“These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us!”
How did you feel when you heard those words? Did they strike your ears harshly at all? I must confess, as many times as I have read this particular passage, this last week these are the words that hit my heart the hardest. They are the words of the “first workers,” who felt cheated by the landowner. Most of the time, I can certainly understand their indignation: they worked longer; they should’ve been paid more, right?
However, Jesus is not offering us a lesson in small business and employee relations. He is giving you and me a lesson in humanity – as God intends for us. This is about who has a share in the kingdom of God, which is exactly what God wills for the human family – all of us.
Have we ever been guilty of criticizing someone whom we believed did not “deserve” the same as us? Have we ever made assumptions about others and what they have that are downright hurtful? Have we ever grumbled against “welfare recipients,” or single moms, or “affirmative action,” or “illegals” gathered on Home Depot’s parking lot?
When “those people” have what I work hard for, have I ever felt jealous or angry because “These last ones worked only one hour, and [now they are] equal to us!”
This is the subtle demon that threatens any sort of effort at equality. And it often justifies itself as a “sense of justice.”
However, the truth is that when I feel that way what I am really expressing is the assumption that I am better than “those people.” Call it what I might, it is still prejudicial and wrong. And this is how this Gospel is challenging me.
I hear a lot about “white privilege.” Perhaps you do too. Maybe we try to understand it, and I like to believe that the goodness in us truly doesn’t want our friends of color to believe that we think we are better. We treat others – regardless of color, race, creed, or any other difference – with respect and love. However, white privilege can still exist, even in the most ideal and Christian of environments – simply because we don’t share the experience of being the “five-o’clock hires.”
With white privilege, I do not know what it is like to be the only one like me in a classroom or workplace and have that be pointed out subtly or overtly in jokes or comments. I do not know what it is like to have others assume that my success came from “cheating” another. I don’t know what it is like to ride a bike through my neighborhood and have others assume I stole it. I don’t know what it is like to be called a hurtful name and to have nowhere to go with that anger.
But just because “none of that is my fault,” and I “can’t help how I was born,” I don’t need to be upset about having “white privilege.” What I can do is be a voice for others who do not – when they are mistreated, maligned, estranged, ostracized, and mocked. This is what the Church is called to be, and this is why the Church is in the middle of difficult social issues like racism and immigration. “Those people” are being mistreated and are the victims of ingrained assumptions that we must work to dispel.
This isn’t easy for me to admit and say, and I know it isn’t easy to hear. Perhaps I will hear angry comments or get letters. However, I truly believe that I am with Jesus on this one. I don’t want to be the one “grumbling against the landowner,” only to hear Him say, “Friend, I am not cheating you. … Take what is yours and go.” I want to stay – I want to stay with Jesus – and He is still with “those people” – the “five-o’clock people.” This is the fellowship that Jesus teaches is at the heart of the “kingdom of heaven,” and it is exactly where we should want to be.