Complain at Your Own Risk
September 22, 2002
A hard-working parish priest, after a lifetime of ministry, died and went to heaven. When he got there he was assigned an attractive two bedroom house to serve as his heavenly abode. He was rather pleased with his house until he took a walk around the neighborhood and ran into a parishioner who had been a cab driver and now was living in a mansion with a swimming pool and tennis courts. The priest went directly to St. Peter to complain. He said, “I’ve worked my whole life long serving God’s people. Now this parishioner of mine is a very good person, but he was a cab driver! Why is he living in so much bigger a house than I am?” St. Peter said, “Here’s how it goes. When you preached, people slept. But when he drove, people prayed.”
We do not always understand God’s ways, and that is why it is dangerous to complain. Complaining takes place in today’s Gospel. Those who were hired first complain because those who worked only one hour received the same wage as they did. We certainly understand their feelings. We probably would have the same reaction, if we were in their shoes. This parable is one of the most difficult parables for us to understand. But, before we become too critical, we must realize that all the parable is doing is reflecting life as it is.
The truth is that life is unfair. We would like to think that those who work the hardest would be the most successful. But we all know people who are working two, maybe three, jobs and are still unable to support their families. We would like to think that the people who have the most talent are those would be the most respected and compensated. But we all know of football players who cannot even remember to keep their helmets on their heads (sorry about this) who are making millions of dollars more than teachers who give their life instructing our young. We would like to think that people who are good and who live honestly are going to have easier lives. But we all know people who are the “salt of the earth” who have terrible crosses to bear. And each time we see any of these inequalities, we are tempted to complain.
That is why today’s parable is helpful. It shows us how to live in an unfair world. What does the landowner say to those who complain? He says, “Take what belongs to you and go.” Don’t worry about what other people have received. Take your own life. Rejoice in it and live it.
Maya Angelou, the famous American playwright and poet, wrote a series of memoirs about growing up in rural Arkansas. Many of those memoirs centered on her grandmother, a very influential person in her life who ran a little store in their hometown. Maya’s grandmother had very little patience with complainers. Whenever one of the town whiners would come into the store to buy anything, she made sure that Maya was called in to witness the event. Once Maya was in the store, her grandmother would say to the complainer, “How are things going?” Immediately the grumbler would begin to say how terribly hot it was. It was the hottest he could ever remember it to be. He couldn’t stand the sweltering heat. And how much plowing he had to do. It seemed that each year there was more. And his equipment was getting older and it was becoming more difficult. Now all the time that he was rambling on, Maya’s grandmother would look at her granddaughter to make sure she was paying attention.
When the whiner finally left, her grandmother took Maya aside and said to her, “Child, there are people who went to sleep last night, rich and poor, black and white, who will never wake up again. And every one of those dead people would give all that they had for five minutes of this hot weather, for five minutes of this difficult plowing. So, be careful, child, about complaining. If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, then change the way you think about it. But don’t be a complainer, because complaining will rob you of life.”
The advice of Maya Angelou’s grandmother dovetails with the words of the landowner in today’s gospel to those who complain: “Take what belongs to you and go.” Live the life you have been given, not the life that you wish you had been given, not the life that other people have been given. Live your life fully because complaining will only diminish you, only lessen you.
So, what is it you complain about? Your spouse? Your children? Your parents? Your job? Your retirement? Your church? Your government? Your health? Be careful about complaining because it can rob you of life. Instead, take what belongs to you and go. If you don’t like something change it. If you can’t change it then change the way you think about it. But, don’t waste your time complaining. Life is simply too short for that.
The good news is this: life may be unfair, but God is in charge. And God will not forget any of us. If we take the life that we have been given (even if others have been given more) and live it, we will find that it is enough. For once we choose to live our own lives, we will discover that we have not been short -changed or cheated. We will realize that everyone of us has been given a full day’s wage.
Happiness in an Unfair World
September 18, 2005
I do not know anyone who likes today’s parable of the laborers in the vineyard. This is probably because it comes a bit too close to the truth. The truth which underlies today’s parable is that life is unfair. There is no general principle that can be applied to insure that each person receives what they deserve. Some people, like those who were hired last in the parable, receive much more than they deserve. Other people receive much less.
We see this in all areas of life. In a work situation it is easy to look at someone who has the higher position than you do and say, “It’s unfair. She is no smarter than I am. My work is a good as hers. So, why does she get the bigger office and the higher salary?” The same perspective applies in relationships. We can say, “It’s not fair. I love my friends as much as he does, perhaps even more. Then why is it that they choose to be with him and accept me only in second place?” It applies in families. We can say, “I love my children as much as those people love their children. I spend as much time with my children as they do. Then why is it that their children are brighter, better behaved, make friends easier, make wise decisions over foolish ones?”
