SEPTEMBER 24TH, 2017: TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
Seek the LORD while he may be found,
call him while he is near.
Let the scoundrel forsake his way,
and the wicked his thoughts;
let him turn to the LORD for mercy;
to our God, who is generous in forgiving.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
As high as the heavens are above the earth,
so high are my ways above your ways
and my thoughts above your thoughts.
Brothers and sisters:
Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death.
For to me life is Christ, and death is gain.
If I go on living in the flesh,
that means fruitful labor for me.
And I do not know which I shall choose.
I am caught between the two.
I long to depart this life and be with Christ,
for that is far better.
Yet that I remain in the flesh
is more necessary for your benefit.
Only, conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ.
Jesus told his disciples this parable:
"The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner
who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.
After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage,
he sent them into his vineyard.
Going out about nine o'clock,
the landowner saw others standing idle in the marketplace,
and he said to them, 'You too go into my vineyard,
and I will give you what is just.'
So they went off.
And he went out again around noon,
and around three o'clock, and did likewise.
Going out about five o'clock,
the landowner found others standing around, and said to them,
'Why do you stand here idle all day?'
They answered, 'Because no one has hired us.'
He said to them, 'You too go into my vineyard.'
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.'
He said to one of them in reply,
'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."
Those who choose to live lives of faith, choose to live with tension. That’s certainly clear from today’s three readings. Instead of dealing with either/ors, they’re constantly forced to cope with both/ands.
Nowhere in Scripture is this stated more emphatically than in our Deutero-Isaiah passage. “Seek Yahweh while he may be found, call him while he is near. . . . As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.” Scholars refer to this phenomenon as God’s simultaneous “imminence and transcendence.” In other words, God’s as close to us as our breath; yet as far from us as night is from day. No matter which presence we experience today, only God knows which one we’ll experience tomorrow.
Today’s pericope from Matthew has bothered me since, as a child, I heard it proclaimed every year in church. It’s totally unfair! How can anyone justify paying someone who works one hour the same amount of money another person earns for working a full day? (My father, a strong union man, would, from personal experience, always remind us kids, “That’s why you need to unionize. If you don’t have a union, you’ll always get jerked around like that.)
As “unfair” as the landowner’s actions are, one must appreciate the tension which prompted this unique story, a tension deeply felt by Jewish Christians.
These faithful Israelites had followed the 613 Mosaic laws their whole lives, looked forward to the arrival of a Messiah, and were among the small minority of their people who recognized Jesus of Nazareth as being that promised savior. Now, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, they were receiving the “rewards” to which their years of faithfulness entitled them.
There was just one problem: non-Jews were now being accepted into the Christian community on the same level as they had been accepted. These Gentile-Christians didn’t even know the difference between a lox and a bagel. Yet they were regarded as full-fledged disciples of Jesus. (Reminds me of patiently waiting three years to finally play ping pong in the seminary’s senior rec hall, only to discover on the first day of school that the administration had transformed those glorious precincts into the junior/senior rec hall!)
Matthew’s Jesus simply reminds the gospel readers that at the same time God treats people fairly, God’s also tremendously generous. Those who freely give themselves over to God must learn to live in that biting tension. We follow a God who, though he/she loves us, doesn’t always treat us fairly, especially when we discover how God treats others. That’s just part of the price we pay for being people of faith.
But, as Paul reminds the Philippians, he lives in the midst of an even deeper tension. “I long to depart this life and be with Christ,” he writes, “For that is far better. Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit.” Do I pray for God to do what’s good for me, or for what’s good for those around me? Just how much of myself does God expect me to sacrifice for others?
At this point of his life, the Apostle simply wants to be completely one with the risen Jesus, the oneness that only comes from his physical death. He certainly doesn’t regard that death as an evil. Yet, for the good of others, he’s still here on earth, experiencing all the painful daily deaths a generous Christian life entails. As with all other tensions, there’s no one perfect answer.
None of us can avoid tension in our lives. We just pray that, as Christians, we have the “right” tensions, not a bunch of “wrong” ones.