The Rev. Melanie McCarley
It’s a safe bet to say that there aren’t going to be many family reunions this year—certainly, not with COVID-19 dominating the social landscape. However, we can still hope for the future. And make plans for when that time comes. The truth is, a really good reunion takes a good deal of work as well as a considerable amount of planning. To begin, you need a location with plenty of space. Portions of my family have been known to rent space in State Parks for their get-togethers. There have to be grills for hotdogs, hamburgers and barbequed chicken. A schedule should be made so that there is ample time set aside for softball games and corn hole. A playground for the youngest members of the crowd is always helpful, and plenty of comfortable seating for those who would like to gather and visit. Some reunions feature t-shirts, others distribute newsletters featuring important familial information about births, graduations and weddings as well as obituaries for all to see. There are photographs that are shared and tales to be told, not to mention the best cole slaw in the world made from Cousin Edith’s secret recipe, which she still refuses to bequeath to her sisters.
Here’s the thing about family reunions. While it is true that they are a lot of work, the fact is, everyone at a reunion is important. Most reunions feature a matriarch or a patriarch—individuals possessed of knowledge and wisdom to be passed down to others. But we’d all agree that as important as it is to have our elders represented, it’s equally valuable for us to see the children—grandchildren and great grandchildren all to be ogled over by a multitude of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. There’s something remarkable—and hopeful, about seeing great Aunt Idris in her ninety-ninth year dandling little Josephine, all of three months and six days upon her lap. That’s continuity for you. From infants in carriers and energetic toddlers to eye-rolling adolescents and frazzled parents, to the recently retired and the genuinely elderly, a family reunion isn’t the same without everyone present. When someone is missing from a reunion, it’s a loss for everyone.
This is what brings me to the Gospel lesson for today: “The Laborers in the Vineyard”. In this parable we are told that a landowner goes out at dawn to hire workers for his vineyard. The laborers agree to work for the standard daily wage and they head to the field. As the day goes on the landowner hires more workers and agrees to pay them what is right. By the time 5:00 p.m. rolls around, the landowner, perceiving that work remains to be done recruits still more workers to join the crowd in the field. And then, an hour later the landowner instructs his manager to pay the workers their wages, as was the custom.
Until this point in the parable, what we have is a description of a rather typical days work in the agricultural industry of the ancient world. However, the story takes a curious twist when it comes to the payment of the workers. They’re all paid the same wage—a full days pay, whether they arrived at sunup or staggered in at 5:00 p.m.
Now, ask yourself, how you would feel if you saw someone who put in less than an hour’s work being paid the same amount as yourself, who arrived at 8:00 a.m. and toiled in the hot sun during the warmest part of the day.
So, we shouldn’t be surprised when we are told that the disgruntled workers do what we would expect (and what, I dare say, most of us would do in a similar situation). They grumble, they mutter and they complain, finally bringing their grievance to the landowner. “It’s not fair.” “It’s not fair that we, who have worked twelve hours receive the same pay as those who worked less.”
The Landowner, however, is not interested in the laborer’s complaints. He reminds them that he has paid them exactly what they had agreed upon earlier in the day, and so they should be content with their wages. And then he poses a question: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Now, I suspect that the laborers aren’t really interested in responding to these questions—because the answer to both is “yes.” Yes, the landowner can do what he wishes with what belongs to him; and “yes”, the laborers are envious at the landowner’s generosity. They want more.
This is a difficult parable. Difficult, because I suspect many, if not most of us, identify with the laborers who put in a good day’s effort and are now seething with discontent. And, really, can we blame them? Because doesn’t it seem “off” that stragglers who couldn’t manage to get out of bed before 10 in the morning should receive the same benefit as those who spent the early hours of the day engaged in earnest labor. It’s enough to leave a bad taste in not a few people’s mouths.
However, let’s keep in mind what this parable is and what it is not. This is a parable about the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s not a story about how to defeat the unions. Nor is this a lesson in how to inspire and motivate your employees. So, it is important that we look at it from the perspective of what Jesus is telling us, both about God and about the Kingdom of Heaven.
And the answer is this. First, God does not play by the same rules as the rest of us. Indeed, God’s notion of fairness differs quite radically from our own. And second, the Kingdom of Heaven is not what we expect. It is- not a place that correlates to our notion of fairness. There is no hierarchy in Heaven. Everyone there is equal. Salvation is the wage—the same wage paid to those who have labored long on behalf of God in the community of faith, as well as the latecomer who snuck in at the sound of the bell telling us it is time to go home. Salvation, you see, is not bestowed in half measures. It is given freely (and extravagantly) to all those who ask. The person who accepts the gift and labors in the church for ninety years is every bit as saved as the person who entrusts their spirit to God in the last minute.
And I tell you this. All of this—is good news. And it is good news for the same reason that a Family Reunion is good news. Because everyone is important. At a family reunion there is a place for every person, because everyone is part and parcel of the story. From the matriarch to the black sheep, the responsible one and the rebel, the mean one and the snob. The embarrassing uncle, the aunt who won’t stop pinching cheeks, the irritated spouse and the cousin snoring on the couch. They all have a place, and the truth is—we’d all be a good sight poorer without them there.
I imagine heaven much the same way. It’s a place for the family of God. And it’s joy is found just as much in the fellowship of the redeemed as it is in the presence of a God, who loves us and gathers us in, naming us each His own. Now, doesn’t this make you think of how much, when the time finally arrives, that we will be filled with joy to gather together again both at our family reunions and here with our family of faith in church. In Jesus’ name. Amen.