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Thought for the week - 20 September 2020

Matthew 21: 23-32

Looking now at me, built as I am, in Terry Wogan’s words, like a racing snake, it will surprise you I know, that I was never sporty at school. One abiding memory that still sends shivers down my spine, is ‘picking teams.’ Captains would pick us – or not – one after the other. Inevitably I would be one of the last. Standing there unpicked, the humiliation has surely left me with permanent scars – you tell me!

Painting of men working in a field.

This I think, is the untold story of our well-known parable today. We tend to concentrate on the actions of the Landowner and the first to be hired, with their dispute at the end of the day. Now, many people will find the parable difficult to handle, difficult to accept. Surely, generosity is one thing, but isn’t Jesus promoting injustice? Surely it is a matter of plain justice that those who have worked longest in the heat of the day should get paid more than those who have worked just an hour in the cooler afternoon!? And what is the matter with those who haven’t been working all day? What have they been up to? Who spends the whole day waiting to be hired but doesn’t find success until the end of the day? Well, in Jesus’ time, these would be the weak, infirm, and disabled. Maybe the elderly, too. And other targets of discrimination, such as members of another religious group, even criminals or anyone with a bad reputation. A God who is “just,” then, is inclined to show special generosity to the poor and outcast. No wonder the respectable people get anxious! Don’t stop there. If we’re composing a list of “people who have to wait all day long to get hired” in our current setting, we need to expand it. Add the unemployed and underemployed to the list. At a time when unemployment is growing, suddenly those who cannot get hired until 5 p.m. aren’t necessarily just people wearing rags or talking gibberish to themselves. Many are college graduates, highly skilled manufacturers, loyal, capable. Undocumented immigrants also belong on the list, for who hires them these days? The parable’s landowner might be at risk of prosecution in our country these days. One has to ask how that squares with a Bible that repeatedly commends hospitality and compassion toward refugees, strangers and other aliens. The parable doesn’t dissolve these intractable issues that plague us. Nor does it promise that tomorrow the landowner might send all the laborers home to new mansions and in perfect health. We’re not looking at that kind of generosity. But the parable does make us pause to consider questions about what kinds of people are in need of “whatever is right.” Who needs benevolence the most? How might a society that promises “justice for all” stop vilifying, shaming and neglecting the precise kinds of people to whom God most desires to express unusual generosity? In the end, it’s not about unfair payments. At the parable’s conclusion, the full-day workers don’t moan that they have been cheated. They complain instead to the landowner, “You have made them [the one-hour workers] equal to us.” It’s not the generosity or the extravagance that makes them angry. Rather, the issue is this: By dealing generously with a group of people that no other manager in town considered worth the trouble of hiring, the landowner has made a clear declaration about their value, their worth. The landowner’s undue kindness thus denies the full-day labourers the bonus they think they can claim: a sense of privilege or superiority. You don’t have to read much of the Bible before you notice that it is God’s preference to show uncommon compassion to those who don’t have it so good, who have been denied a dignified place in the system. I get that. If I am totally honest, what annoys me about this parable, isn’t that I want extra doses of compassion or even justice for myself. Rather, I wish that God’s modus operandi didn’t make me look so mean in comparison, through my own sad inability to allow overwhelming generosity to go to the people who need it the most. Maybe the memory of my shivering on the playing field teaches me a useful lesson after all!

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