Brief synopsis of the readings: Isaiah instructs us to “[s]eek the Lord while he is still to be found. He tells us that we should return to the Lord who is rich in forgiving, “for my thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways.” Matthew’s Gospel gives us a parable from Jesus. He describes a landowner who seeks workers to harvest his vineyard. At the beginning of the day he hired workers for a wage they agreed on. As the day went on the landowner hired workers to work the same vineyard for fewer hours. By the end of the day, when he went to pay his workers he gathered them in reverse order. He paid a full day’s wage to those who worked only a few hours. Those who worked the full day saw this and expected to be payed more. But the landowner paid everyone the same wage, regardless of how many hours they worked. Those who worked the full day expected to be paid a bonus because they worked more hours. But they didn’t and when they complained to the landowner he responded: “Have I no right to do what I like with my own? Why be envious because I am generous?”
There’s an old joke about a man walking down a street at night. He spotted a friend of his on his hands and knees searching the sidewalk. He asked his friend what he was doing. He replied that he lost his watch and was looking for it. “Did you lose it here?” “No,” he replied, “I lost it twenty feet down the street but the light is better here.”
I chuckle a little on this joke whenever I read this passage from Isaiah. On on hand it sounds obvious: seek the Lord where he may be found. But if God is everywhere, can’t we find him anywhere? Where isn’t God?
Well, if we think in terms of the Universe, God really is everywhere. But let’s look somewhere else: are there places in our experience where God is not present? I think there is. God is not present in our jealousy, or greed, or envy. And God is not present in those places we go where we decide we aren’t given what we want (and think we deserve).
As children we were obsessed with concept of fairness and that’s not a bad thing. If someone in our grammer school class got a piece of candy shouldn’t we all? Should children get the same number of presents at Christmas? Catholics of an earlier generation remember well being caught chewing a piece of gum and being asked by the teacher: “Did you bring enough gum for everyone?” It wasn’t simply a question about the prohibition on gum chewing in class. It was also a recognition that we should all be given what the best of us received.
A college friend of mine has a younger sibling. When they were children their grandparents lavished them with Christmas gifts. But then they totaled the receipts and if one child received gifts of lesser values the grandparents would write a check to that grandchild to even the amount. Fairness mattered a great deal to them.
But the landowner was not fair. Those who worked the whole day could have spent the day relaxing, came to the owner a few hours before quitting time, and received the same amount. From their perspective they gave the landowner several hours of free labor.
And if we look at the world through the eyes of fairness we’re going to keep running into this problem. Our attempts to achieve fairness nearly always fall short. Let me give you an example: baseball.
Baseball keeps statistics on everyone and everything, among them batting average. A player’s batting average is calculating by the number of times he hit the ball and reached base divided by the number of times he came to the plate. But what if he walks? Should that count against him? The statisticians decided that it shouldn’t count as a plate appearance and a walk doesn’t appear in a player’s batting average. OK, what about a fielder’s choice? That’s when a batter comes to the plate and hits the ball where he would easily be thrown out but the fielder chooses to throw out the runner headed to second and the batter makes it safely to first. Should he get credit for hitting safely? The statisticians decided that isn’t fair as the batter only made it to first base because the fielder threw to second. But what about…
Well you see my point. But I believe that part of growing in our faith, a large part of growing in our faith, is giving up on the idea that God should be fair. Instead let us embrace not God’s fairness but God’s generosity. The laborers who spent the whole day in the fields were not cheated or dealt with dishonestly. And imagine how much better they would have felt if they had been happy for the last group.
And perhaps there is more to the story. Maybe the latecomers didn’t spend the day at Starbucks but needed to travel from farther away. Maybe they had a family or other obligations that delayed them.
Or maybe not. If we can celebrate and react with gratitude with God’s generosity to us that goes a long way to being able to celebrate God’s generosity with another. In the final word God’s generosity is not a measure of God’s love for us.
A few years ago I interviewed for a job that I really wanted and was deeply upset when someone else got the job instead. I also felt I was a stronger candidate. And, a few months later they needed to do layoffs to offset decreased revenues. Since he was the last hired he was the first to be let go.
God’s generosity can’t be quantified or measured and it’s often partially hidden. Last week I spoke about how God’s forgiveness gives us the path to be forgiving. Today we can see how God’s generosity allows us to be generous with others.
In the final analysis maybe that’s the point. In our quest to act generously let us not get caught up in being fair to everyone.