September 4, 2016 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: Isaiah 55:2- 5, 8-9; Matthew 20:1-16
Our first reading from Isaiah has the words, “Listen, listen to me, Give ear and come to me; listen, my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” The Gospel of Matthew is all about this. Whether it is describing an event or telling a story like today’s parable, the author attempts over and over again to have us get a clear and accurate picture of what the reign of God is meant to be. All of the parables in scripture describe God’s vision of how this world could be/would be if we truly lived the Christian message. Author Megan McKenna, in her book Parables, describes them as seemingly simple stories that hold multifaceted views into inner truth and reality. She refers to them as “The Arrows of God”. All of the parables are meant to strike us; to pierce our perception of things. To help break us out of taking the secular world view of things for granted, seeing situations differently. The parables call for us to change, to grow, to follow the message of Jesus more closely and truly. Our primary mission is constant conversion. Rather than simply being swept along by the mores of our culture we are challenged to see the world through the eyes of God, and to act accordingly.
The second reading, the story of the laborers in the vineyard is a case in point. So let’s take a look at it. All would have gone smoothly if the owner of the vineyard had simply directed his foreman to pay the first workers he had hired first. They would have then moved on, likely satisfied with their day’s work and with their earnings; maybe stopping off at the local pub for a cold one before heading home. But no! The owner specifically told his foreman to start handing out the wages beginning with the last ones hired. No direct deposit. No sealed envelopes. So the workers who had worked to longest, who were tired and hot saw what those who had only worked an hour received and naturally, this got their hopes up. By the time it was their turn they were expecting more than what had been agreed upon. They now felt that it was their right to receive more and when that didn’t happen they were incensed. “Unfair”, they thought.
And here the story ends; and Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is like this!
Using the concept of space as a metaphor may help us distinguish the different perspectives in this story. So, let’s do this – let’s think about the dimensions of space. In the physical world there are three elemental dimensions of space and material being. I invite you to use your imagination and picture yourself holding a pencil and that you have a sheet of paper in front of you. On it there is only a small point. Now take your imaginary pencil and move out from that point. You now have a line, and this is first dimension; length.
Now let’s consider life through this metaphor of space. Life has a dimension of length. It’s a measurement: how long – how long we live, how old or how young we are – how long until, how long since. How much time do we have? How much money we have?
This is our first dimension of being, and mostly, we think in first dimension. Those disappointed workers were operating out of this first dimension. They thought in terms of the amount of time they had been working compared to the length of time others worked, and the amount of compensation that they believed they were due based on the amount that the others had been given. And perhaps we too are inclined to read it from that point of fairness, what we deem as just. Our minds are commercially oriented, we measure and equate, and we put things in the balances to see how they tip. We think in terms of more or less of this and that. But length occupies no space, has no volume, of itself it is really nothing. No thing exists in length alone: it needs two other dimensions: breadth and depth.
Now please go back to your imaginary pencil and move the line. Move it in any direction except in line with itself. Now you have a plane. This is the second dimension, width, or breadth. Again we can apply this paradigm to a second dimension of our being, the dimension of breadth. Though the breadth of one’s life can’t really be measured, we can experience it intuitively. This second dimension includes the reach of one’s mind, the range of one’s thought, the scope of one’s interest and quest. The breadth of our life enriches it. But breadth occupies no space, has no volume, of itself is nothing really. No thing can exist in breadth alone; it needs one other dimension: depth.
Now, once again, please move your imaginary pencil from the plane. Move in any direction except in line with the plane. Now you have a solid, and this is third dimension, depth. And here the process begins to get exciting. For now we have three dimensions; length, breadth, and depth – and at last we have arrived at volume, space-occupying, and we have a place where material things can be, can exist. Now we have the possibility of content. We can have physical reality – rocks, trees, mountains, seas, planets, suns – and compounds and molecules and atoms – material substance, occupying space. Again, we can apply this concept to ourselves. This third dimension of our lives, the dimension of depth, probably can’t be measured at all. To some extent, though, it may be indicated by what can be seen of love, compassion, sympathy, and awareness that reaches beyond mind and the five senses. This dimension of depth is the realm of spirit, of soul, the inner quality of what we really are. This is of what our real personhood consists. We talk about some individuals who have died as having had a full life. These are people who lived extensively in this third dimension.
