Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Kingdom of Heaven is Not Like Us

101 years ago, as the King of one of the world’s Great Powers was about to die, his Queen sent for the woman she knew he really loved to be with him at the end. This gesture attracted a lot of attention and was much commented on at the time. The Queen was actually almost deaf, but she heard them and is said to have commented in reply that jealousy is the source of so much misery in the world.
Today’s gospel [Matthew 20:1-16a] also confronts us with the complex dynamic of generosity and jealousy. Jesus’ parable portrays both generosity and jealousy – the infinite generosity of God and the limited (and limiting) jealousy of people (particularly those who mistakenly think they have somehow earned some special sort of credit with God).
One of the problems with Jesus’ parables, of course, is that , having heard them all so many times, we already know the ending, and so can’t experience the shock such parables originally produced – and intended to produce – in their hearers. Jesus in this parable shocks his hearers with God’s great generosity, which liberates people from their rivalries and jealousies and establishes a new relationship among God’s people. The point, clearly, is God’s overwhelming generosity which transcends all claims of human merit or accomplishment.
The social world of the parable is that of the middle-eastern landowner hiring short-term day laborers during the harvest – much as many migrant workers are often hired in our country today. The contrast between how the parable ends and our ordinary world where the poor and vulnerable are more likely to be exploited – especially if they re immigrants - could hardly be more dramatic, another reminder, if one were really needed, that the kingdom of heaven has its own rules, which don’t necessarily correspond at all to what we think is important in our ordinary earthly lives.
Just as the owner of the vineyard challenges the workers in the first group to accept a radical equality with those in the last group, Jesus challenges all of us to recognize that no one of us has any claim or qualification to rank others in God’s sight.
Of course, the workers in the first group grumbled. Envy and jealousy are second nature among us, and our grumblings reflect our easy entrapment in ourselves and in our own jealousies. In the parable, God’s generosity – such a liberating surprise for the workers in the last group – becomes paradoxically a source of disappointment for those who mistakenly think their efforts have somehow earned them some special claim on God.
Obviously, this parable had a very special significance in the 1st-century Church both for the Gentile Johnny-come-lately converts to Christianity and for the Jewish Christians who were being challenged to accept them on equal terms. From the safe distance of 20 centuries, it seems easy for us (who, after all, are the beneficiaries of those Gentiles having been accepted as equals in the Church) to think that outcome was obvious or automatic or inevitable – this ignoring what a challenge it must have been for the Jews, the first hired, who’d already borne the day’s burden, ignoring also its challenge to us today to avoid feeling some similar sense of entitlement, as if that were all only ancient history. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that Italian-speaking Catholics were sometimes assigned to the basement in certain big-city parishes, and even more recently that other, newer immigrant groups have had to struggle to find a full welcome in some of our churches.
There is a reason, of course, why the Church is called Catholic, a Greek word for "universal." The Church is the original “Big Tent.” It includes not just Gentiles as well as Jews, but poor as well as rich, the sick as well as the healthy, the uneducated as well as the cultured elite, the old as well as the young, the ugly as well as the beautiful, and so on.
Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out to hire laborers for his vineyard. The landowner’s repeated forays into the marketplace were because had an important task to get done. He had a harvest to bring in. The good news of the Gospel is that making God’s kingdom happen is always God’s priority – and not the things that we care about. The bad news of sin is that, instead of making God’s kingdom happen, our priority is more likely to be ourselves. The challenge of the Gospel is to respond to God with gratitude instead of envy, conducting ourselves (as St. Paul says) in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ, and so doing our part to make the kingdom happen here and now.

Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, September 18, 2011.

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