November 8, 2012
Image courtesy of wordle.net
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. After he agreed with the workers to pay them a denarion, he sent them into his vineyard. Then he went out around nine in the morning and saw others standing around the marketplace doing nothing. He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I’ll pay you whatever is right.’ And they went. Again around noon and then at three in the afternoon, he did the same thing. Around five in the afternoon he went and found others standing around, and he said to them, ‘Why are you just standing around here doing nothing all day long?’ ‘Because nobody has hired us,’ they replied. He responded, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’
“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and give them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and moving on finally to the first.’ When those who were hired at five in the afternoon came, each one received a denarion. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more. But each of them also received a denarion. When they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, ‘These who were hired last worked one hour, and they received the same pay as we did even though we had to work the whole day in the hot sun.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I did you no wrong. Didn’t I agree to pay you a denarion? Take what belongs to you and go. I want to give to this one who was hired last the same as I give to you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you resentful because I’m generous?’ So those who are last will be first. And those who are first will be last.”
I have always had a strong conviction that life SHOULD be fair. Countless times, I would come home from elementary school and complain to my mother about the most recent injustice in my life: The kid who cheated and did better than me on a test and didn’t get caught. I got paired with the weird kid for a group project AGAIN. EVERYONE else has a cell phone and I don’t. It is just not fair. All I wanted was someone to complain to and a little sympathy.
And I never got it. Every time, no matter how good I thought my argument was, I would get the same response: Terri, I know it’s not fair, but life isn’t fair. As much as I knew my mother was right (and my mother is ALWAYS right), it still bothered me.
I never grew out of it either. Of course, as I matured, I developed a more nuanced idea of “fairness” and came to appreciate its complexity. But, fundamentally, I still feel that the world should strive to be a fair place and I get upset when I feel I have been shortchanged.
A dispute that I had with my older sister a few years ago comes to mind. Kirsty and I are very different people. Since we were children, she was much more introverted and easily upset than me, making her an easy target for bullies. Somewhere around her 5th grade year, she began simply not doing her school work. This resulted in lots of fighting and tension in my household. It continued throughout her high school years coinciding with a time that Kirsty struggled with bulling and severe depression.
But I was hopeful when she went off to college. It was a real opportunity for her to have a fresh start and she seemed to be doing well. Then in May I found out that Kirsty was on academic probation and would not be returning to school in the fall. She would be moving back in with us. Now, in the past I had felt a lot of sympathy for Kirsty. I knew she was struggling with a lot of personal problems and, no amount of academic failure could erase the fact that she was my business partner at childhood lemonade stands and my protector from the boogie monster. I loved my sister, but this time I was angry with her. For the first time, I really felt like she was doing this on purpose. She was given a golden opportunity: a new school with new teachers and new friends. I felt like she gave me hope, just so she could have the satisfaction of taking it away. She was being selfish.
And to be perfectly honest, I really liked being an only child. For the first time, in a long time, my house was peaceful. There was no fighting and I got the house all to myself. I got all of my parent’s attention. Now Kirsty was back, every little thing she did bothered me. I blew up at her when she left the TV on or moved my hairbrush. It was ridiculous, and I know that, but I was frustrated. One day I got particularly upset when I met my mother for lunch, only to find that she had invited Kirsty as well. Later I lashed out at my mother, letting her know how upset I was and how unfair it felt for Kirsty to be here. She had done everything wrong, yet I was being “punished”. It was a cruel thing for a child to tell their parent. What was she supposed to do? Tell one child that she didn’t have a home to come back to, just because it wasn’t fair to her sister? With tears in her eyes, my mom told me that I had to remember that she has two daughters. And Kirsty needed her family right now.
I think it is pretty clear which character in tonight’s reading met my description. Like the workers hired early in the day, I felt that I had been cheated yet, I got exactly what I asked for: lunch with my mother and, more importantly, parents who love and support me. But that payment became tainted when Kirsty got it too. And that seems like a natural thing to do. Often, I catch myself weighing the worth of my blessings against those of others. What I got is only good if it is better that what other, less worthy, people receive.
But, as my mother reminds me, God’s love is not like that. God’s love and mercy does not conform to our capitalist ideas of what is fair. It is not dispensed at an hourly rate and I refuse to believe in a God who keeps score mainly because I fear what my score would be. God’s love is free and unmeasured.
Which is great. But I found myself wondering, if I believe in a God of infinite mercy, who will forgive me and accept me with open arms unconditionally, and I do, why bother trying to be a good Christian at all? Why start today what I can easily put off until tomorrow? There are very practical answers: When I was a small child my parents taught me that please and thank you got me what I wanted and kicking and screaming only got me tired.
But there is something much more fundamental than that. I think in essence, a relationship with God is just like any other relationship we have with another person. You can choose to create manipulative, neglectful relationships. You can take advantage of another person’s generosity and make their lives difficult. But, even if they forgive you, are those the relationships that you value and bring you joy? When we really love another person, we make time for them. We rejoice in their victory and empathize with their pain. It makes us happy to see them happy and we make sacrifices for them knowing that they would do the same for us. Our relationship with God is no different. Our relationship with God deepens when we take time to talk and listen to God and withers when we neglect it for too long. It feels good when we know our actions are righteous and it hurts when we know we have fallen short. Although doing what is right is not always easy, we can find assurance in the fact that, in return, we have been infinitely blessed.
So I urge you think about your life. About your day to day interactions. When is it that you have been the laborers hired early in the day, foolishly unsatisfied with what they have received? When have you been shown mercy, even if you didn’t earn it? When have you been given the opportunity to give freely of your love? We are not God and we can’t forgive with the swiftness and sincerity that God can forgive and even if we may intentionally say thank you for our blessings, we cannot help but feel disappointed when we do not get when we believe we are entitled too. But we can try. We can try to emulate the unfathomable mercy of God and know, that when we undoubtedly fall short, our failures will be answered with immeasurable love.