September 24, 2017
Twenty-Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm 145; Philippians 1:20-27; Matthew 20:1-16
Classes have started again at OSU, and this year, as every year, my students are concerned about grades. They want to be graded fairly, they want to be rewarded for their work, and they should be.
Imagine how they’d react if I treated them the way the landowner treats his laborers in the parable today—if I let students add in the seventh or eighth week, and didn’t require them to make up the papers and exams, and gave them A’s for the class. I’d get terrible student evaluations.
As Jesus got terrible student evaluations, the worst in history. At the end they called him.
But this is just the point: God’s ways are not our ways.
The character of Job in the Book of Job is like the first laborers in the parable. He’s a righteous man but not a very nice one. He’s followed all the rules, exactly, and in that sense he doesn’t deserve the bad things that have happened to him. But he’s not somebody you’d want to have lunch with. He’s obsessed with the rules. That’s all he can think about. When he complains about the boils he’s broken out in or the livestock he’s lost, his argument is that God hasn’t honored the contract, hasn’t stayed within Job’s own legalistic boundaries, and at the end of the book God replies to this, in the famous speech from the whirlwind—a Category 5.
Where were you when I created the universe and all the morning stars sang? Tell me. Tell me how big the oceans are, how big the galaxies. Didn’t you measure them with your ruler?
And Job realizes what a prig he’s been, and repents, and falls silent.
In the last few years three of my students have died, from suicide or accident or illness, three students who sat in these same rooms and these same desks, looking up at me, brightly, on the first day. They were good people. They worked hard.
God is the landowner, and we are the laborers, and he doesn’t play by our rules. He’s a hurricane, not an app.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, / nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord [in Isaiah today]/ As high as the heavens are above the earth, / so high are my ways above your ways / are my thoughts above your thoughts.
His greatness [the psalmist says] is unsearchable.
We know nothing about God. Nothing. All we know is his “graciousness,” “his mercy.” That’s the next thing the psalmist says, and that’s the paradox, the leap: we know nothing about God but this, this one great thing, his “kindness,” even in the face of suffering, even in the face of randomness, even in the face of death.
The early laborers in the parable are envious of the landowner because he’s generous with the workers who come later. They think that life is a zero sum game, and they want to be the winners, they want to be the special ones. But it’s none of their business what the landowner does with his money. It’s his money. And second, they’re committing the sin of ingratitude, enormous ingratitude, failing to be glad for the work they’ve been given, for their own day in the fields. Why should they care what the other workers are getting?
The landowner is inscrutable not for evil but for good, not out of scarcity but out of abundance. None of us is entitled to anything, and yet we are all blessed in our own ways.
“We all have to discover,” Jean Vanier says, that “there are others like us who have gifts and needs; no one of us is the center of the world. We are a small but important part of our universe. We all have a part to play.” And what gives this such authority for me is that Vanier is the founder of the L’Arche communities—I’ve referred to him many times—communities in which the able live with the disabled, and not just so that they can help the disabled, but so that the disabled can help them–can show them that we all loved by God, equally, whether or not we have a college degree, whether or not we can walk or talk. What matters is a smile, a touch. A simple act. The moment.
If we ever doubt the generosity of God, we have only to look at the stars.
If we ever doubt the generosity of God, we have only to consider the trillions of cells in our bodies.
And not even death can argue against this, not even death cancels this out. So many people think it does. How can there even be a God if 21 innocent children die in an earthquake in Mexico City, crushed by the roof of their own school?
But what the third reading, from Philippians, is telling us today, the radical claim that Paul makes—and this is my final point–is that in the end death doesn’t matter, death doesn’t change a thing, because in death we are still with God, we are with Christ, in even deeper ways. Death isn’t the end and death isn’t the worst thing that can happen because God is God and there are no boundaries, not biological nor logical nor theological. God is always shooting across those gaps, and no one is lost, and it’s never too late.
I want to thank all of you who have sent me condolences on the death of my father last month. I started to thank you individually but there were finally too many of you, and that’s a wonderful thing, the grace of this community.
My father believed in God, but he was a stubborn, ornery man, and he had turned away from everybody in his last years, cutting himself off from any group or institution or community. He kept pulling out his tubes in the hospital, trying to get away. And as his dementia deepened he became increasingly confused and uncooperative, and afraid. When I saw him in the hospital at the end he was very afraid, I think. It was hard to witness—something that I think most of my students just couldn’t understand now, that I could never teach them.
All I can do is grade them fairly, and stay within the rules that are proper now, at OSU, and pray for them as they go on.
But I wish that I could also somehow teach them what Jesus taught us, that no one is ever lost, and that even late in the day, even on our deathbeds, even if we’ve long been stubborn and cut off from the world, we, too, are being called home, we, too, are being offered the mercy of God, are in fact coming to know in a far deeper way his infinite generosity.
That even death is grace, a way of stripping us of our pretentions, breaking through our barriers.
My faith in this is not nearly as strong as Paul’s, but I’m learning—I’m a student, too–and that’s what I pray for, for myself and my students and for all of you: a deeper and deeper confidence, a deep and deeper hope, a deeper and deeper conviction, that nothing, nothing, can ever separate us from the love of God.