If there is any mantra which offers comfort in this time of upheaval, it is surely, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways" (Is 55:6-9). Facing all the social disruption that COVID-19 has set in motion, many of us look back with nostalgia on our old lives while enduring the "new normal." But this "new normal" of today will be a thing of the past tomorrow and who knows what the future will bring? Not even psychics can answer this question, but it is unlikely that we will simply resume our old way of living once the virus has run its course. Instead, something new, something beyond our imaginations, is surfacing -- maybe a more just society, perhaps greater empathy and compassion, possibly stronger connections between people, and, hopefully, the demand for honesty, accountability and truth-speaking on the part of our elected officials. Who knows what God has in mind? All we can do is trust that creation comes out of chaos, that light breaks through darkness and that, ultimately, in God's own time, Good triumphs over Evil.
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The landowner said to one of the workers in reply, ‘My friend, I am not cheating you.
Did you not agree to work for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last laborer the same as you? Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because of my generosity?’
Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Matt 20: 1-16A
Parables, by definition, defy easy interpretation; in fact, they present as many questions as they do answers. What they share in common, however, is the ability to stun, startle, shock --in other words, to catapult us out of our comfort zones. They challenge all our biases and assumptions, exposing flaws in our thinking and in our loving. The Parable of the Landowner is particularly disturbing because it upturns all notions of fairness and worthiness, leaving us gasping with disbelief: in a just world, why should those who work for an hour or two receive the same compensation as those who have put in a 12-hour day, slaving from dawn, enduring the heat of the sun?
The answer, I think, lies in the words, "standing idle in the marketplace." The workers are standing idle because they hope for work; they, like so many people today-- are unemployed. Perhaps they have been "let go" and are now looking for any type of employment that will pay basic bills and support their families. They are literally "in the market" for work. In hiring them, the landowner is acting mercifully; the pay the laborers take home will be enough to help them survive, whether they worked all day or just for a brief period of time. Far from exploiting those who are down and out, this landlord raises them up from the dust of despair so that for one day, at least, they will be able to purchase their daily bread. This landlord understand his laborers' social context; he is therefore able to respond to their needs, not simply doling out charity but preserving their dignity by contracting with them to tend to his vineyard.
This week, I had a "student situation" which reminded me of this parable. My class of undergrads has been meeting face to face -- with a few exceptions who are attending synchronistically on Zoom-- since September 1st. They have shown up for class (physically or virtually), completed assignments and participated in discussions. After class #5, a student contacted me by email: "Hey, Professor: I'm on quarantine. Sorry I've missed class!"
This student had not only missed five consecutive classes, but had neither handed in any assignments nor contacted me to explain her absence. Needless to say, I was irritated. Several emails followed over the next few days. Finally, with few details forthcoming, I asked for her phone number.
What I learned was that this first year student, having recently lost her father, had gone to Las Vegas for a memorial service. Upon returning to Chicago, she discovered that she would not be permitted on campus for 14 days because of COVID-19 restrictions; nor could she access her dorm room to collect her books and I-pad. Since then, she has lived with her mother who is in the process of moving; nobody from the school has returned her phone calls or made any effort to reach out to her.
This information changed everything for me. Now I understood my student's social context: not only had her whole world been disrupted, but there was no one to offer guidance or comfort; moreover, her communication skills were poor and she had no clue as to how to navigate university life. Like those "standing idle in the market place," through no fault of her own she had been MIA on campus. Since that mind-shifting phone call, I have given her a deadline to complete her assignments, shared information with her regarding a university program for laptop "loaners," and created an email template that she can use to contact her other professors. Instead of judging her as "idle" ("the undeserving poor"), I now see her as a student who was falling through gaping cracks in the ivory tower. Her situation, in fact, has opened my eyes to the injustice of admitting socially disadvantaged students to a university while failing to provide the support they need to succeed.
God does not need an epiphany to know what is going on in our lives and what each of us needs at any given moment. Instead of comparing our lot to that of those around us, let us be grateful for God's great mercy which pours out in abundance for the "last" and the "first" alike.