Sunday, February 1, 2009

Matt 20:1-16, Septuagesima (Feb.,8, 2009)

I remember today’s gospel reading from my youth. It is a simple story. The man goes out and hires day laborers. He goes out early and promises a day’s wages to the first who come to labor and harvest in his vineyard. The man goes out later, finds idle men and tells them to join his harvest. He will do right by them when he pays them at the end of the day. It sounds like he will work out an hourly amount to equal their labor. At the end of the day he finds a few more idle men standing around and they join in the harvest but for little more than an hour.

It’s the end of the day. It is time to pay everybody and wrap things up. I have an idea about what the economy of first century Judea was about. The story is about coins. It is about measuring labor in terms of a metal coin and not in barter. No bushels of wheat for your labor or sheep but a coin. For many of these day laborers, the one coin promised will pay for bread and cheese for a family for a day or two.

I dare say, considering that way Judea got sophisticated, with first the Greeks and then the Romans dominating the culture, money had replaced barter. The tax man he comes around and he wants coins. Copper. Silver. Gold. I am certain that land owners could deliver as barter an acre or two of wheat to the tax collector’s grain house. The common man without land, he needs money. He needs money everyday to eat. He needs money for the tax man too.

The coins, the sophistication, the change in society makes a difference in how new generations see their obligations. I dare say, somebody like Jesus and his older brothers stopped helping out in the carpenter’s shop to go out and do day labor at harvest time. What for? The coins - to give the coins to the head of the household for taxes. The price of keeping big brother, big government and the tax collector out of your life was the same then as it is now. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Well anyway, I cannot read into the mind of the master of the vineyard in this story. He pays all his workers the same wage, one coin, whether they have worked twelve hours or one hour. Of course I have thought that maybe those who have labored all day got a little tired about midday and picked fewer and fewer grapes. That maybe those hired at midday did as much work in half a day, coming in well rested, as those who labored all day. But paying a day’s wages for an hour’s work, that sounds unfair and perhaps it is even charity. The owner of the field states that he can do what he wants with his money. So true.

Of course this is a parable and Jesus is trying to teach a lesson. He goes into a farming community. He tells a farming story. He has their attention and then he tries to kick the story up a notch or two into the realm of spiritual understanding. Smart guy, this Jesus fellow.

In life you have to do certain things that can be measured. Measured in this Earth. “Man is the measure of all things” to quote an ancient philosopher.

You have to do certain things that can only be measured in heaven. Measured by God. There are things we cannot measure but God does – our faith, our hope, our love. God gives us grace as an invitation to sit down and communicate with the Divine.

God invites us into his spiritual vineyard. For many of us, he measures all that we do. And maybe for others, he measures some of what they do in life. Like some who only show up once or twice at church in one’s lifetime or who have an epiphany on one’s death bed – who realize all the nasty things that one has done in one’s life – and asking quite selfishly for forgiveness of those things human that were not divine in a not well lived life.

And sadly, reflecting and regretting, but knowing there in the end of life, things of the true human heart – of love – of caring – of having faith – of finally hearing the owner of the vineyard telling us to make a little or even a great effort to get right with God.

I have known some people who do not know God -- non-believers. Some turn away from faith – some have never had the opportunity to understand or embrace faith. Atheists breed atheists you know. I know of such a person. A child of atheist parents. This person when I was acquainted was very unfair and very unscrupulous in their dealings with others. That, if I approached them to explain my faith, my beliefs, that person would put their ignorance of God into a poetic or a philosophical frame of reference. They told me that death and what happens passed death is the grand and ultimate mystery of life.

No mystery to me. If I have cheated or stolen from other people, if I have victimized others, I believe I will be judged accordingly to my deeds before the throne of God with Jesus Christ sitting right up there on the Big Guy’s right hand side. A place of honor.

Any why is Jesus there? You know the answer to that. He earned it. He earned it for his caring enough for you and for me and a trillion others throughout the ages. He earned it by becoming a sacrifice on the altar of God – by dying on the cross and by dying – to give up all his mystical powers bestowed on him at birth and in ages before his birth, by doing his duty, by surrendering his total being to the will of God.

Jesus is no con artist. Not like some of us. Many of us. You cannot fake your way into heaven. God gives us the means. We are all asked to labor in God’s vineyards. Some of us give it our all. And still some of us try as hard as we can. Still others – picking grapes – dropping grapes – get in other people’s way as they strive to do the great labor of God which is truly on this earth to do.

The bottom line of all this is that salvation has tremendous value. Salvation is salvation. What is it worth to you?

God chooses what he wants to do in his own time and in his own way – and most importantly of all – he does reach out a hand to each and every one of us.

All our labors in the vineyard of life are equal in the eyes of God – in the eyes of God we are all his children. We may whine for many things like the Hebrews in the desert with Moses as mentioned in the Exodus passage earlier. We whine for water in the desert of life – we can be difficult children at times – but Moses struck the rock at God’s command and waters rushed forth for them and ultimately for us to drink.

Those grapes we have picked in life are for the spiritual wine that is to be made in heaven and shared around the table along with the bread of Our Lord’s Supper.

Come. Labor. Be glad of toil and of faith. Know that the rewards not received here on earth continue into heaven. We are saved by our labor but also and more importantly by labor done at the bidding of the author of life and the universe.

To thee we pray. God be praised.