Monday, September 18, 2017

PENTECOST XVI (Proper 20) 2017

Camille Pisarro -- Workers in the Fields
The whole of this week's Gospel comprises a single parable – the Parable of the Laborers in the vineyard. Unlike many other Gospel parables, this one has a beginning, a middle, an end, and  a punch line, all of which makes it easy to understand -- at one level. The problem, though, is not simply to understand it, but to see just what its message is.

Occasionally people have thought that this parable has direct application to the workplace, and implies that Christian bosses ought to pay their workers equally. Or they have found warrant in it for a even wider  principle of Christian ethics -- one that supports equal pay for company workers. Yet, Jesus makes it plain that he is talking about ‘the Kingdom of heaven’. That is to say, his parable concerns the way God deals with us, not the way we deal with each other. Even if this is what the parable aims to illuminate, however, there still seems be a problem of interpretation. The vineyard owner says to the laborer who complains that he has worked all day. ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong’. Perhaps so, but is this a good enough answer? How can it be just to give the same reward to radically different amounts of work? Don’t the laborers who worked longer deserve more?

These questions have familiar religious parallels. If the redemption of the world is universal and includes everyone who repents, this means that repentance wipes out past sins. However wicked anyone has been, it doesn't matter in the end. But can it be just for God to treat cheats, child abusers, serial killers and terrorists in the same way as those who have been decent Christians -- or just decent citizens -- all their lives, so long as they express repentance on their death beds? What is the point of lifelong faithfulness if it makes no difference in the end?

Feast of the Redeemer - Maurice Prendergast
To this recurrent, and heartfelt question, the Epistle from Philippians suggests an answer. If, as Paul affirms ‘living is Christ and dying is gain’, then the benefit to us of God’s redeeming work in Christ is ‘inestimable’ (as the BCP General Thanksgiving expressly declares). That is to say, unlike payment, the value of
knowing the love of God in Christ can't be measured in any meaningful way. Just as time does not determine the value of love between people, so living in the knowledge of God's is supremely valuable regardless of how early or late in life we have come to it. Nothing can improve upon it because there simply is no greater benefit that lifelong laborers could hope for, or deserve. And this remains true, quite irrespective of how God treats other sinners.

Knowledge of our own salvation, then, should dispel any envious glances we might be tempted to cast at those who ‘got away with it’. Are the years they lived in selfishness, dishonesty or cruelty a way of life we would have chosen, if only we had known that we could be forgiven just before death? What kind of life could we want more than to live ‘in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ’, and to do so for as much of our lives as possible?

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