The “stay-home” lock-down protocol currently in force in much of the United States to help staunch further spread of the coronavirus ironically has afforded me a “grace” greater than all but a few others I can think of in my nearly 78 years.
I refer to the gift of time for constructive reflection on essentials of my faith. I have in mind in particular the Parable of the “Laborers in the Vineyard,” recommended for focus in our September worship, the 16th Sunday after Pentecost.
The plot set out in Matthew 20: 1-16 at first may seem simple, even straight-forward. However, in those few verses, some core values emerge, and some are refined, causing us to question whether certain aspects of our common behavior are Divinely sanctioned — are they consistent with optimal management of the blessing of Divine Creation. This is the story in brief:
• Early in the morning, a landowner hired workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them the standard, reasonably fair wage of one silver coin. Later, at 9 a.m., then again at noon, and again at 3 p.m., and even at 5 p.m. the landowner hired more workers, and he agreed to pay all of the them the same wage, regardless how long they had worked that day. At the end of the day, the landowner told his foreman to summon the workers from the vineyard and pay them in the reverse order in which they were hired. Disputes ensued.
• The narrator, Jesus, is apparently guided by the 10th Commandment, and condemns those who worked a longer day, all the while coveting the shorter hours of the ones who were hired later. The Savior is condemning envy and jealousy, which are inconsistent with contractual – covenantal — agreement.
• Jesus characteristically disdain those who introduce disharmony in the community over picayune, material concerns. Recall that those complaining were paid the usual, presumably “fair” wage they had agreed to, which means that their wish to receive more could appropriately be characterized as “greed.”
• The order of payment illustrates two important values. First, grace and mercy — both our Creator’s and our own — should factor into determining whether equal treatment for late-comers (or “late-bloomers”) is appropriate. And second, as in all such matters of judgment and fairness, we must never set aside the “Job” factor: It is all up to the Divine, whose order of the universe is always benign by nature but beyond our understanding.
It is better be content and be satisfied — filled with Divine peace, true “shalom” or “salaam” peace. As the hymnist B.B. McKinney wrote, “I am satisfied with Jesus. He has done so much for me ... (Indeed,) I can always count on Him; (but) can He always count on me?”
— The Rev. Dr. Wesley S. Williams Jr., J.D., LL.D., D. Min., K.St.J, is Washington National Cathedral Priest Scholar and Chaplain, and he previously served churches in the Episcopal Diocese of the Virgin Islands.