September 24, 2017 16th Sunday of Pentecost
Exodus 16:2–15 Philemon 1:21–30 Matthew 20:1–16
Do you know the TV show, Undercover Boss? It started when a British television executive, Stephen Lambert, was laid over in the Seattle airport, which was being remodeled, and he over heard some of the workers complaining that a lot of the new ideas being put into place weren’t going to work because management really didn’t know what was happening on the front end of the company. That got Lambert thinking: What if I went undercover in my TV company in Britain? Would I hear honest, needed complaints in my own company?
I haven’t been able to find out if Stephen Lambert actually went undercover in his TV company, but he did start a television show that has been copied in 15 other countries. It’s a feel-good show with a formula. The boss is put into a disguise and goes to work, as a trainee, in his or her company. The camera crews and interviews are explained as a contestant-reality show. The boss usually works with about four to five people in various departments, and you can tell that the employees are chosen by the producers for their hard luck stories. The boss finds out both good and bad things about the company. In the end, the great employees are usually rewarded and, the bad employees are given the chance to be retrained, and the boss ends up making necessary changes to their company.
I remembered reading one comment about the show which asked: How do you think the other employees felt when their colleague was given a bonus, or a new car, or had their mortgage or debts paid off, and they received nothing? What do you think that did for morale in the company?
That is an extremely relevant question. We expect in our society equal pay for equal time, although we know we don’t always get it. Often women get paid less than men, the uneducated get paid less than the educated, and sometimes certain races get paid more than others in certain industries. But we have an ideal of: Work harder, and longer, and you will get paid more.
Because of this ideal, I think that we can all sympathize with the early workers who were upset that the workers who came later were paid as much as they were in Jesus’ parable of The Generous Landowner. And I think that most people who heard the parable felt the same way, because who doesn’t want equal pay for equal work. It just seems fair.
But Jesus is trying to redefine God’s Kingdom, and trying to show people that it doesn’t operate by the same rules as our regular society. It’s hard for us to imagine this but, let’s try by taking some of these images and playing with them.
So God has a beautiful piece of land, it’s actually as big as the whole world, but it’s not in the greatest working order. God calls to us and says, “I’ve got this great piece of land, which incidentally you live on, but I want to make it better for you to live here. Come and work for me and your reward is going to be eternal life, eternal love, and I will always be with you through the good and the bad. I need people at all levels, but I really hope that, as you work for me, you won’t feel that you should just stay as you are. I really hope that you will take advantage of the educational opportunities that I am offering to grow and become a better person. I know that not all of you are going to want to get into upper-level management, but I want everyone to know that, as you become better people, that you will end up doing whatever job you find yourself doing more effectively and with more love. Through my transformation-training program you are going to learn how to be more joyous and more discerning, by recognizing your blessings and strengths, which will lead you to greater opportunities in your life, even during the hard times. So what do you say? Do you want to come and work for me?”
A lot of us say, yes! Sometimes we don’t know what we’re in for when we say yes, but we do get involved with God’s program. And we find that, as we make ourselves into better people, that our lives do get better in one way or another. But here is the interesting part – everyone ultimately receives that same paycheck. We all obtain salvation and a place with God’s Glory. It doesn’t matter if I was born into a Christian household, was baptized as a baby, went to Sunday School, was confirmed, and then was an exemplary Christian all my life; or if I was a person with no religious background and then found God and my path in the middle or at the end of my life. We all are allowed and have the ability to transform in Christ and achieve salvation and live in God’s Glory.
It doesn’t really matter if this process seems fair to me or you. That is the fairness and equality of God. God wants all of us to participate in his Kingdom and He is going to keep working on us, holding out his hands to us, and he’ll be happy when we finally take that step to make Him a part of our lives. God reserves a space for all of us in His Kingdom, He’s just waiting for us to claim it.
Jesus was constantly listening to his disciples squabble over who was going to be first or last in the kingdom. They lived in a VERY hierarchical society so I am sure that they couldn’t imagine a social system that wasn’t a class system. I think it’s hard for humans to do that. The last major political attempt at an equal class system was Communism and that didn’t work out very well. We seem to have this desire to value, and classify, and rank ourselves, and then we get caught up in those values, classifications, and rankings as the way to evaluate who we are.
But Jesus says that those evaluations are NOT who we are, because while the world might evaluate us that way, God evaluates us another way as being fit for His Kingdom. The evaluation that He uses is: do you live your life with love? Do you try to love yourself; do you try to love your neighbor; do you try to love yourself and your neighbor with the unconditional love that Christ gave to us; and do you love God?
Unconditional love is another thing that’s hard for us to understand and do. It’s practically impossible for us to live unconditionally. We live in a world of physical conditions that we come up against everyday: If you ignore the condition of rain you will get wet. We live with social conditional boundaries that keep us safe: I don’t drive unconditionally because I know that I will hurt myself or someone else. And we live with emotional conditions because the act of caring is how we show and know that we love each other.
Unconditional love doesn’t mean that you let someone walk all over you. Unconditional love means that you put boundaries down where they are needed, but you look beyond the mistakes of crossing those boundaries to the good intention. You forgive the mistake, and you keep on trying to find the place of good and right that we all can work within. And when we find that place of good and right we will also find that God is there with us.
God makes a space for all of us in His Glory, Jesus makes a space for all of us in his heart, and the Holy Spirit fills spaces in our life with Grace. We are all invited to work in this vineyard, which is God’s world, to make it fruitful and a beautiful place to live in. It doesn’t matter when any of us come to the realization that this is the best place to be and work; as long as we come to that realization there is rejoicing in heaven. We all get to collect our wages and it doesn’t matter who is first or last because we all have a space and a place within His Kingdom.
So don’t grumble about receiving more or less. Open your hands and give thanks for the space and love that God gives to you. If you do with a thankful heart you will find that His generosity is more than enough for all of us.