September 21, 2014–– 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 55:6–9 / Philippians 1:20c–24, 27a / Matthew 20:1–16a
It has been said that there are two types of people in the world, including those who divide people into two groups and those who do not. I think one of the most basic contrasts is between the attitude of people who believe they always “deserve” what is best or even fair as opposed to those who tremble at the thought of getting what they deserve. There is another way to say this: proud and humble gets to the root. Jesus’ story of the proud Pharisee and the humble publican comes to mind.
Our human nature has an inherent recognition of right and wrong. We instinctively know when we are treated unfairly. Except… fair is not really much of a biblical theme. God’s revelation to us has a lot to say about justice and mercy and love, but “fair” is much more a human construct. Fair is almost always connected to what we think we deserve, and what we think we deserve is tempered ultimately by whether we are, in biblical language, proud or humble.
The Gospel of John (ch 6) tells of an incident in which people come to John the Baptizer with praise and adulation. His response is, No one can receive anything unless it has been given to him from heaven. St Paul confronts the Corinthians with the same thought: What do you have that was not given to you? (1Cor 4:7a). This is a picture of biblical humility.
Contrast this attitude with that of the prophet Jonah. He had a proud, uncharitable spirit. Jonah neither expected nor desired the welfare of the Ninevites; he only went there to declare and witness their destruction. It was all about Jonah. Sometimes even God’s people show us how not to be!
Several of our popular magazine titles illustrate this. First there was People (all of us), then there was Us (as opposed to “them”), and then there was Self, which mostly reduces the focus to me. My point is to suggest that a very large portion of “popular culture”, as evidenced by our magazine names (and even more by their content!), is almost completely opposed to anything that is essentially Christian.
This takes us to Jesus’ parable about the vineyard workers. It is typical of our fallen human nature to see things selfishly from our own point of view. The all-day workers complained––it was “unfair” that the one-hour workers were paid the same. And yet this story has a much greater point: the mercy of God goes beyond fair. God does not give us what we deserve. He certainly does not give us less than we deserve. God gives us more than we deserve. Beyond fair.
To grasp this, we need to be converted. We need to be changed. We need to be transformed from people who look at the world around us and our own situations merely from our own selfish perspective (What’s in it for me?). When our focus is on ourselves––how much do I get?…. is yours bigger or better than mine?…. why am “I” having to go through this hard thing?…. ––we are only making ourselves miserable (and worse, cutting ourselves off from being able to see God’s mercies). St Paul expresses transformation when he tells the Philippians, For to me life is Christ, and death is gain. This world is not all there is. So Paul asked the Corinthians, What do you have that was not given to you? What we have is mercy. From God’s perspective, if we got what we deserved, we’d have less than nothing; we’d be in hell. It’s all about gift and grace. Beyond fair.
This is what God is saying through Isaiah: ….my thoughts are not your thoughts…. your ways are not my ways…. Humbling ourselves before the greatness of God is not meant to demean or discourage us. It is the greatness of God that goes beyond fair. This is why we can dare to be different and have hope in spite of all the things that seem so unfair and the many things which are, indeed, unjust.
There is an incredible picture of what this looks like which happened not too far from us in this part of Pennsylvania, and with which most of us are familiar. It is the epitome of what we would call “unfair”. On October 2, 2006 a milk truck driver named Charlie Roberts who serviced the local community drove to the West Nickel Mines Amish School in Lancaster County (PA). Then the sound of gunfire was heard from inside. When local police broke into the one-room schoolhouse they found 10 Amish girls ages 6-13 had been shot by Charlie Roberts, who then committed suicide.
In the midst of their grief over this shocking loss, the Amish community didn’t cast blame, they didn’t point fingers, they didn’t hold a press conference with attorneys at their sides. Instead, they reached out with grace and compassion toward the killer’s family. On the afternoon of the shooting an Amish grandfather of one of the girls who was killed expressed forgiveness toward the killer. That same day Amish neighbors visited the Roberts family to comfort them in their sorrow and pain. Later that week the Roberts family was invited to the funeral of one of the Amish girls who had been killed, and Amish mourners outnumbered the non-Amish at Charles Roberts’ funeral.
In a world where violence and suffering dominate the news, and in a society that often points fingers and blames others for what is “not fair”, this reaction seems incomprehensible. Many have asked, “How could they forgive?” The short answer is simple: This is Christian Faith. This is how God has loved us through his Son, and so we pass that kind of mercy forward. The Amish understand that part of Christian Faith so well, and we need to know it has its origin and home in Catholic Christianity. If the world is divided into two kinds of people (and I believe it is in many ways), we are to be those who live, in Jesus Christ, beyond fair.