Last Sunday we talked about two ways of being human, the way of transaction on the one hand, and the way of mercy - grace, compassion, generosity - on the other. These two ways are mixed up in each one of us, and today, in the parable Jesus tells, we get a glimpse of what can happen when these two ways collide.
Have you ever been in the schoolyard, or gone to the park to play a game like soccer or football, and the way it worked is that there were two captains who picked teams. I’ll take her, you take him, one person after another, back and forth until there is only one person left. Have you ever been the one person who was left? What’s it like to be picked last?
I remember when I was in Grade 7, I really loved sports, and there was a teacher who decided that we were going to have a school volleyball team. None of us knew how to play volleyball, but we wanted to learn, so twenty of us showed up early one morning at the school gym for the tryout. When we got there, the teacher who was the coach said to us, I want you to line up from tallest to shortest. Now, when I was in Grade 7, I was really short, and so I went to the end of the line. Then the coach said, “Since none of you know how to play volleyball anyways, I’m just going to take the tallest 12 people for the team and teach them.” And she went down the line and counted 1, 2, 3 all the way to 12, and then sent the rest of us home. How do you think I felt? Well I can tell you how I felt, I was pissed off, I mean, listen to me, I’m still talking about it!
All of us want to be chosen. Everyone wants to feel special. We all have a need to belong.
Last Sunday, Aidan made a really insightful observation in the comments when we were talking about the way of transaction and the way of mercy.
“I think as kids we do grow up seeing a transactional world around us, and spend most of our energies finding out a way to earn belonging... and the more we try to earn it transactionally, the less we feel we belong.”
When my friend’s daughter was eight years old, she decided to try out for a competitive soccer team. She and all the other girls started practicing, and running, and training, working really hard. The girls all did really well, they were becoming good soccer players, and good friends. Finally, after a month of practising, it was the night when the team would be chosen. All the girls and their parents were put in a room, and one by one a girl was asked to come and see the coach. My friend’s daughter had to sit and wait. She really, really wanted to be picked for the team. But finally when the coach called her in near the end, she told her that she hadn’t been chosen for the team. The little girl kept it together until she got to the car, and then she cried all the way home.
We all want to be chosen. But when we’re not, it’s really hard.
Jesus tells us a story in today’s gospel about labourers in the market place. These were just ordinary people, poor people, who came to the village square hoping to get work for the day. Their situation was a lot more serious than the examples from the world of children’s sports that I’ve been telling you about. Because they really needed to get work, otherwise they would have no money to buy food for their families. So there they were, up before the sun, early in the morning, hoping to get work, hoping to be chosen. At 6am, the landowners and managers would come to the village square to hire the workers they needed. There always seemed to be more labourers than there were jobs. Who would the landowners pick? You know how it is. They picked the people that they knew, the ones with some sort of family connection. They picked the ones who had worked for them before. They picked the ones who looked strong, since they would be doing physical work.
But if you were small, or weak, or sick, or injured, or disabled, if you had no connections and no experience, how would it feel to come to the marketplace day after day and to see others chosen ahead of you, to be left standing there, doing nothing, waiting. Especially if that meant that at the end of the day you would have to go home and tell your family that there would be no food the next day.
How would you feel?
Sad. Hopeless. Worried. Crushed. Worthless. A failure.
Jesus has a phrase for people who are in that situation, people who are feeling like that, people who haven’t been chosen.
He calls them “the poor in spirit.”
And you know what he says about them?
He says this: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
When the landowner returns to the market place at 5pm, near the end of the day, and sees these people still standing around, sad and dejected because they had not been chosen, poor in spirit, what does the landowner do?
He chooses them, and he blesses them and he brings them into his vineyard. And at the end of the day, he honours them by placing them first in line, and he gives them what they need so that they can go home with dignity and feed their families.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
That’s what the kingdom of heaven is like. That’s what God is like. That’s the way of mercy.
But now, suppose you are one of the workers who was chosen for work at 6am. You’re tired, you’ve worked hard doing physical labour in the sun all day. You’ve earned your pay. Now, at the end of the day, you see the workers who started at 5pm being paid a full day’s wage.
What’s your first thought?
In the parable, the 6am-ers, when they see the pay of the 5pm-ers, they think that they will receive more, because they deserve it. They were chosen first.
But then you receive the same pay, the usual daily wage.
How do you respond?
You know, I’d like to think that I’d respond with the way of mercy. That I’d be happy for the 5pm-ers, knowing that they could now go home and feed their families, sharing n their joy, seeing the way their heads are held high because of the dignity that has been bestowed upon them.
But the truth is, I grew up in the transactional world that Aidan pointed out last week. A world where being chosen mattered precisely because other people were not chosen. A world where I felt special when I got better grades than other people. A world where my sense of self-worth was developed by comparing myself to others. A world with hierarchies, insiders and outsiders, and a lot of competition. A world where you earn your pay, or, at least that’s what I thought when it reinforced my own self-worth to think that way.
I probably would have grumbled too.
“And when they received it, the 6am-ers grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”
“And you have made them equal to us.”
These are the words of the way of transaction. Last week I said that the way of transaction is always pulling us in its direction. This week, after hearing this parable, I’ll go further. The way of transaction not only pulls us in its direction, but it also has the power to enslave us, to change the way we see the world, and to change the way we see those around us.
How would you have responded?
Be merciful, as your Father in heaven is merciful.
Homily: Yr A Proper 25, Sept 20, 2020, St. Albans Church
Reading: Matthew 20.1-16
Image by Pabak Sarkar, Creative Commons