Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin near the end of the prophet Isaiah (often thought of as the third author of the book). He calls us to “seek the Lord while he may be found, call him while he is near.” But the line that we all recognize is this: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.” In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus tells us a parable about a landowner in need of laborers for his vineyard. At the beginning of the day he hires a group of laborers. Several times during the day he went out and hired more laborers. At the end of the day he met with the workers to pay them. He began by paying those he hired last. To the astonishment of all, he paid a full day’s wage to those who only worked an hour. The other workers, who labored longer, expected to be paid more. But the landowner paid everyone the same wage, regardless of how long they worked. Those who worked a full day complained that they were cheated. But the landowner told them they were paid a full day for a full day’s work and should not complain because he was generous to those who only worked part of the day. He ended the reading with the quotation: “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.”
Many of us who are married bring a wry amusement to the first reading. When God tells us that his ways are not our ways, we understand. Many of us find that we have married someone whose ways are not our ways. Extroverts marry introverts, slobs marry neat freaks, procrastinators marry type A personalities, etc. I speak of this from hard experience. If you’re aware of the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory, I’m an ENFJ while my wife is an ISTJ. As a pediatrician she works with people at the beginning of their lives, while I (as a hospice chaplain) work with people at the end of their lives.
Those things that attract us at the beginning of our relationship often confound us in our marriages and long term relationships. But at some point we recognize that exactly those differences stretch us and make us grow. Our differences, not our similarities, force us to recognize new understandings and new ways of perceiving the world.
When Isaiah, speaking for God, tells us that God’s ways are not our ways he doesn’t mean to tell us that we weren’t made in God’s image and it’s not an attempt to make us feel stupid. Instead I propose that it challenges and allows us to grow into what God intends for us. “Your ways are not my ways” does not put distance between us and God but calls us to grow in ways that draws us to God’s ways.
Several years ago I met with a couple who were preparing for marriage. They were already living together and it didn’t take long for me to find the conflict that occupied much of their time. They both worked full time and they were pretty compatible during the week. But on Saturday morning their home turned into a battlefield. When he grew up Saturday mornings were a time of leisure. Saturdays were a reward for the week of school and work, and it was a time to rest, leisurely read the newspaper, watch cartoons, and eat bacon and eggs. But when she grew up, Saturday mornings were much more regimented. Her family demanded that they clean their bedrooms and bathrooms before they could go out and play with their friends. Saturday morning wasn’t a reward but a responsibility.
You can probably imagine how our meeting went. He thought she was an insufferable dictator while she thought she was he was a ne’er do well. And so when I met with them they both tried to convince me that the other was wrong. I suggested that they move beyond how they were raised in their families and decide how they wanted their family would spend Saturday morning. It was a hard discussion and truthfully I’m no longer in contact with them. But I hope they found a way forward that worked for their family.
And here’s my other hope: I don’t hope that he “won” and they spent the morning eating bacon and eggs. Likewise I don’t hope that she “won” and by noon on Saturday the house was spotless. This happened over twenty years ago and I hope they found a path that made Saturday mornings sane. But even more I hope their discussions, negotiations, and solutions made them understand that as followers of Christ they were called to move beyond their understanding and honestly find a path forward that honored both of them. And I didn’t want them to find a compromise that simply divided their anger. I wanted them to find a path that brought both of them closer to each other and, frankly, closer to God.
In a funny way, I think this sets the table for the Gospel. I know this will cause some blowback, but I believe that God is not fair. Because honestly, fairness is really a childlike value. The phrase “That’s not fair” normally happens only on primary school playgrounds (or, in the last 8 months, in the Oval Office). Children obsess with fairness: they make certain that they receive as much ice cream as their siblings, or as nice a bike as their best friend.
But children have little or no idea about justice. Fairness gives no awareness of the possibility that one child does not love ice cream or another wants a bicycle more than anything else.
And this Gospel gives us no respect for childlike fairness. God’s justice makes fairness silly. When the workers agreed to a full day’s wages for a full day’s work, it was fair. And it was just. None of those who worked a full day could reasonably complain to the landowner about being cheated because they agreed to their pay. They were fine until the landowner paid the part time workers the same they were paid. Only then did the full day workers feel they were cheated, that the landowner was being unfair.
The challenge of today’s readings rests on the call to understand God’s ways. When Isaiah tells us that God’s ways are not our ways it doesn’t call us to complacency but instead calls us to seek and understand God’s ways, even when they appear unfair. Just as the landowner’s generosity speaks to his justice, we are called to be OK with God’s generosity with others.
Far and away the most painful conversations I’ve had revolved around who is saved and who is condemned. Two weeks ago I the story of a woman who grew angry with me when I suggested that couples who use birth control aren’t necessarily condemned to eternal punishment. She and her husband regularly taught classes in Natural Family Planning (NFP), a method of avoiding (or choosing) pregnancy without the use of artificial birth control. I never knew this for certain, but it always seemed to me that she found NFP a necessary burden for salvation. My suggestion basically threw her entire world into chaos because I was telling her that her sacrifice gained her nothing. And more chillingly, it appeared to me that part of her enjoyment in Heaven included seeing others suffering because they didn’t make her sacrifice.
I hope I’m wrong about her. A few years ago I received word that she passed away. If her view of God’s justice (or fairness) was as limited as the full day workers in the Gospel, I fear for her. I pray that when I see her in Heaven she’ll tell me that her love for God is greater than her demand for fairness.