Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Eleventh Hour

A Gospel parable that prodigal children find consoling and that “elder sons” find rather irritating is that of the workers in the vineyard (Mt. 20: 1-16). I’m sure that you just looked it up and read it (or know it by heart), so I won’t go into all the details here.

It is actually quite a beautiful story about how God constantly seeks after us, calling us to his Kingdom (or, in this case, his vineyard), meeting us where we are at different times and stages of our lives, even coming for us at the “eleventh hour,” after we have been “idle all day.”

I have to vent my spleen just a bit over a footnote in a certain edition of the Bible concerning this parable, so typical of the drivel that is offered these days, seemingly oblivious that the text they are commenting on is actually the word of God. It says: “The point of this parable is the willingness of the owner to exceed conventional practices, and his freedom to do so within the limits of agreements.” I can imagine Jesus scratching his head and saying: “It is? I thought it was about the Kingdom of Heaven—because I began it by saying: ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is like…’—and of the Father’s generosity in accepting all who will come at his invitation.” Jesus really should brush up on his study of modern scholars. But it gets worse. “The first sentence [of v.15] is not a statement of economic theory except as it claims the right to enter into differing contracts.” Thanks for telling us it’s not about economic theory; we all had immediately assumed that it was. But their “except” shows that they in fact do think it’s at least partly about economic theory. Christ in his divinity transcends frustration, but if He didn’t, I think He’d be frustrated over all these lame interpretations of his sacred words. I don’t transcend frustration, and so I am!

There are two levels of interpretation for this parable, actually three if we apply it to ourselves. The first has to do with Jews and Gentiles. The Jews are the chosen people; they are the ones who were called first, “early in the morning.” God worked with them over a long period of history, in which some were faithful and some were not. Some repented of their unfaithfulness and entered into his favor. So throughout their history, God continued to call them to labor in his vineyard, to serve Him as his own beloved servants.

Then comes the eleventh hour. (The day was divided in periods roughly based on the times of sunrise and sunset. The workday more or less corresponded to this range, the first hour being 6 AM and the twelfth hour being 6 PM. The night was divided into various “watches.”) So the eleventh hour is 5 PM, an hour before quitting time, that is, before the “end times.” The early Christians always referred to their time as the last time, the last days, etc, because the advent of Christ inaugurated the messianic age which would conclude in a short time (they thought) with the return of the Lord. This “end time” was the time of the call of the Gentiles. They were not the chosen people for the whole time of Israel’s history. They were only called at the “eleventh hour,” when Jesus told his disciples to preach the Gospel to all nations, just before He ascended to Heaven.

As St Paul makes clear, especially in Romans, the Gentiles are suddenly on an equal footing with the Jews. They are saved by grace, just as the Jews or anyone else is saved. These latecomers “receive the same wage” (in terms of this parable) as the ones who were called first and labored longer. We know from the Acts of the Apostles that there was some begrudging of this grace offered the Gentiles among some Jewish converts, who wanted them to go the whole route of circumcision and obedience to the Law of Moses before they could be saved. But the Master says to them as to the workers in the vineyard: “I choose to give to these last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”

That is probably the original intent of the parable. But it can also be interpreted in light of the parable of the prodigal son and other teachings of the Lord in which repentant sinners are placed (at least) on the same level as the law-abiding Pharisees. The Pharisees, like the elder brother of the prodigal son, were called early and bore the burden and heat of the day by many years of obedience to the law. Others, who led sinful lives, repented at the “eleventh hour” and were received with joy by God, who did not demand the same labors of them, only a contrite heart and a determination to be faithful henceforth. The Pharisees, like the elder son, had nothing but scorn for these last-minute salvaged souls and were indignant that such repentant riff-raff would be granted equal status and reward.

It may be the same for us as well. Each of us may fit into a different category, or perhaps different categories in different stages of life. After a rather dissipated adolescence, I entered the monastery at the ripe old age of 24, thanking God that He had received me at the eleventh hour, after I had wasted my whole life. Now that I’ve been here nearly 25 years, I might be tempted to think that I’m one who has borne the burden and heat of the day, laboring long in God’s service while others (like wanna-be monks of retirement age submitting their applications) are trying to sneak in at the end, having spent the majority of their time living it up in the world while I was fasting and praying.

But that is precisely the attitude we all have to avoid. We think it unjust if someone gets a break that we never got, if someone is allowed a short-cut to the finish line while we had to run the whole race. So we think we should receive more, but God says to us: “I choose to give to this last one as I give to you.” Our only joy should be in the will of God, thanking Him for his generosity not only to us but to all.

We ought to realize this as well: no matter how long we have labored in God’s service, in a certain sense we are all coming in at the eleventh hour. For our salvation is pure mercy and not a calculated recompense for a job well done. What we “earn” is Hell, for we cannot by our own labors atone for a single sin. All is gift, so all must be gratitude. The Lord does call us to work in his vineyard, and work we must—lest we do get what we deserve. But no amount of labor can put us in a position of demanding anything from God. Here is his “economic theory”: those who do the will of God and believe in the One He sent shall be saved. Let us not try to claim the reward of the first as we look down our noses at those who come last. For Jesus ends his parable by saying: “So the last will be first, and the first last.”