Again I am inspired this week by lots of people in lots of places to work a lot harder on my own humility and joy as I consider today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 20: 1-16a).
This week kicks off the next 3 weeks worth of vineyard parables. One of my favorite priests wrote me a card many years ago during a particularly challenging time in my life. It said simply, “When you work in God’s vineyard, sometimes you get killed.” I still have that card — and although I suspect that particular priest — in his great kindness — was attempting to use humor (and sarcasm) to get me to take whatever dramatic thing I was sure had happened to me — down a notch or two, that line has come to mean different things at different times to me. And I think of it every 3rd year…around this time. This Ordinary Time.
As I read ahead for the week, I came to the familiar self-righteousness that usually accompanies my reading of this parable — that I am of course among the first batch of workers hired. And then I watched Tom and Kimi Tomaszek’s “visio divina” of Between Sundays — a ministry of The Five Loaves. This is a great free resource that helps prepare me for the upcoming Sunday Gospel. It’s great because they always cause me to see simple things in a gentle way — that I’ve never thought of before. And this week it was a story about what it really means to work in a vineyard — something they have a little bit of experience at. And I’d never known some of the things one has to think about in picking grapes. It made me re-vision this gospel. Watch their “Visio Divina” here:
I could go on and on about how this makes me look at social justice, day laborers, and all sorts of other things based on what I learned from the Tomaszeks — but that’s another blog entry for another time.
Here’s what occurred to me:
1.) If I am among the first batch of workers hired — I am so busy whining and toiling and complaining about the heat, the conditions, the payment, the actual labor I am called to do — which is to joyfully make disciples — that I miss all kinds of grapes. I do not really *look* at what I’m supposed to be doing. I don’t really pay attention sometimes. Grapes wither and die because I have missed them or skipped them. They fall on the ground and get trampled because I am careless and wish to be noticed and thanked or otherwise praised. Perhaps I have done the trampling myself. While I am busy and distracted and looking anywhere else — especially my watch — I miss the *encuentro.* The encounter. The joy of labor and work in light of what God has called me to do. I may have worked a full day for a full day’s wage — but I haven’t yielded all I can back to the vineyard owner. I haven’t used my gifts and skills to their full potential. And this wise vineyard owner has a deep understanding of what it means to work in a vineyard — so it seems like he is well aware that he will need to hire more workers to go back through and continue the harvest. Hence the hiring of the 9, 12, and 3 o’clock workers.
2.) If I am a 9, 12, or 3 o’clock worker — the above still applies — but the gospel isn’t specific about their attitude when payment comes. My guess is that they are mostly grateful and quiet. They know they haven’t been there since the beginning — so they probably feel like they lucked out a little bit — but are hopefully glad to be working and also glad that those crabby first-batch people aren’t complaining about them.
3.) The 5 o’clock workers…And really — this is an issue of God’s Timing. If I am honest with myself and consider those last workers hired — it is indeed possible that they didn’t show up to be hired until late in the day because they were doing something else. Or that they weren’t ready/prepared to work until late in the day because of another job. If I consider with humility that these workers perhaps had a very different sort of skill — some places call them gleaners — they needed to be able to really look and find the grapes that no one else had yet found. This is actually what God does. If Jesus had been hired that day — I bet he would have been in that 5pm shift. If you know anything about vintners or wine, it takes a good eye to be able to discern whether grapes that have been scorched by the sun, punctured, fallen, been trampled or have grown into the vines can even be used for harvest. Those last workers spent that last hour crawling around on the ground or bending down to pick up all variations of grapes that had been left behind, broken, or bypassed. Their necks probably would have been just as sunburned and their bodies just as tired as everyone else’s. Their work was different. But just as critical to the harvest.
So really — I’ve probably proven myself as one of the first batch hired. Congratulations. What is different now is that I am aware that God has to send a whole bunch of people back behind me to do what I have not done. To fix what I have done poorly. To pick up after me. To do the tasks that I have left undone.
And I must prayerfully and humbly remember that we are indeed talking about people. Not grapes.
In one more wrinkle — or nugget of truth — I spoke to a family member yesterday who works in a place that assists people who for one reason or another have not been able to re-enter the workforce. And we talked a little about God preparing each of us for a specific time and place in His Plan for our salvation. Our own personal salvation and that of others. On the outside it might look like someone is lazy, or unmotivated, or not good enough, smart enough, professional enough — whatever — but it is possible that God is preparing — maybe even saving — someone for exactly the right task, people, community, world, point in history — to do the most good.
So today’s response of those last workers — “No one has hired us,” meant something after that conversation. Was more significant to me given that I’ve never had a very hard time finding a job. We presume no one has hired them because they are not good workers. When in fact — they have been being prepared for this moment in this gospel in this time and place in history. Their skills are needed NOW. After the others. In response to the harvest that has already begun. That these very people who get looked down upon, tossed aside, overlooked — even by me in the very moments of the proclamation of the gospel — are EXACTLY the right people to be the last hired — because they know how to find truth and value in what has been left behind.
I’m not sure yet whether I desire to belong to the first group hired — and do a way better job than I have been doing — or whether I desire to develop the skills needed to be in that last group hired — the ones that God is depending on to finish up strong the work of the world as seen from his vineyard.
So — that priest is still right and his card is still true. When you work in the Lord’s vineyard — sometimes you do get killed. Some of us will actually be tasked with dying for the faith. But most of us are going to be asked to die unto ourselves. I believe I’m being asked this week to kill off my pride. Suffocate my ego. Give up my self-righteous attitude of entitlement. To praise. To payment. To recognition. All of it. Bring death to my worldly practice of consuming others and instead give myself up to be consumed by others in joyful and loving service. Fr. Dolindo Ruotolo wrote of himself, “I am poor, a poor nothing.”
Help me Lord, this week, to become a poor nothing — desiring only to do your will.