Homily on Matthew 20:1-16
September 21, 2014
As soon as I read Jesus’ parable of the landowner I thought of Aesop’s fable about the tortoise and the hare. You remember the story. The hare and the tortoise decide to race one day and of course the hare scoffs at the lack of competition. They begin the race, and when the hare sees how slow the tortoise is moving he decides to take a nap. After he wakes up and sees that the tortoise still has a long way to go, he decides to eat some breakfast, which makes him sleepy, so he takes another nap.
This time when he awakens he realizes that the tortoise is almost to the finish line, so he hops as fast as he can, but the tortoise crosses the line before the hare can get there. The tortoise says victoriously to the disgraced hare, “Slowly does it every time!”
He could have said, echoing Jesus, “Thus the last will be first and the first will be last.”
Anyone who has ever been second best or even last can relate both to Aesop’s fable and Jesus’ parable. We’ve all been there. As children playing a game of sandlot softball maybe the team captain chose us last because he or she assumed we were the weakest player. In school maybe we were the last one to hand in an essay or exam. As adults maybe we were the last to get a raise or promotion because our boss assumed we had a slow work ethic.
We may have been first or best in many other ways throughout our lives, but on other occasions we didn’t quite measure up and therefore “low self-esteem” became the label that stuck to us like the nametags on our shirts.
This is not, however, a homily about low self-esteem, or how, like the little engine that could, we just need more optimism or should work harder. This is not a homily that naively asserts that everything will always work out just the way we want. It’s not even about how fairness and equality will win in the end.
In Jesus’ parable those who were hired at the beginning of the day complain about the fact that those who were hired at the end of the day are paid the same amount as they were paid. The landowner is unfazed. He responds with a question, “Are you envious because I am generous?”
This is not a homily about our giftedness and hard work or lack thereof. It is a homily about the generosity of God, a generosity infused with grace, a generosity that doesn’t care one way or another about whether we deserve something because we are “first,” i.e. faster, better, smarter, harder working, etc.
When Jesus says that the last will be first and the first will be last, he doesn’t mean that the last will literally be first or that the first will literally be last. In reality, we know that rarely, if ever happens, despite Aesop’s fable of the hare and tortoise.
What Jesus meant is that these are categories of our own making. In God’s realm, there is no first and last. Competition is not a virtue in God’s realm.
One caveat, however: Sometimes the last do end up first because sometimes those who are better, smarter, faster, etc. do what the hare did in Aesop’s fable: They get distracted by their success. They rest on their laurels. They become overconfident, thus allowing the lesser person to run past them.
When I think of the Women’s Catholic Priest movement, for example, I can’t help but see a wonderful parallel with Aesop’s fable and Jesus’ parable of the landowner. The women are slowly and steadily moving to the “finish line” of ecclesiastical acceptance, while the gatekeepers of orthodoxy and tradition continue to be distracted with such things as huge mansions, scandals, and discriminatory social views.
Likewise, the women are the ones who are seeking to be “hired” late in the day, much to the chagrin of those who have always enjoyed the privilege of an ordained call. And one day, one day soon perhaps, the gatekeepers of orthodoxy and tradition may also complain to God about God’s grace-infused generosity.
Regardless of how people end up, regardless of their official status, regardless of their social value, a Christ-centered worldview attempts to see people as God does, through a generous, life-affirming, love-soaked pair of glasses—not that God needs a pair of glasses, but you get my point!
So what is our calling then? To size people up and assign worth and value based on the competitive categories we are so prone to use? No, our calling is to see people as God sees people, as Jesus saw people, with no regard for how close they are to the finish line.
What were you thinking, feeling, or remembering while hearing this homily?