Sunday, January 31, 2010

Septuagesima Sunday

1 Corinthians 9:24 - 10:5 / Matthew 20:1-16

You can see them on the streets of La Paz, Bolivia, all lined up with the tools of their trade, waiting expectantly in the crisp, cold air of the early morning. You can see them, too, at carefully regulated centers and less than regulated convenience store parking lots of Arlington, Virginia. They are plumbers, carpenters, electricians. They will dig, prune, and plant. They will work for whatever seems fair or less than fair. They are the day laborers.

True, some may work only long enough to get by and spend their wages without a thought for tomorrow. But most of them toil for themselves and a family besides, perhaps sending money far away to feed a wife and children, often laboring under the cloud of a less than certain legal status. Their work is hard, but work they must, and this too many of their employers know too well. Some are fair, some are just, some are generous. Too often, far too often, they are not. They reach out the promise of a full day's pay for a full day of work. Go you also into the vineyard, and I will give you whatever is just. With the setting of the sun, what come to their hands and into their pocket is, with alarming regularity, far less than what is just.

How disconcerting, then, to read about the paterfamilias in the Gospel today whose wage scale would hardly pass legal muster. True, he is altogether generous with those who worked from the eleventh hour, those who received the full day's wage for an hour's work. And those who toiled the whole day through? Those who have borne the burden of the day's heat? Sure enough, they received precisely what they were promised. Yet, do we not feel for them, that a man so generous with those who have been left idle all day because no man had hired them could not also show that same generosity by enlarging those who had done their work from the very first hour?

Paul, after all, in the Epistle to the Corinthians might seem to be on their side! Run the race as though one only were to receive the crown, he tells us. Subject the body to toil and labor so as not to lose the reward. Work in the way of righteousness matters. Even with a full share in the spiritual blessings poured out upon the people of Israel in their Exodus from Egypt, and so also Paul reminds us even for those of the Christian faith who share those same spiritual blessings in Baptism and the Eucharist, with most of them God was not well pleased. Work hard, he tells us, and do not be idle. Strive daily and be willing to endure much and forgo even more. God will reward those who run such a race.

We know, of course, that the paterfamilias has acted rightly, and we know that Paul does not contradict the Gospel. But why? Why on the one hand are we warned to work hard in the service of Christ so as to receive an imperishable crown and yet on the other hand told that whether we have worked long in God's service or been slipped in at the last hour, there is no distinction?

Whatever the deeper truths of this mystery, it may be helpful to be altogether certain in our indignation that we are among those working from the first or third hour, and not the eleventh. For all of our protests that we have labored long in the vineyard, are we so ready to place our record of love of God and neighbor to public scrutiny. Do we really wish to risk our wages of eternal life to a moral and spiritual audit, to see that denarius we were sure to receive slowly whittled away by every last inattentive prayer, every idle word or impatient grumbling, our sluggishness in coming to the aid of those who ask or our resentment when our contributions are less trumpeted than unacknowledged? Might we not rather breathe a sigh of relief that we who are all too likely part of that idle gang, loitering the street corners of life in the gloaming of the day, can still rejoice in a God so generous that his merciful bounty does not so much violate justice as wink at it in our favor?

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