Sunday, September 21, 2014

"For my thoughts are not your thoughts"

Readings: Isa 55:6-9; Ps 145:2-3.8-9.17-18; Phil 1:20c-24.27a; Matt 20:1-16a

When we encounter Jesus' words, "The kingdom of heaven is like...," as we do on this Sunday, we ought to sit up and pay close attention to what follows. What follows, if we open our ears to hear and our hearts to receive, is usually surprising, not just for those on one side, but for people on both, that is, for those who tend to be more exclusive about belonging as well as for those who see no need to make any distinctions at all. It's tempting to wrap this up neatly and assert that Jesus simply moderates these extremes by proposing a middle course. In a sense, perhaps He does. But in a deeper sense He simply blows our neat little (by "little" I mean miniscule) dichotomies out of the water!

Let's be honest, even though we know we are all supposed to identify with those who came to work in the vineyard later in the day, for many of you reading this post, as well as for me, as with many of Jesus' original hearers, it is likely easier to identify with those who went into the vineyard early in the morning and worked all day. I can hear the denial already, not least from a place within myself: "No, that is not true!" But the proof is in the pudding, as they say. In other words, it is not about how we emotionally react when we read or hear these Gospel passages proclaimed, but whether or not we live them out in the concrete circumstances of our lives, when these things unfold right in front of us. Jesus here clearly issues a provocation.

Provocation = pro + vocation. Hence, we are challenged for the sake of our calling, that is, for our own good, for our growth, in order to be more conformed to the image of Christ, which nothing other than to be restored to the state of original grace, to bearing not only the image (i.e., imago dei, which is ineradicable), but the divine likeness, which is Christ-likeness, something that is eradicated by sin and restored by God's grace given us in and through Christ. Being provoked, especially by the words and witness of our Blessed Lord, is a great gift. We must always cultivate an openness to being challenged in the way the Lord challenges us today.

Jesus loves us far too much to ever let us grow smug, or become complacent. Today's Gospel is sheer provocation, a direct challenge to our sense of spiritual entitlement, to the idea that God owes us something for those (all-too rare) occasions when we have been faithful. Jesus' teaching is even a provocation for those who immediately identify with the laborers who came later. How? By looking down with a kind of self-righteousness on those who labored all day and who question the "generosity" of the landowner. It is not an unimaginable moral evil to pose this question. It is not wholly unjust to expect more pay for more work. The question to you, dear friend, is, Are you really able to perfectly balance justice and mercy?

In our pondering, let's not lose sight of the fact that Jesus did not come into the world to teach us neat little moral lessons, but to reveal to us our destiny. It is the mystery of the Kingdom about which He teaches in this passage. There is no greater reward than eternal life, which cannot be earned by anyone, no matter how hard you work. Our "work" is to cooperate with God's grace by heeding His call to go into the vineyard, which is a nice segue to consider the relationship between justification and sanctification (see "Becoming holy" and "More on holiness").

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