by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin
Like some of you, I am supposed to be retired.
And like many who inhabit that ambiguous state,
I don’t yet exactly know what that means.
When you tell people you are retired,
it can conjure visions of stress-free days,
lots of carefree socializing,
and the occasional trip to exotic places like Tahiti …
I’ve never been to Tahiti.
While my life is way less stressed than before retirement,
many tasks still populate my days.
There are the ordinary routines of grocery shopping & lawn care,
the ministry commitments like preaching,
and recently I picked up a job as a part-time janitor
at a relative’s small and struggling business.
The main reason I got hired
is not only because I know how to wield a mop
and inherited the family cleaning gene,
but most importantly because the price was right:
I work for free.
There are many folk in our society today
who don’t have the luxury of working for free
and need an income to support themselves and their family.
This is increasingly true for folk of the post-social security age
whose benefits do not cover even essentials
like health care and housing.
Even if they wanted to, they can’t retire.
While the unemployment rate is down from it’s high in May,
it is still over 8%
and for people of color significantly higher.
Lots of folks are looking for work.
Those looking for work might be surprised to find
that there is actually verifiable science
that provides real help when applying for a job.
For example, one celebrated study considers
how recruiters evaluate an applicant’s “fit” –
that elusive capacity to enter effectively into a company’s culture.
Data suggests that the oft used tactic of self-promotion,
speaking highly of yourself in an interview
and outlining your many successes and accomplishments
does not seem to have much of a positive impact
on your hiring potential.
Rather, the tactic of ingratiation –
the ability to read the social cues of the interviewers,
to show interest in their interests,
in other words, the ability to be likable,
is a securer path to getting that job
than boasting about your past achievements.
The reason I take this excursion
into the science of getting hired
is because of the lectionary texts presented to us today
and the somewhat disturbing HR path the Only-begotten
takes in recruiting believers and ministers.
Study after study demonstrates that what workers want the most,
what keeps them in their jobs,
is the feeling that they are truly appreciated
individually and as a group.
On the other hand, while some competition can be useful
evidence shows that perceived acts of unfairness
resulting in envy or jealousy
can generate rivalries that can derail effectiveness
and generate higher levels of counterproductive work behavior.
If the so-called parable of the laborers in the vineyard is to be believed,
Jesus apparently went to a different management school
for his MBA,
for at first blush that parable seems designed
to sow division among the laborers
and insure jealousy among those who labored the hardest.
Consider, for example, the payment strategy employed here.
The owner intentionally has his foreman
first pay the workers who did the least amount of labor
while paying those who had labored through the whole day last,
insuring that the all-day laborers would witness
the perceived inequities in his pay structure.
The owner could have paid the dawn to dusk workers first,
dismissed them and then paid the 9:00 a.m. hires
dismissed them and then turned to the noon group
then the three p.m. hires
and finally the late hired laborers.
That way no one group would have needed to hang around
while the subsequent hires were paid,
eliminating perceptions of inequity or sparking feelings of envy.
But Jesus and his landlord alter ego take the opposite tactic
and you have to ask yourself if Jesus the just,
if Jesus the community builder,
if Jesus the righteous,
might not be as consistent as we would like the son of God to be.
Or is there something else here going on in this gospel
as there usually is?
We get some help here from the British literary critique Frank Kermode.
While a specialist on Shakespeare,
he also studied scripture and wrote a commentary
on Matthew’s literary style
which he characterized as a “rhetoric of excess.”
Just think of all of the exaggerated language
we run across in Matthew.
For example about having a log in own eye while trying to remove the splinter from the eye of another (7:5)
or camels going through the eye of a needle (19:24)
and maybe most outrageous of all, the call to love our neighbor as our self (22:39).
Kermode puts today’s parable in this same category of exaggeration,
another example of the rhetoric of excess.
Such an interpretation certainly resonates with the wisdom
from today’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah
who reminds us that God’s ways are not our ways,
that “as high as the heavens are above the earth”
so high are God’s ways above our ways,
God’s thoughts above our thoughts.
