Philippians 1:20c-24, 27a
Last week I attended a meeting related to an initiative sponsored by the Brightmoor Pastors’ Alliance called "Present! In Brightmoor!" It’s an effort to increase school attendance in the neighborhood. The meeting was held with people from Southwest Solutions, which is also interested in helping schools. We had a great nationally known speaker, and the meeting was very good. It was held at the UAW local in Dearborn. Along the corridor were pictures of the UAW, mostly chronicling the struggles, which included some violence, to unionize Ford Motor Company. Last year, Michigan became a right-to-work state amid a lot of controversy, but Detroit is still probably considered a union town.
I write all this not to launch a debate about labor unions, but to note that if we read the parable that Jesus tells in Sunday’s Gospel reading (Matthew 20:1-16a) on a surface level, it might seem anti-labor. In the parable, a landowner hires workers for his vineyard at several times during the day, beginning at dawn, and ending more or less at dusk. The ones who were hired last got paid first, and received a whole day’s wages. When the ones who were hired first got the same pay they were upset with the landowner for not giving them more. After all, they worked all day, and the last group only worked an hour or so. The owner’s response might seem a bit harsh, or at least insensitive: "My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?" And then Jesus says, "Thus the last will be first, and the first will be last." Technically, the landowner is not cheating the first group, but to our ears, it still sounds unfair.
It would be unfair, I think, if Jesus was only talking about the labor practices of a landowner and people trying to earn a living. But Jesus is not talking about those things. He is talking about the "kingdom of heaven." If we think about the kingdom, we realize that there is no way we can earn our way in. Yes, we are called to work for the kingdom. Yes, we are called to serve God and others. Yes, we are called to follow Jesus. But I don’t see living out our vocation as Christian disciples as the way to get a spot in heaven. We do the work we do, and serve the people we serve, and follow Jesus, out of response to the love God has for us in Christ Jesus, not in order to earn it. This doesn’t mean we sit back and do nothing. If I love God, I will serve Him, hoping to be with Him forever. If I love Him, but have no interest in serving Him or loving my neighbor (which is pretty much the same thing), then I might have to look at how much I really love Him and what I have really chosen in my life.
If we see the kingdom as being with God forever, would there really be different levels of eternal happiness? If I’m in the presence of a loving God for all eternity, would I really care if someone came after me or before me? I would just be happy to make it and join in their joy that they made it. Only human beings would try to come up with ways to lord it over others, even in heaven!
Look at St. Paul in our second reading from Philippians (1:20c-24, 27a). He writes, "For to me life is Christ, and death is gain. If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. And I do not know which I shall choose. I am caught between the two. I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better. Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit." Paul can hardly wait to be with Christ. There’s no mention of being first or last. He wants to enter the kingdom, but he chooses to do God’s will.
May we be willing to work for the sake of the kingdom, and be ready when God calls us home.
Fr. Phil Paxton, C.P. is on staff at St. Paul of the Cross Retreat and Conference Center, Detroit, Michigan.