Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' So the last will be first, and the first will be last." (Matthew 20:16)
Many years ago now, when I was an intern chaplain in a New York City hospital as part of my seminary training, I experienced what it meant to be a useful object for another person. A Jewish woman, obviously very frustrated with the medical bureaucracy, grabbed me by my arm. Looking carefully at me in my clerical “training collar” (it had a black stripe on it to denote I was not yet ordained—an arcane detail to all but the most acute viewer), she said: “Are you a rabbi?” I said: “No; I’m a seminarian intern for the summer at the hospital.” With a harrumph of exasperation and shaking her head, she said “you’ll do,” and tugged me down the hall with her. When we arrived at the medical records desk, she lambasted the clerk there, demanding the x-rays be given her this time. Looking at me and then the clerk, she said: “The rabbi says, you’ve got to give them to me!” The clerk relented and dug up the x-rays. The woman looked triumphant. I was released from my brief stint at an Episcopal Rabbi. I had been useful to her, but that was all over; our association was now at an end.
Today’s Scripture lessons in part revolve around the issue of objectivity and subjectivity. I mean this in a very specific way. When we treat a person objectively, I mean to say that we treat them as an object in a greater game, as part of a bigger project. The person, reduced to an object, doesn’t consist of feelings, a personal history, or unique characteristics: they are simply an object to be dealt with. Like the lady at the hospital, we often are tempted to use people as tools towards what we think of as an important end. This is very much Jonah’s case in the lesson from the Old Testament.
Jonah was called to be a prophet announcing God’s judgment to the people of Nineveh. Much to Jonah’s surprise—and chagrin—the people of this wicked Gentile city repent (going so far as to make their animals join in the repentance with them!). Jonah is shown in the lesson as being far from pleased. His complete lack of interest in the Ninevites as subjects of God’s will for salvation transformed them into mere objects. When they repented and God forgave them, Jonah is embittered, to the point of wanting to die. He transforms the miracle of human repentance into a selfish rant. God’s closing words in this book expose the bankruptcy of treating humans as mere objects: “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?" God, it turns out, is in the salvation business. He does not objectify his creatures, and neither must we.
St. Paul, writing to the Philippians, reverses Jonah’s attitude. Though Paul would prefer to dwell with Christ in the next life, he knows that the people God has called him to serve matter; they are not merely objects, medals for him to wear on his Apostolic Dress Uniform. He sees them as precious subjects of God’s work of salvation—a work that is ongoing and requires Paul’s undivided attention in service, support, and prayer. Thus, he focuses on his spiritual children, putting off contemplating the next life and instead encouraging the Christian community at Philippi in their newborn faith.
But, how do we get to such an attitude in life? How do we, in the language of the Collect, move from “things that are passing away” to “those that shall endure?” The answer is found in the Gospel.
Today’s Gospel lesson is usually numbered among Christ’s harder sayings. While most people don’t like parable much, I find it extremely encouraging and important. This story (unique to Matthew) is set in the commonplace events of an agricultural world: it is harvest-time, and day laborers are being sought. Some begin work at the start of the day, others are hired as the day progresses. When settling-up time comes, everyone is paid the same amount, in an act of spectacularly inexplicable uniformity. Naturally, those who have worked the longest feel the most ill-used. Jesus, in telling this story, knows that we will naturally sympathize with them. But when we do this, we have taken the bait and the story’s jaws snap shut on us.
The day-laborers had all been hired honestly and fairly. The ones who worked from the day’s start were given the standard daily wage. Those who came later were promised “what is fair.” It just happens that this stand-in-for-God landowner thinks that the same amount is just and fair for all. Our wrath at this is the measure of how far we have come in our objectified world to objectify God. God, who creates all things and is above all categorization, cannot be objectified. But we certainly try. In so doing, we expose just how much we have come to treat everyone—even God—as an object in the game of life.
The landowner’s closing words in the parable are a stern rebuke to this false thinking: Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' God, as in Jonah’s time, is still in the business of salvation. His generosity cannot be constrained by our limited love, our objectification of others or our tendency to reduce everything and everyone to a transaction from which we may benefit.
Most of us live in the thrall of one or more bureaucracy. Like that lady in the hospital I spoke of, we often have to find creative ways to get what we are seeking in life by negotiating the complexities of some system or other. As we learn to do this, though, we inevitably will be tempted to see people as objects, not as the subject of God’s work of salvation through Christ. Gradually, we see everyone, including ourselves and God, as such objects in the never-ending shell game of life.
Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh once observed that “Every encounter is an encounter in God and in his sight. We are sent to everyone we meet on our way, either to give or to receive, sometimes without even know it. Sometimes we experience the wonder of giving what we did not possess, sometimes we have to pay with our own blood for what we give.” This is a profoundly freeing and refreshing way to live. It is what people thirst for—and we as Christians have it in superabundance.
The only way we can hold this attitude each day is by understanding that we are the ones addressed—the subjects—in God’s love. In Christ, God has given of what belongs to himself—his Son—and enters into direct encounter with each of us. He shows us that we all do matter. He is generous with us, no matter at what point we finally come to serve him. But the Parable does not record the laborer’s response to the landowner. That is for us to fill in today. Will we, like Jonah, reduce everyone to objects for our pleasure or aggrandizement, or will we join St. Paul in realizing that each person, each encounter in our life, is a holy encounter, full of the potential of the Kingdom of God?
Let this holy liturgy, wherein the encounter between God and humanity is once more made manifest and celebrated, be the first-fruits of our response. Here, God and humanity come face-to-face in the Holy Gifts of Christ’s Body and Blood. We are the subjects of God’s address, even as he subjected himself to us. When we eat this meal, we are given the ability to see everyone and everything in the light of this divine subjectiveness, making it possible for us to live out the words of the Dismissal: “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”