Life is unfair. All of us know of stories about families that have never been able to recover after reading their parents’ will. Either they all received the same when some children expected to receive more, or some children received more when others thought they should receive the same.
Life does not always fall into categories that we think are just. We perceive such injustice immediately. It is the first thing we notice. Just listen to the workers who were hired first in today’s parable. They say to the landowner, “These last have worked only one hour and yet you have chosen to make them equal to us who have borne the work of the day and the scorching heat.” These workers immediately recognize the unfairness of the situation.
But today’s parable is not about what the worker see but what they do not see. What they do not see is the generosity of the landowner. More specifically, they do not see the generosity of the landowner to them. They recognize that the landowner has chosen to be generous to those who were hired last, and they resent it. But they do not recognize how they have been given a job, a day’s labor, by which they can support their families. You see, today’s parable is about blindness, the blindness that so may of us have to the blessings of God in our life. The parable warns us that we will never be able to see God’s generosity to us as long as we look with jealous eyes.
The parable is realistic. It accepts the world as it is. It recognizes that things are unfair and there is not that much we can do about it. So the parable does not give us some magic formula which would allow us to give each person what is deserved. But what the parable provides is a way—a way in which we can be happy even in a world where some receive more than others. The parable tells us that if we are to be happy in an unfair world we must focus less on what others have and more on the generosity that God has shown to us. Yes, we may not have the biggest office or the highest salary but we do have a job, a job by which we can earn a decent living. We may not be the most popular person in our school or on our street, but we do have friends and those friends are real. Our children may not be the brightest or the smartest, but they are healthy and we have a good relationship with them. Others in our family may receive more from our parents, but we have parents and they have given us life.
In an unfair world, jealousy can consume us. If we compare ourselves to others, that comparison can make us blind to the blessings that we have received. The gospel reminds us that our blessings are real, and it is only by embracing them that we will be able to find happiness regardless of how much more others seem to be given.
The First and the Last
September 21, 2014
There are many ways to crack open the meaning of a parable, but most of them begin with a question. So here is the question I would like to pose to today’s parable of the workers in the vineyard: Why were some of the workers not hired earlier? When the landowner went out about 5 o’clock, why were these particular workers still standing around? Perhaps they were the smallest workers, or the weakest workers, or the oldest workers. Earlier in the day the landowners as good business men were certainly looking for younger, stronger, and bigger workers for their vineyards. So it happened that this particular group of less desirable workers found themselves still idle as the day was coming to an end.
Now the punch of this parable is that the landowner of the parable goes out and hires those workers, even though the day was almost over. And he gives them the full day’s wage. This action on the part of the landowner might surprise us or even upset us, if we think that the parable is trying to describe some economic system – how we should run our business. But that is not what the parable is trying to do. The parable is describing God. God is the landowner, and this parable is telling us that our God chooses the strong and the weak, those who work all day long and those who work one hour, those who come first and those who come last. God can do this because it is God’s vineyard. God can call the shots. God chooses whom God wants. God is free to be generous. This is what those who are hired first don’t understand. They think that the parable is about their work. It is not. It is about God’s freedom, God’s generosity, and God’s love.
This, of course, is good news for those who come last, for those who are not yet hired. But it is a real challenge for any of us who have been working all day long. This is also what makes this parable a particularly helpful lens through which to examine our national policy of immigration. Now, I know, as soon as I mention immigration, many of you conclude that I am offering a political speech. But my intention is not to underwrite any particular piece of legislation. My intention is rather to take a value of the gospel and apply it to the world in which we live. In that world we all know that our immigration system is broken. We know that there will be a debate concerning immigration as soon as the fall elections are over. When that debate begins, it is our role as disciples of Jesus to introduce what we believe into the debate.
A faith perspective changes many things. If there is no God, then things are simple. This is our country. We are here. And those who are outside our borders are of no concern to us. But if we believe in God, especially if we believe in the God of this parable, then America is God’s vineyard. We do not own this land. God does. We are not here because of any right we possess. We are here because God chose us to be here. We are the first to be hired. Now have we worked hard? Yes, we have. Do we pay our taxes? Yes, we do. Do we strive to make this country healthier and more secure? Without a doubt. But because we believe in God, we also know what God would tell us to say to those who are on our borders waiting to come into the vineyard and work. God would have us say, “Yes, you, too, come and work in the vineyard.”
Of course, any comprehensive immigration policy must include secure borders and enforceable laws. But, as believers, our voice in the public debate should express the experience of our generous God. Deeply aware of God’s choice to place us in this great country with all of its blessings, we should speak up for the God who chooses the last together with the first. Finding an appropriate way to welcome those on our borders into the vineyard of the United States need not diminish us. In fact, it can add to our work the work of others, so that together we may attain an even more abundant harvest.
