Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 24, 2017)
“It’s not fair,” a parent hears after dividing the cookie or the slices of pizza. “It’s not fair,” the professor hears from the best students when he generously puts the marks on a curve to benefit those who didn’t do well. “It’s not fair,” the flight attendant says when she hears from her supervisor that a first class passenger lodged a complaint after the attendant moved a coach passenger to an empty seat in first class.
How often have we heard it? How often have we said it? Someone tries to be generous and/or compassionate and they hear it from those who feel they earned what was generously donated to another. Worldly logic says that those who work more should get more. The rules say that it is priority for those who worked in the sun all day. With human wisdom, this employer’s behavior makes little sense to the workers.
We may argue as to which is the most popular parable of Jesus, but most would agree that today’s parable is a top contender for the most unpopular. We need to look more closely at it in order to understand it.
What can we learn from Jesus’ parable? First, as unpleasant as it may be to hear, we are all dependent. We may have the corner office, get tenure, get promoted with a raise, but we are more like the day-hires in the parable than unlike them. None of us is self-sufficient. Let’s face it, nearly everything we have is gift; our personal contributions pale by comparison or build on a foundation provided for us by others (namely, parents, family and friends).
The word “dependent” comes from a Latin word meaning “to hang from.” Like a chandelier, we may be Waterford and sparkling, but we are still utterly dependent on the ceiling that which holds us aloft. The good news is that the one who holds us - God - can be trusted. When we keep one eye on our dependence, we are less likely to resent god’s provision to another person suspended next to us.
Second, our sense of fairness and justice is very subjective. Those first-hired did not feel cheated when they were hired. They would receive a denarius, a day’s wage. It would provide their “daily bread.” We often do not think of a gift given to us as generosity, but as entitlement. For example, have you ever heard someone holding four aces call for a new hand? Do they feel unworthy? Trouble comes when we judge our bounty with a comparative glance at our neighbors’ hands. If their hands are better, envy may rush in and we quickly forget the hand we were dealt.
Comparison involves our ego. Ego-involvement means spiritual trouble. Here is a sure-fire formula for misery: decide you are happy only if no one receives more blessing in life than you. There will always be some one richer, more talented, or better looking than you and me. We never find happiness by comparing our lot in life with others who are better off. Comparison happened with the workers in Jesus’ parable. Isn’t that what has happened to professional baseball, basketball, and football players’ salaries? We shake our heads at that foolishness, but we realize that that can happen to you and me at another level?
We need to be simply grateful to our Lord for what we have: our work in the vineyard, our joys in this creative work with our Lord in the further growth of the vineyard, and equality in the kingdom of God. Our inheritance is the same for all.