By The Rev. Clelia Pinza Garrity
Just prior to today’s gospel reading, in Matthew 19:28 and following, Jesus says to his disciples:
“Most certainly I tell you that you who have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on the throne of his glory, you also will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. Everyone who has left houses, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive one hundred times, and will inherit eternal life. But many will be last who are first; and first who are last” (vv. 28-30).
In this passage, Jesus is telling his disciples that people who lay aside their worldly possessions, their pride; their need to impress others with status and success – leave it all behind – and, free of all worldly burden follow Jesus in his mission of faith…all of these people, no matter how lowly or poverty stricken will have the same rewards… a place in Heaven.
Jesus is saying, “I have faith in one God. I have faith in one way of being that is dictated by that God. I have faith in God’s salvation. Look, I have given up everything to spread this good news. I am asking you, as well, to drop everything, and to join me on my mission. If you can do that, and only if you can do that, will you be allowed to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Those who stay behind luxuriating in their riches, and boasting of their successes, will never know this Kingdom.”
This is a difficult lesson for most of us to hear. Jesus is telling us just the opposite of what society tells us is the “right way” to live our lives. Isn’t it a positive thing to have financial comfort; to be successful; to be the pride and joy of the family, the company, the community because of all the great things we do? What’s so great about some guy who doesn’t have two nickels to rub together, and who is always doing things for others even when he doesn’t get credit for it?
However, being first isn’t good enough for God. In fact, he doesn’t care about that. He cares about a life lived in faith, not a life filled with achievement.
Last Saturday, Pope Benedict XVI drew a crowd of over 250,000 people in Paris, France when he condemned “unbridled pagan passion for power, money and possessions” as a modern day plague. Echoing Jesus’ words, the pope spoke about the affluent West turning consumerism into a kind of religion and ignoring its Christian roots of spiritual values. He asked the faithful to “shun the worship of idols and not tire of doing good.”
Each week, we hear Jesus speaking to us through Scripture. Each week, we hear spiritual leaders like Pope Benedict – loud and clear on plasma TVs with state of the art sound systems. We hear them, but what do we do? How successful are we in swimming upstream against the passion for power, money, and possessions, leaving them behind for a life of Christian values? In our daily life, are we striving to be the first or the last?
In today’s gospel reading – the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard – Jesus gives us yet another difficult message. In this parable he tells us that our reward as Christians is solely dependent on the grace of God. In this story, Jesus likens the kingdom of heaven to a landowner who ignores the rules when he hands out wages at the end of the day. He does not base the amount he pays each worker on how many hours they worked – he gives everyone the same wage whether they worked twelve hours or one hour. How can this be? Where is the fairness here and how is the landowner like the kingdom of heaven if he’s not being fair? Once again, things get turned upside down. Those who began work late in the day – last –get as much money as those who started at dawn – first.
In this story, the landowner represents God’s grace. Jesus tells us that we all have an equal share of this grace: first, last, or in the middle – everyone gets the same amount. It doesn’t matter who you are, or when you started, as long as you entered into the race. Once you place your faith in God, just as Jesus placed his faith in God, your shares of God’s grace equal everyone else’s shares of grace.
Perhaps, this lesson of the Laborers in the Vineyard is even harder to digest than the lesson of giving up everything to follow Jesus. Harder because, frequently, when we look around us, it is difficult to believe that we are all on an equal footing; all on the same playing field. Hard to believe that our faith, our way of life, our accomplishments are not somehow just a little, if not a lot better, or more correct, than everyone else’s. Yet, in God’s eyes we are all equal. God sees us all through the same set of lenses. Unfortunately, it is not until we understand this – until we come to understand just what His grace is all about – it is not until then that we can experience the peace that passes all understanding, confident in the knowledge that the Holy Spirit is with us every inch of the way, every moment of the day, no matter what our life circumstances might be.
The irony of this lesson is, however, that when it comes to experiencing God’s grace, those who grasp it early in life, or first, are indeed the more fortunate. How much greater a gift to live a life in, with, and through Christ filled with hope and love from a very young age, than to find Christ only on one’s deathbed after a lifetime of loneliness and despair.
These are hard lessons to learn, to accept, and to live. They are impossible lessons to achieve without faith.
Alexander Baumgarten writes in the introduction to “God’s Mission in the World: An Ecumenical Study Guide on Global Poverty and the Millenium Development Goals” of a visit he made to the southern tip of the Sudan in Africa. I would like to close with a quote from this introduction.
“The war had clearly taken its toll on the city. Once a thriving river port and transportation hub for Africa, Juba now resembled a ghost town. Gone were the schools, hospitals, clinics and all but a few miles of paved road. Running water and electric generators existed only in a handful of places, and nearly every building still standing appeared on the verge of ruins.
In spite of all this, and in spite of Sunday afternoon temperatures well past 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the Episcopal cathedral in Juba was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with people in their Sunday best singing their praises and thanksgivings to God. In a quiet moment, I remarked to a Sudanese priest that I marveled at how the Church in the Sudan inspires such faith among people who have been through so much and seem to have so little.
“That’s easy, my brother,” he replied. “Faith comes easily to those who have nothing because we know weneed God, and we know that God needs us. God needs us because he intends to work through us to heal and reconcile our land.”
“I might ask you,” he continued, “how is it that your church inspires faith among people who have everything? How do you convince them that they need God, and that he has put them here for a purpose?” ”
I agree with this Sudanese priest. Not only do we need God, but God needs us. He needs us to carry out the ministry of reconciliation…to be ambassadors for Christ. Our challenge is to understand how we can do this. What is our role in life as Christ’s disciple?
Let Us Pray:
Lord God, your Son came among us to serve and not be served, and to give his life for the world. Lead us by his love to serve all those to whom the world offers no comfort and little help. Through us give hope to the hopeless, love to the unloved, peace to the troubled, and rest to the weary; through your Son, Jesus Christ our lord. Amen
Copyright 2008, Clelia Pinza Garrity. Used by permission.