Pentecost 16

As you might expect, people ask priests lots of questions about God, and I’m not an exception to this rule. The best questions come from kids, of course, who aren’t held back by any sense of decorum or the need to look smarter than they are. I usually don’t have decent answers to questions like “What color is God’s hat?” or “Does God watch us in the shower?” or if Jesus likes pizza. But I have found that pretty much every question I get asked could be boiled down to “What is God like?”

“What is God like?” The simple answer is that God is just like Jesus – Jesus being God, He is the best way we’ve ever gotten to know God. But people even asked Jesus what God is like, and because it’s difficult to explain what God is like even when you are God, Jesus told us parables.

In today’s parable, the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, shows us that God is generous and just, but that He isn’t fair. He makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust – He spreads out His blessings on those who deserve them and on those who very much do not. This offends our sense of justice, of course, but if justice is defined as getting what you deserve, how many of us would actually wish for that? And so, with that in mind, we look at the Parable of the Laborers.

In our parable, “the laborers who work all day receive the same wage as those who work just one hour, and so they complain. You can see their point… A person who works many hours deserves a bigger wage than a person who does the same work but for only one hour. Or so it seems.

“But think about how Jesus might have unpacked this parable if he had explained it to his disciples in the way he showed some of his other parables to them. Here’s one possibility. The (householder) is God. The laborers are human beings who are doing God’s work in this life. T he wage given is eternal life in union of love with God in heaven. If we think about the parable this way, the laborers’ complaint looks a lot less reasonable. When it comes to eternal life, what is justice? What does any human person deserve? What, actually, does God owe him?

Well, here is the first thing to see: No one—that is, absolutely no one—is owed eternal life in union with God. To think otherwise is to suppose that you can work your way to heaven. And you can’t. Salvation is God’s free gift. He gives it generously to anyone who will receive it, but it is still God’s free gift. The problem with the laborers who complain, then, is that they think the vineyard owner owes them something. In their eyes, their work deserves a reward, a really big reward, more than the vineyard owner gives them. And so here is what we can see about them: they were working for themselves, to get that big reward for themselves.”1

It’s as if we think that if we do all the work, our mansion in Heaven should be bigger than our neighbors, forgetting that when it comes to heavenly real estate, it’s all location, location, location. It’s not that I blame people for identifying as all-day workers or for looking askance at the 11th hour workers, because again, it doesn’t seem fair: how does, say, the death-bed convert get the same reward as the life-long Altar Guild mistress?

The answer is two-fold and found in this parable. First, because we’re humans and we’re needy and we’re always looking for more, we’re often blind to when we are actually getting more. The parable of the Laborers points out the true privilege of the all-day worker is to have known the householder all day. The true reward of a life-long Christian, then, is that we’ve had the honor and blessing of knowing God our whole lives, of working for Him from the start; we’ve never had to be without the love and mercy of God, never had to live without the hope found in Jesus. That’s the real reward.

Second, the parable shows us another small picture of what God is like: He might not be fair, as we see it, but He is just and good: He cares for all those who come to Him, no matter when they come. He sets all who come to Him to the work of the Kingdom, because that work is the earthly reward of the Christian. He gives of His riches without regard to the worthiness of the worker, because really, how worthy are any of us to receive the Kingdom of God?

What is God like? God is like a householder who just can’t help himself when giving good and generous wages to those who seek him out. Now that we’ve got that down, I’ll work on finding out if Jesus likes pizza.

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