This past weekend (25th Sunday in Ordinary Time) we heard Matthew's parable of the laborers in the vineyard. It’s great that we hear these readings at this time of the year because it’s harvest time in our own lives. We get share from a local farm, so between that and our own garden, we’ve spent the better part of the past few weekends processing vegetables.
There’s this sense of accomplishment in growing food to eat during the long winter. We, quite literally, get to enjoy the fruits of our labors. But for me it touches something deeper in my psyche. The ritual of the harvest and preparation for winter has this solemn feel to it - where the abundance of life and the silence of death and winter that lies just around the corner are intertwined in this interesting dance.
Our participation in the harvest connects us to nature and God’s own Creation in ways that nothing else ever can. And today’s readings take us to the harvest, so we should feel a closeness with what’s happening. The harvest was very much part of the life of these people that we hear about in the readings - much more so than for us today. And as Jesus tells the story, he layers things together to create a depth to help us understand what he’s saying. On the surface, it’s really a simple story with a simple question. Why should people who do less work get paid the same as those who work a full day? Or, flipping it around, why shouldn’t people who work harder get a greater reward?
I suppose if this were an economics class, we’d have a discussion about the value of labor and things like that. But Jesus isn’t talking about economics, he’s talking about people that he created and how we’re thinking about things exactly wrong. While these laborers are concerned about human things - money, work, and even assigning value to people - for Jesus it’s all about the harvest of souls at the end of time. Who will be called? Who is worthy to be harvested?
That’s an interesting question because, if we follow the way the laborers thought about things, it would presume that those who had been faithful to Jesus for longer, those who followed him through the most difficult times, would be given a greater share in his kingdom. The rewards would be handed out based on worthiness.
This is exactly wrong, and that’s Jesus’ point. For God, there is no such thing as a sliding scale that decides who will receive more, or less. He gives in abundance to everyone. The saint who devoted their entire life to the mission, as well as the sinner who led a questionable life but finally figured things out. All are invited to fully partake in the harvest without exception or hesitation.
I think we struggle with this idea. And it’s clear that it’s not something new. Many of the parables have the same theme. Take the story of the prodigal son. It’s the brother who says, "why does he get treated so specially? I’m the one who stayed. I’m the good son? Why aren’t I entitled to more?” The story of the lost sheep, the rich man, the tax collector - there are many more, but you get the idea. It’s a recurring theme in Jesus ministry, setting our minds right when we try to assign value to other people.
We are often guilty of the sin of having contempt for the sinner. We hold ourselves above sinners. And we begrudge them receiving a share of God’s mercy and grace. Not only do we begrudge that they receive the same as us, we get angry that they received anything at all … because we’re better; because I’m worth more than him - that sinner over there.
It is this contempt that prevents us from understanding this God who loves us beyond our comprehension. While we measure and judge, God simply gives away everything in abundance - his forgiveness and the gift of eternal life. His unconditional love is foreign to us. Whereas we measure out love like misers. God carelessly gives it away.
Isaiah says it perfectly. My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so are my ways and thoughts above yours. This is how God thinks, and in today’s readings we are given a peek into that.
I know that I often talk about Jesus’ call for radical conversion. This is what he is preaching again today. We need to completely rethink our idea of love and mercy - and assigning value to human life - if we are ever to understand God and the relationship we are being invited into.
I believe that part of the reason we have so much trouble with this idea is that we get stuck on the question of our own worthiness. We wonder whether we are worthy of God’s abundant love. And because of our own questions, we sometimes judge others. As they say, misery loves company.
Am I worthy? This was perhaps the greatest question that I struggled with during my diaconate formation. How could someone as flawed and sinful as me ever be worthy to proclaim the gospel message? How could someone with a questionable past be worthy enough to be ordained as an example of Jesus’ discipleship?
These questions almost drove me from the diaconate until I had a revelation. I am not made worthy or unworthy by anything I do, or do not do. My worthiness is not stained by my sinfulness. My worthiness boils down to this - I am a beloved son of God and if God says that I am worthy, then who am I to argue? Simply accept the invitation into his garden. Sure, I might be one of the workers hired late in the day, but he still wants to share the same abundant reward with me.
Worthiness is a difficult question, and it’s something we need to come to grips with if we ever expect to advance in our faith journey. First, we need to figure out how to stop judging the worth of others. Then we need to stop judging our own. Something to think about as we go out into the world this week - who are the ones we are judging? Who are the ones we are burdening with the idea that they are somehow less worthy?
And as we look into the mirror each morning, we should ask why we do the same to ourselves. Accept the fruits of God’s abundant harvest and, while we’re at it, help someone else recognize that they are invited to the table, as well. God’s peace and love to you all.