Breath of the Spirit: The Radical Equality of God's Kin-dom
It can be difficult and frustrating to understand what Jesus’ parables mean for us. How can a given story apply to my life right now? Today’s reflection invites us to hear Jesus’s parable of the generous employer as sign of the generosity and equality which God offers to everyone¾and which we are called to offer to one another.
September 24, 2023: Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Isaiah 55: 6-9
Psalm: 145:2-2, 8-9, 17-18
Philippians 1: 20-24, 27
Matthew 20: 1-16
The Radical Equality of God's Kin-dom
A reflection by Richard Young
Every time this gospel comes up in our lectionary, I am tempted to preach on economic justice. The issues are there in the public consciousness: raising the minimum wage; the Paycheck Fairness Act, which congress just can’t seem to pass; living wage proposals put forth in states and municipalities; the problem of corporations becoming tax cheats and leaving the rest of us to shoulder the tax burden. The pope has criticized “unrestrained capitalism,” and warned against a “naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.” One could truly rail against the sin of greed, and I am tempted to do so in this reflection, but Jesus’ parable today doesn’t do that. Today’s story’s intent is to tell us something about the reign of God—what it’s like when the God that Jesus reveals, the God who is the Ground of our Being, is in charge.
The parable of the workers in the vineyard (also called the parable of the generous employer) appears only in Matthew’s gospel, yet many bible scholars believe Jesus actually told this story. One such scholar, John Domenic Crossan, believes that the original version ended at verse 14 (“Take your pay and go home. I intend to give to this worker, who was hired last, the same pay as you.”) Period—end of story. No explanation of the boss’s actions. Crossan says that the commentary that follows in the next two verses was probably added. Possibly the original version ended so abruptly in order to force the audience to find their own answers as to why everyone gets the same pay. In other words, don’t just give them the answer; make them work for it. It is much like many other parables, because it shocks you into reassessing your values. It shocks you into ways of thinking that are foreign. Indeed, the Reign of God itself seems foreign. God’s ways are truly not our ways, as our first reading reminds us. For example, the landowner, who is the God figure in today’s parable, shows an unusual respect for the workers. No wealthy landowner in Jesus’ day would go out and do his own hiring and his own negotiating for wages. The rich don’t do that now. Imagine Elon Musk going out in the street to personally hire the cleaning crew for his own office. The landowner in Jesus’ story, like Musk, would assign those tasks to others in his employ. Even in those days, there were HR managers. So, those who first heard this story would have seen it as truly far-fetched. But the reign of God happens when barriers are broken down—barriers such as those between employer and employee, rich and poor—when the powerful come out of their offices to meet with those who do the hard work. It’s the kind of thing God does.
But this hands-on property owner is also remarkably different, because all the workers get the same reward, no matter how many hours they work. It has been observed that Jesus would not be welcome on the National Labor Relations Board. What the star of his parable does just doesn’t seem fair to his capitalistic, reward/punishment audience. Yet, in the Reign of God, there is a kind of radical equality that is downright shocking.
In the Early Church this parable was interpreted to address the various states of belonging among the first followers of Jesus. Those hired first were the founders: the Jewish Christians. They were around from the beginning, helping to build the community, getting it organized, doing its missionary work. Those hired next were the first gentile converts. They put in a lot of work, too—putting up with persecution and resolving infighting and other problems. Those hired last were the ones who only recently embraced the faith after their predecessors did all the set up and detail work for the start of what came to be known as Christianity. All the workers get the same thing: the blessings of a wildly generous God for all eternity—a God who sees all as equally precious and reaches out to all of them personally and not through a representative from personnel. Ideas of seniority and hierarchy are thrown aside. There is no probationary period for the newcomers, after which they might get benefits. You don’t have to be with the company for X number of years before you can be vested in the retirement plan. ALL get the same unlimited, unconditional love from the very start. Imagine running a business like that!
When our faith communities most clearly resemble the Reign of God, we strive to love and respect all equally, without regard to when or if they joined the effort. Old founders are just as honored as newborns. That’s radical equality.
But the truth is, so many arrive late at the vineyard. And that’s normal. Although some children are brought up exposed to the faith with baptism and confirmation and good example from loving Christians, many don’t genuinely embrace religion until much later in life. We worry sometimes in our Dignity communities about the absence of young people. I say, give them time. When they’re ready, when they mature and resolve some issues, when they begin to truly value the Good News, when they see us genuinely trying to live the radical equality that Jesus envisioned, they’ll be with us. By then, many won’t be young anymore, but they’ll be with us. And Jesus’ message is that their “wages” and ours will be the same. Practicing that radical equality is what the Reign of God is about.
But I suggest that what Jesus’ parables lead us to is best described, not as a “reign,” but a kin-dom. Through Christ, whether you are related to me or not, you are my spiritual kin; we are related, interconnected. When the kin-dom of God, the family of God, is made real, there are no strangers. When the kin-dom of God happens, there are no anonymous fellow workers with whom you compete for limited wages in the vineyard. When the kin-dom of God happens ALL rejoice in the unconditional love of the One whose Spirit is in you, who personally hires you and calls you to sacred work. ALL receive these blessings in equal measure, without resentment or envy or coveting. ALL belong. ALL are your kin.
In the family of faith, signs of God’s kin-dom of radical equality happen all around us. May we see ever more such signs in our Dignity communities.
Rev. Richard P. Young is a retired Catholic priest and mental health counselor. He chairs the Liturgy Committee of Dignity/Dayton’s Living Beatitudes Community and has worked with several Dignity Chapters since the late 70s. He once served for a term on the national board of DignityUSA and has attended all the national conventions/conferences since 1981.
He is married to former DignityUSA’s national secretary, Bob Butts. Richard was honored with a President’s Award at the 2022 Dignity National Conference in San Diego.