A reflection by Jeffrey for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost
In today’s Gospel from Matthew, we hear proclaimed the parable of the generous landowner, which builds on themes of mercy and grace using imagery from economic and social systems.
The parable is addressed to those who already follow Jesus – he speaks to them on their journey from Galilee to Jerusalem – he is speaking to us on our journey with him.
This parable is also bracketed by two very familiar phrases: “the first will be last and the last will be first” (Matthew 19:30 and 20:16) – a reminder, I believe, that we are into texts that are telling us something about how we are to be followers of Jesus and what God’s Kingdom looks like.
In this Gospel, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a landowner who pays all his workers the same daily wage, even though the workers did not work the same amount of time. Some worked all day, while others worked a partial day. Still others worked only one hour. Yet the landowner pays them all for a full day.
One of the full-day workers isn’t too pleased about this and criticizes the landowner, noting the perceived unfairness of this practice.
But the landowner rejects the criticism, instead condemning envy and affirming generosity and equality.
I have been drawn to two ways of hearing this text: 1) eschatological – about the end times and 2) as a way to bring about the kingdom of heaven today.
The landowner is a place holder for God’s generosity in judging at the end of time – the reading is about Divine Grace, Divine Mercy. This reading problematizes the systems that we work within, systems of oppression, and says that in the end, all will stand before God as equal.
The folks that worked all day could be those who have been faithful and so-called ‘good’ throughout their lives.
And the people who worked the least might be the most sinful or ‘bad’ people.
In this interpretation, the parable would show God’s openness to all, even rewarding the last before the first.
Divine Grace, Divine Mercy rips away presumed privileges and how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ we have been and puts all of God’s people on the same level.
I love this interpretation — when asked about Hell I often say that I believe it’s empty.
God’s Divine Grace, Divine Mercy is so strong that even those individuals that we hope would be found in Hell are actually to be found in the same place we will one day.
It’s a pretty hard teaching.
What about right now? What about this time and place? What about the injustices of this world that keep us from being the Kingdom of God here on earth as it is in Heaven.
Paul writes: “my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary” (Philippians 1:23b-24).
I believe we are called in this time and place to model Divine Grace, Divine Mercy and spread the good news – for me, that means upsetting the systems of oppression and bringing about a new way to be in this world.
Many people are underemployed, working reduced hours or temporarily have no work at all due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This situation has only made worse some of the economic practices that continue to oppress many.
And I don’t only think of those of us here on the Territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh – I think of my family in the Philipines who don’t have things like CERB to support them. Who have no work. Who have no government support. Whose acces to COVID-19 testing comes at a high financial cost, up-front. Whose hope is solely placed in Jesus.
Today’s Gospel should inspire us to critically re-examine our capitalist, economic systems – to seek the Kingdom of God – a just, grace-filled, and merciful kingdom.
I believe that Divine Grace, Divine Mercy in this time and place, in the Spirit of this parable, calls us to affirm that minimum wages must be living wages and that basic financial security should be available to all regardless of any regulatory requirements.
All should have the dignity to buy fresh food, access to medical care including the nice add-ons that those of us with insurance have, access to safer drug supplies, access to safer sex products, have a place to call home, and true financial security.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like…” — it’s up to us to finish this sentence through our actions.