There’s a little game I like to play with myself after reading or hearing the readings and Gospel on Sundays. I call it, “Who Would I Be?” Basically, I think about which character in the passages we just heard I would be like if I were there when the event happened. It’s easy to think we would always be on the right side of history, that we would give Peter’s answer when Jesus asks “who do you say I am?” Or we wouldn’t be a Doubting Thomas. But that’s a view shaped by our 21st Century sensibilities and knowing what we know now – by knowing the outcome.
In this week’s readings and Gospels, it doesn’t take too much mental energy to play Who Would I Be? In our first reading, I clearly see myself as one of the scared and hungry Israelites, complaining bitterly about being in the wilderness with no food. I say this not because I get cranky when I’m hungry (I do), but because extreme situations often make people desperate. And desperation has a way of bringing out the worst in people. Even when we know we should trust that it will work out, or that God has our backs, it’s easy to let fear and anxiety take over and dictate behavior.
And what about our Gospel passage from Matthew comparing the kingdom of heaven to the landowner? This one just hits too close to home for me to be anyone other than the full-day laborers who begrudged the landowner for being generous to those who worked for only an hour. How many of us have complained about pulling the weight for someone else? Anyone ever sat at lunch with coworkers and complained about the boss or about arbitrary performance goals or a meager pay increase? It’s not too different from the complaints of the laborers who felt they were shafted, even though the landowner upheld his agreement of paying them their daily wage.
It’s easy to understand and even appreciate the laborers complaints. They worked a full day in the scorching heat and were paid the same as the workers who came for the last hour. That hardly seems fair. In certain industries today, someone would file a grievance over this approach.
But Jesus reminds us that we are thinking about this all wrong. We need to put aside our worldly perceptions of what does or doesn’t make economic sense. The parable isn’t really about wages at all. It’s about the kingdom of heaven – the very opening line of the passage tells us this. With God, the order is quite different: the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Everyone is equally precious to God; we all receive the same welcome from Him. Our job is not to compete with each other, but to live like Christ. Granted, this is a difficult job, but God gives us the gifts to do it. And if we stumble, and grumble along the way, we can take a lesson from Moses and the Israelites: We can ask God to provide for us.
- Do you empathize with the laborers who worked a full day and earned the same as the laborers who worked for only an hour? Why or why not?
- What do you think Jesus means when he says the first shall be last? Does it mean people with material wealth or power have a lesser chance to reach the kingdom of heaven?
- How do we apply some of these lessons and parables to our daily lives when financial security and economic stability are such overriding themes in our society?