Saturday, 20 September 2014

Sunday, September 21, 2014 - Twenty-fifth Sunday of the year - Writing crooked on straight lines

To read the texts click on the texts: Is. 55:6-9;Phil 1:20-24; 27; Mt 20:1-14

After reading the title above you would be forgiven if you think I made a mistake and especially if you know the regular phrase which is: God writes straight on crooked lines, While God can surely write straight on crooked lines, he also sometimes writes crooked on straight lines.

Three years ago after the Gospel of today had been read I invited eight children to come and stand near the altar in full view of each other and the congregation.  I had a bag of chocolates with me and I began the distribution. To the first child I gave three and to each of the other seven one each. Each of the seven after looking into the hand of the first child kept waiting at the altar quite sure that the drama was not quite over. When I asked them to go back to their pews they looked at me with some confusion. The only child on whose face there was a broad smile was the one in whose hand I had put three chocolates. Even as they were returning, one child looked back at me in something like anger and even some disgust and asked as only children can: “Why you gave him three?”

The last verse from the first reading of today explains even if inadequately why the first child was given three. It was go drive home a point, to communicate a message. God’s ways are surely not our ways and no matter how hard we may try, they cannot be understood with our finite minds. “As high as the heaven s are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways” (Is 55:9). The context in Isaiah seems to be the questioning of the people of the prophetic message of Isaiah. The people were finding it difficult to understand how God could use a Gentile, Cyrus, the Persian king to free them from bondage and move them to freedom. They thus began to question the ways of God since they did not fit in with what they expected God to do for them. They were not able to comprehend that God sometimes writes crooked on straight lines. He turns logic on its head and sometimes even our world upside down.

A classic example of how God does this is narrated in the Gospel text; the parable found only in the Gospel of Matthew and sometimes called the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. However, the focus is not so much on the workers but on the owner of the vineyard and his seemingly unjust and illogical actions. The parable makes three striking points. The first of these is that while the earlier four groups are simply told to go to the vineyard, it is only the labourers hired at the eleventh hour who are asked why they have been standing idle all day. The reason for this seems to be, to bring out through their response that they have not been considered worthy of being hired. They are the rejected, the unworthy, the undesirable. However, despite their unworthiness, these too are given the same invitation as the earlier groups. The second point is the manner in which the workers are paid. The ones hired last are paid first. This prepares for the objection of the ones hired earlier and for the response of the master. The response of the master to the objection by the labourers that a great injustice was done to them is the third striking point. The distancing term “friend” (which Jesus uses in the garden of Gethsemane when addressing Judas the betrayer in 26:50) used here sets the tone for the response of the master. Since the master has kept to the terms of the contract agreed upon, no injustice has been done and it is the master who decides that the last must be treated in the same way as the first. There is here a distinct note of grace. Though the last ones did not deserve what they got, they were given it because of the graciousness of the master. Only in the realm of grace upon which the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus is based, it is wrong to set one’s mind on the rewards that will set one on a higher level than others.

The fundamental assertion of the parable is that God’s grace is granted also to those who come last. Even those who come in the eleventh hour, the unwanted and the unworthy, will receive the same reward to be given to those who have come before. When we tend to despise those whom we consider unworthy either because of their manner of life or their way of proceeding which may not fit in with ours, we need to keep this in mind. When we consider ourselves as superior as or holier than others we need to remember that if not for God’s grace we could never be worthy to receive any of his blessings and it is only grace that makes us worthy.

The parable summons us to believe that God’s justice played out in this world is not limited by human conceptions of strict mathematical judgment, by which reward is in proportion to effort or merit. As a matter of fact, grace cannot be earned by even the most strenuous effort. Mercy and goodness are not opposed to justice, but they challenge us, as they did the workers in the parable, to move beyond justice. God’s ways are not human ways. God indeed does write crooked on straight lines.