“The landowner said to the workers, ‘Am I not allowed to do what I choose with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’” (Matthew 20:15)
September 21, 2014
Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC
“After his aged father's death, the son decided it best to place his frail, ailing mother in a nursing home, promising her that he’d visit often. Not a surprise to her, his visits during the following years were infrequent and perfunctory.
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“Returning home from work one day, the son discovered a message from the nursing home informing him that his mother had taken a turn for the worse, and she was calling out for him to visit as soon as possible.
“Arriving at the nursing home early the next morning, the son was shocked to discover his mother seemingly near death. Tears in his eyes, he sat at her bedside, leaned in close, and asked, ‘Mom what can I do to help you?’
“Taking her son’s hand, the old woman replied softly through gasping breaths, ‘I want you to have fans installed in all the patient rooms in this nursing home; it’s been really uncomfortable here the past few summers. And please see to it that the kitchen is upgraded so that the hot food can be served hot and the cold food cold. This has been a real hardship.’
“Surprised at hearing these apparent final words from his mother, the son asked, ‘Mom, why have you never mentioned these things before?’
“With her dying breath she replied, ‘It’s been okay for me, dear. I've managed with the heat, the hunger, and the pain, but when your children send you here, I am afraid you won’t be able to manage.’” (Original source unknown)
While some might see in this story a dying mother laying a colossal guilt trip on her negligent son, when viewed through the lens of today’s gospel passage, there’s a very different story to consider—a tale of one who has borne suffering attempting to save others from the same. Indeed, while this dying woman may well have been justifiably angry with her absent son, her dying wish was for those who would be future nursing home residents—her son included—to receive more comfort than she did.
Today’s gospel passage relates a familiar parable, especially relevant in these times when unemployment is such a burning issue. As the parable relates, laborers, hired at different times during the day to perform the same job, are all are paid exactly the same previously agreed upon wage at day’s end, those having worked an hour receiving exactly the same as those who had toiled many hours under the burning sun. Furious at the landowner for what seems a gross injustice, the laborers angrily approach him with their accusation. In response, “The landowner said to the workers, ‘Am I not allowed to do what I choose with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’” (Matthew 20:15)
Indeed, this is a parable about undeserved generosity, not about getting what one deserves. And thank God for that! I mean, who prays to receive what one rightfully deserves? Rather, we pray for God’s undeserved generosity to shower upon us.
How often, it seems, we must be reminded that Jesus came among us to save us from ourselves; that is, he clothed himself in human limitation (save for sin) in order to show us how to live as earthly pilgrims journeying heavenward. Just so, like the dying woman in the nursing home, Jesus knew what it was to suffer heat, hunger and pain. Like the laborers in the parable, Jesus knew the desperation of the unemployed. And, as the following story relates, Jesus knew what it was to be an unwanted immigrant.
Entitled “Statue of a Homeless Jesus Startles a Wealthy Community,” the story appeared on the NPR website just prior to Easter this year. I share excerpts with you:
“A new religious statue in the town of Davidson, North Carolina, is unlike anything you might see in church. The statue depicts Jesus as a vagrant sleeping on a park bench. St. Alban's Episcopal Church installed the homeless Jesus statue on its property in the middle of an upscale neighborhood filled with well-kept townhomes. Jesus is huddled under a blanket with his face and hands obscured; only the crucifixion wounds on his uncovered feet give him away.
“The reaction was immediate. Some loved it; some didn't. ‘One woman from the neighborhood actually called police the first time she drove by,’ [said the editor of the local newspaper.] ‘She thought it was an actual homeless person.’ That's right. Somebody called the cops on Jesus. ‘Another neighbor, who lives a couple of doors down from the church, wrote us a letter saying it creeps him out,’ [the editor] added.
“Some neighbors feel that it's an insulting depiction of the son of God, and that what appears to be a hobo curled up on a bench demeans the neighborhood.
“The sculpture is intended as a visual translation of the passage in the [Gospel] of Matthew, in which Jesus tells his disciples, ‘As you did it to one of the least of mine, you did it to me.’ Moreover, it's a good Bible lesson for those used to seeing Jesus depicted in traditional religious art as the Christ of glory, enthroned in finery.
"[The rector of St. Alban’s asserted], ‘We believe that that's the kind of life Jesus had. He was, in essence, a homeless person.’” (John Burnett, NPR, April 13, 2014)
In the stories of the neglected nursing home resident, the unemployed laborer, and the homeless vagrant, we experience Jesus as our distressed neighbor in need. We experience in these stories a call to journey homeward by caring for the distressed among us. Indeed, these are stories inviting us to act with the generosity of God rather than what imperfect human judgment might impose. Thank God for that! Thank God for that!