Sept. 24, 2017

Matthew 20:1-16


I’m guessing that this parable is a familiar one. And I’m guessing that it is familiar because most of us on one level or another object to it.


Though the workers are hired at different times throughout the day the owner pays them all the same full daily wage – even those who come on with just an hour to go.


The story is full of violations – violations of what we think is proper and just. You don’t need to be a genius to understand that the landowner just can’t run a business that way and expect to keep what he has.  And you can’t blame those who worked the whole day for being a bit bent out of shape over the way payment is dished out.  It is hardly fair that they worked the whole day and got paid the same as those who worked just a fraction of it.


But, Jesus tells his disciples that this is what the kingdom of God is like. It is not shaped according to even our highest understandings of what is proper.  It doesn’t look like the justice we might dole out.  The landowner isn’t concerned about the limitation of resources or the failure of his business.  (There are no limitations to God’s resources!  Nor can God’s truth fail.) What the landowner seems to want in this story is simply to give the same gift to just about everybody he can find.


Ultimately, that seems to be the problem though. The ones who worked all day complain, “but you have made them equal to us.”  How can they be equal? They haven’t earned what we earned.


And, of course the answer is that what Jesus offers cannot be earned. The love of God is given; it is not earned.  Status doesn’t matter.  Standing doesn’t exist.  No one can be more worthy than another because what makes us worthy has nothing to do with what we do.


There is a love that is greater than any love that we can possibly imagine, and it is directed at each of us, and it is not conditional. There is a joy in God’s heart that flows out like water on each of us.  It is this love and this joy that matter.  They are what make us who we really are.  They are what make our lives sacred and our neighbors’ lives as sacred as our own.  In comparison to this love and joy everything else pales; everything else is not quite as real.


I’ll share one of my favorites from William James’ collection of religious experiences. (You have to bear with the dated language.)  “I remember the night, and almost the very spot on the hill-top, where my soul opened out, as it were, into the Infinite, and there was a rushing together of the two worlds, the inner and the outer. It was deep calling unto deep,- the deep that my own struggle had opened up within being answered by the unfathomable deep without, reaching beyond the stars. I stood alone with Him who had made me, and all the beauty of the world, and love, and sorrow, and even temptation. I did not seek Him, but felt the perfect unison of my spirit with His. The ordinary sense of things around me faded. For the moment nothing but an ineffable joy and exaltation remained. It is impossible fully to describe the experience. It was like the effect of some great orchestra when all the separate notes have melted into one swelling harmony that leaves the listener conscious of nothing save that his soul is being wafted upwards, and almost bursting with its own emotion. The perfect stillness of the night was thrilled by a more solemn silence. The darkness held a presence that was all the more felt because it was not seen. I could not any more have doubted that He was there than that I was. Indeed, I felt myself to be, if possible, the less real of the two.”[1]


It is interesting, isn’t it, to think of a man discovering that he is less real than God – that he is truly real only in as much as he is united with God, the Ultimate Reality. Usually, of course, it is the other way around.  We live our lives as if what is real, as if what matters is us and all that we are up to – all that occupies our time and our minds.  I’m not sure how much we can avoid it.  It seems to be almost natural to our common patterns of living.  But, I’ll tell you, there are times when I am relieved of the lie.  There are times when I am righted, struck by the truth of things, and in my better days I’m able to let that truth shed some light on my world.


As strange as this may sound, I’m often struck by a sense of the truth of things, God’s Truth, God’s truth of endless, sacred beauty here, and here for us, when I walk with families through all the grieving and remembering and celebrating of life that we do at funerals. As families share their stories there’s often the beautiful recognition that their loved one was a sacred and unique gift to them, a blessing and a miracle of God’s grace.  In the process there is time to pause and remember the deep truth of an imperfect yet loved life, and therefore also the deep truth of all of our lives: that we are miracles of a God through whom and with whom we are most real.


But, what do you think: what if it didn’t take such loss for us to do this? What if we were to make it a daily discipline to practice this type of remembering?  What if every day we were to pause for a while to practice remembering the miracle that we are, the miracle that our loved ones are, the miracle that our neighbors are?  What if the most urgent task of every day were to put everything at least temporarily aside so that we could reclaim a right and true perspective on our lives?


This type of practice would look a lot like prayer, except in it we wouldn’t really be asking for anything. Instead, we would be feeling gratitude even for ourselves; we would be learning to see others the way God sees.  And this, I think, could really change us, or at least it could awaken us to what we already know deep down makes life meaningful.


So, back to the parable. Here’s how I see it, and it is simple enough.  The vineyard is life.  It is the kind of life that is truly life, life with God at its center, life that is abundant, life that bubbles up into the flowing waters of eternal life.  What God wants most – now, tomorrow, everywhere and anywhere – is to offer it to us.