God Will Come
September 24, 2017
Jobs at the time of Jesus did not come with benefits. A landowner would hire workers when there was a need and let them go as soon as the work was finished. This meant that finding a job was a full-time occupation for most people, and those who did not find jobs regularly would simply not survive. With this in mind, how would you feel if you were one of the workers looking to be hired in today’s gospel? You go out early in the morning before dawn to the marketplace, and your excitement rises as the landowners come and begin sending people into the vineyards. But no one hires you. You decide to stay on for a while in case other landowners show up. And they do. Some come at nine, others at noon, others at three in the afternoon. Yet, each time you are passed over. No one chooses you. Some of the workers who are waiting with you decide to call it quits. “That’s enough for today,” they say. “We will come back tomorrow.” But you decide to wait longer, hoping against hope that there will be another chance. And there is. At five o’clock, a landowner comes out and sends you into the vineyard. Then to your great surprise he pays you a full day’s wage. How would you feel if you were this worker? You would certainly be thankful that you did not go home with most of the other workers at three o’clock.
When we look at today’s parable from the perspective of those who were hired last, it becomes a parable of hope. We see God as the landowner, the one who we are waiting for to bring us what we need to live. But God is following no schedule. Sometimes God comes in the morning, sometimes at noon, and sometimes God comes in the late afternoon when it is almost impossible to imagine God’s arrival. Today’s parable asks us, then, not to be discouraged when we see others receiving what they need before us. It tells us that God knows what we need, and God will come for us.
You might have been looking for some time for a person with whom you can share your life, someone you can marry and with whom you can raise a family. You meet people, begin relationships, but they fall apart. Your friends are finding spouses. They even invite you to their weddings. But you begin to think, “I will never find someone to love.” Today’s parable tells you that God knows what is in your heart, and God will come for you. It is not too late to hope.
You might be worried about some member of your family, a child or a grandchild, who seems lost and unhappy. You listen as your friends show you happy pictures of their children and grandchildren, and tell you about their personal and financial successes. Today’s parable reminds you that God loves your children and grandchildren even more than you do. So you should continue to hope. The day is not yet over.
You might be dealing with grief over the loss of someone you have lost in death. You know that you should get back to living, but somehow you just cannot move forward. You watch as your friends who have lost loved ones begin to socialize and begin new relationships. But you say to yourself, “I am not sure I will ever be able to heal.” Today’s gospel parable says that God is coming for you. It might be late, but God will not forget your need.
The parable of the workers in the vineyard tells us that God is indeed coming to bring us what we need to live. Others might be receiving what they need before us, but God’s coming to us will not be too late. Those who are hired last in the parable receive a full day’s wage. Therefore there is reason to hope that when God comes for us, God will not be stingy. We will receive more than we ever expected.
God Thinks Differently
September 20, 2020
Isaiah 55:6-9, Matthew 20:1-16a
The trouble with being a Christian is that we imagine God thinks as we think. We imagine that God values what we value and that God is not concerned about things that are of no concern to us. The prophet, Isaiah, in today’s first reading, tries to correct this misapprehension. In that reading God says, “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my thoughts above your thoughts.”
God does not think as we think. God’s values and our values are not the same. We care and love the people in our own family and those who are close to us. God cares for those people as well. But God also cares for every family, regardless of race, religion, or economic worth. We care for and love our country, striving to make it just and free. God loves our country as well, and I trust blesses it and guides it. But God also loves every other country and all the citizens in it and desires that all people would share the freedom and prosperity that all too often we take for granted. We love those who treat us well, who stand by us, and offer us respect. God loves those people too. But God also loves our enemies, those who have hurt us. For as wrong or misguided as they may be, they are still God’s children.
To put this bluntly, God loves everyone as much as God loves us. This is the beautiful and disturbing truth that we find in today’s gospel parable. When the landowner goes out to the marketplace late in the day, who does he find standing there? All the workers that no one else would hire. These would be the weakest workers, the oldest workers, the workers with minimal skills. But the landowner not only hires them but gives them a wage equal to everyone else. The landowner acts this way because he represents God who loves all people equally, the weak as well as the strong, the old as well as the young, the last as well as the first.
God loves everyone as much as God loves us. But this is a truth that does not sit easily with us, because we can point to all kinds of things that we think should make God love us more. We go to church every weekend. We are people who are faithful to our spouse. We don’t abuse alcohol or drugs. We follow our country’s laws. We have never been arrested. We are the ones who have been hired first, and we understand their complaint in the parable. We have worked all day long and God has raised others who have worked much less to be equal with us. It’s not right. And it is not, in the way that we think.
But God thinks differently. And like those who are hired first in the parable, we have to make our peace with that. But here is the good news: As soon as we accept that truth of how God loves, a durable hope emerges for us, because equal goes both ways. When we recognize that God loves everyone as much as God loves us, it invariably follows that God will never love us less than any other person.