Monday, September 15, 2014

The Early-Morning Men & the Five O'Clock Men. A Homily from Matthew 20:1-16A.
Homily for September 21, 2014
Year A. Matthew 20:1-16A 

(for a video devotion on this text, go here)

The Lectionary Gospel reading for today brings to our attention a powerful parable, one that leaves a most lasting impression. Before our hearing in today's reading Jesus opens the story of the workers who either become the "early-morning men" or the “five-o'clock men.” But, there is present a deeper reading to this parable, one that presents an account of the mystery at the very heart of the Almighty, who is present and who is so very gracious to those who do not deserve grace, which in the end of course is all of us. 

To get the true movement of the story Jesus tells, one must first backtrack a bit into Chapter nineteen of St. Matthew's Gospel. Jesus, under the hearing of the disciples, has just encountered the rich young ruler (Mt.19:16-22), who, when confronted with giving up his riches and giving all in order to follow Jesus, walks away with great sorrow, "for he had many possessions."

Jesus then explains to the disciples just how difficult it is to become a participant in the Kingdom, saying, 
"‘Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." (Mt.19:23-24). 
Which is a lesson we should all take seriously, but that is an different homily.

Anyway, this statement by Jesus sends the disciples into a apoplectic tailspin because they understand material wealth to be an important sign of heaven's blessing. They said, 
"Then who can be saved?" 
To which Jesus replied: 
"For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible." (Mt.19:25)

Peter, not willing to let the lesson end there offers Jesus a poignant reminder of what their discipleship had cost them:
"Then Peter said in reply, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’" (Mt.19:27)
To which Jesus replied:
"Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first." (Mt.19:28b-30)
Thus, this incident — Jesus’ give-and-take with the disciples — is actually the set-up for today's parable. 

Familiarity allows us to only briefly mention the details of story Jesus told. 

In the early morning this landowner hires laborers for his vineyard at the usual wage and sends them to work. At 9 o'clock the owner sees others idling in the marketplace and hires them to help. At noon and at 3 o'clock he does the same thing, and even at 5 o'clock, when the work day was nearly over, he does the same thing.

This causes quite a stir in the parable:
“When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman,‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’ When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage. So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying,‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’” (Mt.20:8-12)
"These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us…" reads the text, and here’s the rub. The actions of the vineyard owner seems to the early-morning men, and perhaps to us as well, to be a violation of fairness. And, if you add N.T. Wright's thoughts that the reason these five-o'clock men were not hired in the first place — they were probably the ones no one else wanted, the undesirable ones — then the early-morning-men may be doubly insulted. 

The early morning men seem to be saying: 
"We worked all day, they worked only at the end. We are good workers, we take pride in our work, these slackers aren't really workers at all! We deserve more!“  

Again, this is a parable, so it is unwise to read too much into the account, but if we take Peter's testimony from chapter nineteen concerning what the disciples left for Jesus’ sake as the basis for today’s parabled response by Jesus, then this slant on the parable does makes some sense.

Which leads to what may be one of the two main thrusts behind Jesus’ story. Jesus says at the end of the parable: 
"the last will be first, and the first will be last." 
But notice, he not only says it at the end of today's text, he also says the same thing at the end of his conference with Peter in chapter nineteen:
"...everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first." (Mt.19:29-30)

Jesus’ point pushes against a, look here what I have done mentality behind following him. The proper name for this attitude is spiritual pride, which is the opposite of spiritual humility

Spiritual pride looks beyond the spiritual practices done and looks toward the person doing the actions, that is to the self. It becomes the sum of our good works -- the hours prayed, the worship services attended, the good deeds done whether in secret or in the open -- as the measure of spirituality. So, that the deeds done, no matter how good, becomes a way to focus on ourselves before God. In essence, we read our resume before God.

But, remember, the last shall be first. And, in the Matthew nineteen text reads:
"everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake..." 
That is, God sees all this is done and God knows that there are many, many who will leave their lives for Jesus’s sake, even people the current disciples do not know as yet. 

Jesus is saying, 
“Be sure to know that I will even have my five-o'clock people who will come very, very late, but they will still enjoy the blessings of the kingdom and the new reality of my paradise restored.”
The problem is the early-morning men of the parable, who represent the disciples, did not yet understand that the vineyard owner was generous. They in no way perceived the generosity of God.

Now, listen brothers and sisters. Rest here a moment. Savor the truth. God is so very generous.

This reality, then, takes us to the very heart of heart not only of today’s parable, but to the true, truth that is the metric of God’s Kingdom as well. Here, we are pushed to never forget all we have, all we are, all we do is founded upon the mystery of God's grace. All of this is all of grace.

Toward this end, therefore, let us truly hear the closure of today’s text, which is the reply to the criticism by the early-morning men against the vineyard owner (who we must remember represents Almighty God in Jesus' parable):
‘My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
This means the the sum of our good works -- the hours prayed, the worship services attended, the good deeds done whether in secret or in the open — are founded upon the gift that is God’s generosity. If we started the walk of the Christian faith long ago, and if during this sojourn we learned the practice of meditative prayer, or the ministry of the word, do you really think that this learning and this long practice in the same direction is founded upon the strength of our will? 

Well, if so, think again. 

No, like Blessed Mary, this practice is founded upon the grace of God, and our part simply becomes our consent, our willingness to enter the vineyard no matter what the hour we hear the Lord’s call.

God moves toward both the early-morning people and the five-o'clock people in grace. None deserve his touch; none have earned his favor, no matter when they came aboard. To be sure, it may seem to us who have been longer at this labor that we deserve more favor earned from God, but this is not God's way of keeping accounts! Remember: in God's ledger, "the last will be first, and the first will be last." In God’s ledger the least deserving become his delight to bless! Think of it. The ones most out of our circle of acceptance are the ones God, in gladness, uplifts and embraces!

This truth may be difficult for us to swallow, but only if we assume we deserve more favor because we have done more work. But this faulty metric of grace forgets to calculate what all people really deserve. We all deserve God’s judgement, which means God would be totally just to leave us to our own devices so that we self-destruct. But the mystery of his decided love forbids this response. His decided love moves toward us, calling us to the vineyard-kingdom, seeking out an ear that willingly hears, and giving them the measure of grace needed to follow.

Said differently, this parable may bring from us a very powerful question: Why do all these works we do if some five-o'clock mug comes along and gets the same wage? An important question. Here's the answer. We work in the Lord's vineyard for no wage and no reward. We work in the Lord's vineyard in response to grace. We work in the Lord's vineyard in gratitude. It never has been about what we receive because we have already received it -- the call of grace. And our response, all along, has only and always been an act of thanksgiving. Here ended the lesson...