There are a handful of Jesus’ parables that drive me crazy. Not because I don’t like them, or that I don’t agree with the theology behind His words, but because they literally run contrary to my personality.
I’ve been reading through the parables again, using Thomas Keating’s “Meditations of the Parables of Jesus.” If you have followed me very long you probably already know I am afflicted with “Older Brother Syndrome,” in ref. to the parable of the Prodigal Son, but you may now know that a comorbidity of Older Brother Syndrome is often “Earliest Worker Disorder.” Let’s review:
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.
“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ (Matthew 20)
It has been a several years long journey to learn, mature, process and begin the recovery process of these two issues, Older Brother Syndrome and Early Worker Disorder.
Tangent, but not completely unrelated, I have this theory about one of the ways I think God works at times. There are many moments in my life where I receive information, have revelation, or notice something that was in front of me for a while beforehand. I learn something and think “How did I not see this before?!” only to conclude with gratitude that God must have protected me from these particular bits of awareness in order to release it when I was ready, or in other words, when it was already past and maybe too late for my immature reaction. For example, I prayed a short list for what I felt I needed in a spouse, two of which involved table manners. (So silly in retrospect) I swear that the Lord shielded me from the reality of Sal’s meal etiquette while we were dating, through our engagement, and up until we were solidly married. The Lord waited til Holy Wed-LOCK, before removing the scales from my eyes. (Present day, for all of you manners/type-A folks, we have fixed all that.😉)
Pointing back to the main point of this post, I think God shielded me from the depth of this parable. The concept has always annoyed me. The idea that the people that work all day get the same pay as the people that work the last hour, 🤯. However, learning more about grace, reconciliation, systems, structures and culture all contributed to my arriving at a place of not only accepting this analogy reflecting God’s Kingdom but beyond acceptance to appreciation, and attempted application. But somehow I never noticed this one line:
“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon (Round 4) he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
All day long doing nothing?! What!? Wait. So I guess I had just assumed this story was about finding people throughout the day. I had never really reflected on what activities, or lack of, these groups had been doing prior. It’s one thing to “take the money from the first workers”, cause let’s be honest, that’s how it can feel, and equally share that with workers hired later. Similar to how I learned the concept of not only welcoming the younger/foolish brother home, but also celebrating him with a ring, a robe and a fattened calf (revisit the Parable of the Prodigal Son). But workers that had “been standing here all day long doing nothing!?” How did I miss that before. You would think my critical/judgey/pull yourself up/earn your own way/fairness/merit loving self would have zeroed right in on that particular phrase. I went right to the Greek. Maybe it was a translation issue. Nope. I refreshed myself on how scholars think the audience would have received the story. It would have surprised their sense of the order of things too. Maybe the secret rationalization that would help equalize my sense of injustice in this scenario was in the about to be hired hand’s response, “ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.” Nope. Doesn’t work for me. Even with my understanding of social justice, poverty and systemic issues, there is something about this idea that wrenches at my gut. It’s just so natural for me to feel like those that work harder should be handled differently than those that do not. But that’s kinda the point, right?
This parable radically requires my perception of how God gives to shift. A paradigm shift that requires me to examine how I regard my fellow children of God (i.e. everyone) and demands that I expand my tiny understanding of grace and God’s love. And that’s just looking at the parable with a communal lens. Turn the prism that is the passage and see how it speaks to your inner circles, and then again to your individual self. We try to gift ourselves with the illusion of security and stability when we categorize, or do our own sorting and shifting of God’s ordered kingdom. Jesus often turns his audience’s preconceived notions upside down, or at the very least lengthens them, stretching our heart just a little more. I’m just not sure my younger faith self needed to notice this portion of Jesus’ illustration. I think I’m barely able to truly take it in at this juncture. I am thankful God receives us where we are, but is eager to see us move beyond. I continue to realize that I can easily show up pretty late to God’s work, even in my “Early Worker Disorder.”