Sep 20, 2014

25th Sunday: Generosity or Envy?

"You too go into my vineyard . . ."

Is 55: 6-9
Phil 1: 20c – 24, 27a
Mt 20: 1-16

This Sunday Jesus shares a somewhat unsettling parable from Matthew about laborers in the vineyard and a landowner who, in response to the grumbling of ungrateful workers, queries: “Are you envious because I am generous?” That’s an interesting question.

We don’t normally equate envy with generosity.  Why would I be envious because you are a generous person?  I could easily be generous myself. I might be envious because you are rich and I am not.  Or jealous because you have a beautiful voice and I can barely carry a tune. You have outstanding athletic prowess and the ball never goes where I want it to in golf. You’re handsome or beautiful and I’m just an average Joe. You walk into a room and everyone is glad to see you.  I walk in and just blend silently into the crowd. 

These are the sorts of things we usually equate with envy. The larger discussion about “Be grateful for what you have rather than sad about what you do not have” is valid here but why would I be envious of your generosity.  That’s a choice that any of us can make: to share or not to share. That is the question!

Why were the workers in the vineyard today envious? If we look between the lines, as we must do in the teachings of Jesus’ parables, we see their grumbling is far more about what they perceived as unjust payment for work done or not done rather than envy about a generous landowner.  Still, the point of the workers is a good one on surface.

In ancient times, unlike today, it was believed that all things had limits.  We Americans feel there’s always more where that came from: food, oil, jobs, and money, whatever.  Yet, everything in the ancient Mediterranean world was believed limited including work. There is only so much of anything to go around so there is not more where that came from.

So one would need to be invited to work rather than to apply for a job.  Once invited, as the landowner did five times in today’s Gospel, a wage was agreed on and one could not assume that more would be given since there is only a limited amount to be shared. Yet, work done is work rewarded.

So, the real “envy” in today’s Gospel is of those who were invited at the eleventh hour as we say and who were paid the same as those “who bore the day’s burden and the heat.” We can hear them cry, “This isn’t fair!”

Yet, the parable today is not about fair working practices but about what “The kingdom of heaven is like.” God operates in a different manner; on a higher plane than we limited humans. The Kingdom of Heaven is about a God who calls everyone to his vineyard (kingdom) and wants all to share in abundance regardless about when they were invited.  The kingdom of heaven, the parable teaches us, is about a God who is generous and hospitable.  About a God who invites then rewards. It is about a God who always has more where that came from and is never limited in his generosity. Pope Francis once reminded us that God never tires of forgiving it is we who tire of asking for it.  

This parable is not the only time we hear about God’s bigheartedness.  The parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15: 11-32) with the envious elder brother comes to mind. That elder brother, the good son, upon seeing his father’s forgiveness and the party thrown for his reckless wasteful brother, is furious with envy: “That son of yours!” he complains to his Father. He can hardly bring himself to admit, “That brother of mine.”

But, here the Father who is God is overwhelmingly generous because the value he holds for the person is greater than the bad choices he has made: “He was dead and has come back to life.” The elder son has suffered no injustice.  The Father reminds him: “Everything I have is yours” but the jealous son feels it’s unfair.

When we come to God in prayer, in need of forgiveness, in gratitude or with any request we come before a God who has our best interest at heart. So these parables can bring before us a different vantage point. The workers who labored all day most likely readily stood in the front of the line to receive what they felt would be generous pay – more than they had agreed upon.  The elder son confronted his father and may have pushed his way into the party revelers to make a beeline for his Dad. As I stand in front no one else behind me matters. It’s all for me – or so I may assume and expect.  

Yet, the parables challenge our perception of God’s “fairness” and ask us to take a look from the end of the line.  God’s mercy, forgiveness and generosity are available to everyone no matter where I stand.  God’s generosity, mercy, forgiveness and love are not a buffet line or potluck dinner – when it’s gone its gone. There will be just enough for me by the time I reach the front.  With God, there is always more.

It certainly creates a different perspective of how I view my fellow human being.  No matter what language I speak or my economic level or the home I live in or color of my skin or my past wayward life all that come to the Lord with sincerity and seek his will share in his abundance. 

The more we see others ahead of us receiving what God gives the more we may see our own shortcoming and imitate the mercy which God himself shows. As Isaiah reminds us today when the Lord speaks: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts . . .”

This is the point of the parable for us.  The reception of the Holy Eucharist during each Mass is to receive this person who is lavishly generous.  As the crowd walks forward do you think about who it is who is giving himself to you? About who and what you will receive?  How can we be envious of that?  What a gift; what a generous God.   
Graciously raise up, O Lord,
those you renew with this Sacrament,
that we may come to possess your redemption
both in mystery and in the manner of our life.
Through Christ our Lord.
(Prayer after Communion)