Centering our reflections on the excessive exaggeration of Matthew
as a symbol of the excessive generosity of God
might be enough for this homiletic moment
and now might be a good time for me to sit down …
But I won’t …
Because in the midst of all of the exaggerated language
and hyperbolic storytelling going on in this gospel,
also embedded in this gospel is a plea from the underemployed
and from the many other undervalued.
It comes in that throw-away line from the gospel
after the landowner finds unemployed workers at 5:00 p.m.
and inquires “why do you stand here idle all day?”
their response – “Because no one has hired us.”
Notice that the gospel recognizes that these are not bums.
They didn’t just show up at 5:00 looking for work,
they had been standing there unemployed all day!
So why hadn’t they been hired?
Maybe, at least in my imagination,
because the landlord might have had a problem.
Maybe he had been trained in a management style
that, like so much of corporate America today
hires for “fit” … hires for “conformity”
so that there will be good assimilation into the company
insuring that these new workers won’t be rabble-rousers
and instead, help maintain the status quo.
Hiring for fit certainly has much to commend it
but it also can be a not so subtle shield against difference
a ploy to keep the “other” out,
a strategy to control the access to power and privilege.
Maybe the idlers were overlooked because they were too old.
or didn’t have a green card,
or spoke broken English,
or maybe they had a disability –
or just weren’t dressed for the job.
On the other hand, maybe a few didn’t show up until 4:45
because they didn’t have child care
and couldn’t leave the kids until Mom got home
from her job as a domestic.
Or maybe some didn’t have enough money on their bus pass
and had to walk the 12 miles into town.
Or maybe because some suffered from depression
daily overwhelmed by their poverty or family situation
and it took all their energy just to get out of bed,
much less out of the house,
expecting to be disappointed all over again
during another crushing day of subsistent living.
Maybe after a long day of going back & forth to the market place
it finally dawned on the landowner
that hiring for fit was not always just
and maybe it was time to hire for inclusion.
Maybe he had a conversion like his alter ego Jesus did
a few chapters back (Mt. 15:21-28)
when confronting that Canaanite woman.
So he took a chance, employed those
who at first assessment didn’t quite seem to fit
and in his own conversion, at the end of the day,
renewed their dignity, offered them a resurrection of sorts,
and sent them home with enough money
that might tide their families over
until God’s generosity unexpectantly arose again.
We live today in many economies, in many politics.
Some are designed for fit and some for inclusion.
Some claim righteousness and others beg for mercy.
Some argue for fairness and others plead for generosity.
We cannot mirror the excess of God,
the extravagance of the Holy One,
the inclusivity of the Christ
But maybe we can embrace the love embedded in the parent
who pours herself out for her children at great price:
A nine-year-old had been talking with his friends and realized that some of them were getting allowances, paid for doing things around the house, and he wasn’t. So, after some thought during the dishes, while his mother was in the kitchen alone, he gave her a piece of paper that read, “taking out the trash, $1.00 per week; making my bed every day and keeping my room clean, $3.00 per week; watching my baby sister $3.00 per week and doing my home every night, $3.00 per week.”
The mother read the “bill” carefully, and then sat down at the table, took a pen from a drawer in the kitchen, and wrote on the other side of the paper:
“For carrying you with love for 9 months, despite all the morning sickness and discomfort – no charge; for waking up multiple times every night to nurse you when you were just an infant – no charge; for changing all of those diapers, cleaning all those runny noses, and singing you to sleep each night – no charge; for caring for you when you were sick, for comforting you when you were upset, for all those hugs when you felt badly, and for the kisses that I have showered upon you since the first time I held you in my arms – no charge.”
The 9 year old read over his mother’s shoulder as she wrote, and when she had finished, he borrowed the pen and wrote at the bottom of the page, “paid in full.”
So today we receive a similar missive from God:
for taking on our flawed humanity, no charge;
for a hidden life of learning and loving in backwater Nazareth, no charge;
for 3 years of public ministry riddled with rejection and scorn,no charge;
for public humiliation and injustice, culminating in public execution on a cross, no charge;
and for entering the underworld, sundering the bonds of death and offering us eternal life, no charge.
Our salvation has been paid in full … paid in full,
even before we ever thought to ask.
The call to excessive inclusivity and prodigal generosity
is now ours to embrace as well,
through Christ our Lord.