, or to stand all day and be out the money it took to get to the marketplace.
If I hadn’t met Oscar and his family, I would have thought of these ‘workers’ were just ancient examples of a story Jesus was telling. The disciples have given up everything to follow Jesus. The religious people of the day see God’s kingdom as an exclusive club to which only the ‘good guys’ are invited. Jesus’ words seem hard. But they are a reminder that no one comes except by God’s grace. Your duty and your good works are not the key. They are all included by God’s love and grace, not because of anything they’ve done. Others are also invited. No one comes in because they deserve anything.
Now I see these ‘workers,’ as real human beings, struggling to feed their families. Taking the bus into town every morning in hopes of making the money to feed their family and put glass in the windows of the house they live in. When Jesus goes out at 5 o’clock and asks why workers are still standing in the marketplace, they answer, “No one has hired us.” Which is worse, to work hard all day and know that you will be bringing home the money you need, or to stand and wait all day, not knowing whether the trip will have been worth it?
What’s your story? Are you one of those people who have known Jesus all your life? Are you someone who has just discovered the life of faith and the peace which it brings? Have you been laboring in God’s kingdom through Sunday School and youth group, faithfully serving as usher and reader and property maintenance and ladies’ group? Good for you. You have lived all your life knowing that you are always loved and forgiven, and that nothing can separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
Or are you someone who has come lately? Have you spent much of your life wandering, wondering what makes it all worthwhile. Have you lived in the shadow of great hurt and found the joy that comes from knowing that God loves you just the way your are?
In God’s kingdom we all get the same treatment. God loves our humanity. God came to be with us all. In Jesus, we see how much God wanted to be with us, to heal our sorrows and diseases, and make us God’s own. In Jesus, God defeated the power of death and evil to keep us away from God’s love. It wasn’t just at a snap of his fingers, it was through a brutal and demeaning death as a criminal. But the whole story ends with Jesus rising from death in triumph to promise that God has the power to forgive sin, transform hearts, and set us free to love God and change the world. When we have been faithful for a lifetime, we get the assurance every day that we have a secure place that is ours alone. We are faithful because we love God and God’s people and we want to play our part in saving the world. When we come at the last minute, we get the relief of finding ourselves invited, put to work at something important, not just standing idle, waiting for a break. We can rejoice because we are included at last. Who’s to say which is better?
If you are asking for justice, as the workers in Jesus’ story do, then suddenly you are putting yourself in the position of having your life and your work scrutinized for how well it meets God’s standards. How perfect has your life been? Have you loved God before everything else, and loved your neighbor as yourself? If you have missed by even the tiniest smidgen, you lose all the reward. Maybe you’d better ask for mercy, same as the rest of us. Maybe you’d better trust God’s generosity which loves lavishly even though we disappoint, which invites and includes us no matter how bad our record or thoughtless our actions. “The last will be first and the first will be last.” God’s generosity extends to all of us, though none of us deserves it. Praise God for our invitation.
Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.