September 19, 2011

Generosity (of Spirit)

“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:14-16)

This is the end of the parable about the vineyard owner and the day laborers – the one where all were paid the same wage, whether they began work at the beginning of the day, at noon, or at 5:00 pm. You probably are familiar with the outcome: The laborers who worked all day were upset when they learned that everyone who worked that day, regardless of the hours worked, received the same amount, felt that the vineyard owner was being unfair. Each time I hear this part of the story, I feel sympathetic towards the workers who felt the system was unfair.

And then…. we come to the end of the Gospel reading and hear these two questions and that the last will be first and the first will be last. What does that mean? Perhaps there is something else going on in this story, something that I, and those who worked all day, cannot see.

In his sermon on Sunday, the priest challenged us to look deeper into this parable. Perhaps, he suggested, Jesus is not referring to labor in the sense of relating hours worked to wages earned and instead is sharing is speaking of God’s generosity - that one doesn’t have to earn God’s love: all are welcome. Period.

And, while I believe that God’s love extends to us all, I still find myself stuck when it comes to the work/reward part of this parable. Although I find it difficult to admit, my gut reaction to this parable comes from a place of deep conditioning inside me – that piece of our American mythology that tells us if you work hard you will be rewarded; the ‘deserving’ (hard working) get more and the ‘undeserving,’ less?

And this is where I struggle, for I know that it isn’t that simple.

What resources do we, as Christian leaders, have to help us examine our own behaviors and judgments by which we may consciously or unconsciously be setting conditions for worthiness or participation – not only in our common life in the church but also in the world. Who do we consider ‘worthy’ and for what?

In her August 31 blog post “Back to Church Sunday,” Richelle Thompson shared a video addressing the reasons people feel unworthy to go to church. Watching it, I wonder, how are we as Christian leaders consciously or unconsciously contributing to the perception that one must meet certain criteria to belong to our churches? And, what can we – are we – doing to change that perception?

I’m eager to hear how you are communicating and extending the news of God’s limitless generosity in your community. Please share your stories – as well as your struggles – with me and the readers of Vital Practices through the comment section below. Thank you.