And if we will look carefully at today’s parable, we will discover that it is from this third dimension that the landowner is operating. When he hired the additional men, he did not say, “I will pay you the amount you think is fair.” Rather, he said, “Whatever is right I will give.” It is quite clear that when he paid his workers at day’s end, he was thinking of something more than mere length of time that they had worked. Picture these day laborers. The first ones hired must have felt relief when they were chosen. They were going to earn money that day. They could to eat that night. Those left behind had to have been disappointed. Each time the landowner came and hired more workers, those not chosen must have become increasingly anxious, more despondent. Those hired last had been rejected the most; were likely the most desperate. And at the end of the work day the landowner apparently sensed their need and treated them with compassion and generosity. He saw them and treated them not operating out of the first dimension of length of time worked and amount of money to be paid, but out of the depth of his spirit connecting to theirs.
We usually, have a linear concept of life. It’s part of our culture, and we most often operate on auto pilot in the first dimension or the second. But there is that other dimension, the third. This is not so much a dimension of doing as it is of being. It is not so much quantitative as it is qualitative. And I believe that when Jesus describes what the reign of God is like, he is referring to us assessing situations and responding from this third dimension.
Since this is Labor Day weekend I’ll give three work-related examples of the distinction between living primarily in the first dimension as opposed to the third:
This past Monday, on our way back from visiting our family, we stopped for lunch at an outdoor clam shack. While I waited at a picnic table for our order I heard a conversation from the next table. There sat a middle-aged couple, their college age children and friends of their children. The father asked one of these friends, “What is your brother studying in college?” The boy replied, “Oh, he’s majoring in chemistry and really wants to be a teacher but my father is really giving him a hard time about it. He says that he won’t be able to support a family as a teacher and really wants him to double major in business and then go work for a chemical or pharmaceutical company.” To which another friend replied, “Oh, he’d make a great teacher. I can’t see him in the business world.” “I know,” the boy replied, “but my father is paying the tuition and he won’t hear of him being a teacher.” This was the second time this summer I had heard the same thing.
Like the story of the laborers in the vineyard, we get it. We don’t want our adult children to struggle financially and teachers don’t get paid well. That would require us all to pay higher property taxes. However, both the father who doesn’t want his son to become a teacher and we who want to shield ourselves against higher taxes are operating from that first dimension. Living in the third dimension we would be less protective of our finances and more considerate of the welfare of the next generation who need good teachers.
Second example: People running for office in both parties try to hook us in the first dimension. They talk about protecting American jobs or returning overseas jobs to U.S workers. Living life in its depth, seeing life from the perspective of the kingdom of God we would have compassion for those out of work while at the same time recognize that we are universally one family. Whether products are made in Viet Nam or China or Indianapolis, they are being made by our brothers and sisters.
The third work example is the practice of business owners who, instead of hiring full-time employees, engage several part-time workers so that they can legally avoid paying them benefits. In the first dimension world this might be judged as a shrewd business practice. The work gets done with less financial output. And if this is a publically owned company, the owner is actually achieving his mission of increasing profits for the shareholders. But living in the third dimension, living with depth an owner affirms the dignity of each person and recognizes his responsibility to not only provide his workers with a living wage, but also address their need for health insurance, paid vacation, and even other aspects of an employment package that recognizes the importance of what the first Labor Day tried to accomplish. Established in 1894, the national holiday was placed halfway between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving and on a Monday so that workers, most of whom worked long days and a six-day week, would have an added day of rest. The labor movement at that time seemed to operate from the third dimension as it worked to meet the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of workers by promoting an eight hour work day that left eight hours to sleep and eight hours to recreate.
In our culture we celebrate life’s length. We commemorate birthdays. We recognize milestones. We cherish the linear extension of life. Though there are no convenient increments such as years and minutes or feet or dollars and cents to measure the other dimensions of life, the third-dimensional extensions are very real, nonetheless. And when we gather here together, we do celebrate the expansion of life in its other directions, in its breadth and in its depth. Life is lived fully when it is lived in the fullness of all its dimensions. And we remind ourselves when we are together that Jesus came to give us life and give it to the full; first, by teaching us about the reign of God through his words, like today’s parable and through his actions.
Today’s reading from Isaiah cautions us, “Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?” So today we eat the bread which nurtures us, strengthens us and sustains us to live the fullness of life, to see life, to assess life, to make decisions and to act from all three dimensions. Only in this way will we live life to the full and achieve success in our primary life’s work to which we are all called; advancing the reign of God.