Sunday, February 5, 2012

Septuagesima Sunday

1 Corinthians 9:24-27; 10:1-5 / Matthew 20:1-16

Years ago, during my summer training as a cashier, I was informed by my supervisor that while I was free of course to join a union, he wanted to assure me that I did not need to go through anyone else should I have any problems or concerns. I was, after all, not an employee, but an "associate." Mind you, for an eighteen-year-old seeking summer employment in the few months between school years, I was not especially inclined to join a union. However, even to me this canned speech sounded perverse and self-serving. Why would I imagine that the management of a national chain of stores would be more likely to listen to a teenager than the voice of a multitude through the spokesman of a union? Even if I appreciated my freedom not to be unionized, I resented this less than subtle attempt to keep me from doing so.

So, we might be surprised to find that when the workers in the vineyard who have toiled from the first hour raise a collective concern about their wages, that they should receive only as much as those who have worked only from the eleventh hour, the householder does not speak to them all. Rather, we are told that he answering said to one of them: Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst thou not agree with me for a penny? In other words, what the workmen have received as a collective slight against their labor which bore the burden of the day and its heat, the householder has chosen to treat as a private matter, a concern between him and one man. What the workers take to be a violation of principle applicable across many cases, the householder treats rather as a discourse between two friends, and the specific agreement between them. He insists, moreover, that this private agreement has no relation at all with any other private agreements he may have made: Take what is thine and go thy way: I will also give to this last even as to thee. Or, is it not lawful for me to do what I will?

While Jesus likely does not intend this parable to guide us in employment practices, he clearly does want us to see in this story something of the Kingdom of heaven. If that is so, then Jesus is directing our questions about that kingdom, about its logic, about its recompense, about its principles of inclusion, away from the general and directly to the particular. Like the worker to his wages, our relationship to God's kingdom is rooted most essentially not in the categories of the group or the collective, not by principle or by impersonal logic, but by the interpersonal communion who is the Trinity into which we, precisely as persons have been invited to come. Whatever concerns we have about God and what he asks of us or the reward he offers others on seemingly less demanding grounds, Jesus refuses to allow us to conceal our concerns behind fictions of fairness to us or justice to them. He demands that we come to him, face to face, and bring before him whatever objections or worries or complaints we have to lodge. For, while God may save us as a people, and indeed in that collective unity of the Body that is the Church whose very head is Jesus Christ, he actually saves persons, not collectives, so the saving approach of the Kingdom is its coming to me, to you, and to him or her, to each of us as individual persons.

Yet, unlike my experience at the chain retail store, we do not stand alone before the householder. We have an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who pleads and prays for us when we do not know how to pray, and we have a Mediator, Jesus Christ, whose blood speaks better than the blood of Abel. In coming before God our Father to receive our penny, we have not been left alone and naked to face the truth of our labor, to hear whether we have won, or even placed, in the race for the imperishable crown. Rather, we have God already with us, pleading for us, dwelling within us, sanctifying and conforming us to the measure of his own life. So, unlike the workman with no one to plead his cause, we who labor in the Lord's vineyard, whether through the burden of the day and the heat, or only for the last few minutes of the eleventh hour, we can come with confidence before the householder of the world and the world to come.

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