There Will Be…Surprises

Matthew 20: 1-16

By Jai Husband

When I was growing up, I had a lot to say about how other people lived their lives. You see, I grew up Baptist. Disclaimer—hear me! I am not saying that every Baptist Church is as imperialistically legalistic as the one I grew up in, but I would imagine just by saying, “I grew up Baptist,” that to follow that up with “and we had a lot to say about how other people should live their lives,” is not going to shock you, or have you thinking, “Man, Jai came way out of left field with that ‘I grew up Baptist’ remark!” (Am I lying?)

So I grew up Baptist. Now I wasn’t your typical, run-of-the-mill, get right or get left, in-your-face Bible bashing baby Baptist, either! I was a 12 year old going door-to-door telling people if Jesus came back tonight they’re going to hell little ordained minister who held his breath if anyone swore around me so I wouldn’t get any of that carnality inside me, armed with the Roman’s Road and a memorized salvation sales pitch full of enough shoulds and shouldn’ts to choke Balaam’s donkey. Yeah…I was that kid.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been ‘that’ Baptist. (Again, not trying to shade a whole denominational inclination with one monolegalistic brush), but the kind of Baptist I came from, there were do’s and don’ts—and not just for us! Those dos and don’ts were for everyone else too—especially for everyone else. What strikes me as interesting—on the recovery side of my denominationally despotic upbringing was how very bunched up in a knot our knickers got when people outside our arc of convention had the nerve to be unapologetically ‘okay’ with their non-conformity. Not only were they unapologetic, they had the nerve to ‘pretend’ they weren’t miserable out there in their wanton unsavedness. There was an almost possessively authoritarian obsession with trying to police those without—even more so than those within. Like that overzealous parent policing other people’s kids on the fun slide at Chick Fil-A. (Did I say I eat at Chick-Fil-A? Don’t judge me. I ran into Joanna Ackerman there one time—we made a pact not to tell nobody!) But, it often seems like the definition of being ‘evangelical’ is not simply to share the Good News, but to insist that that News be received, accepted and abided by. A far cry from C.S.Lewis’ assertion that there is no virtue in the absence of choice, our witness was not so much a testimony of what G-d did for me, but, ‘what G-d’s going to do to you if you don’t believe and do what I say G-d says!” And where emotionally compulsive conversion fell on deaf ears, there was the need to invalidate the ‘happiness’ those lost people ‘thought’ they were experiencing in their ‘reprobate’ condition. That’s how I grew up. And it’s been a long time since I been ‘that’ Baptist, but—I still have family who are still in the joint.

We are fresh off the holidays—most of you are still picking tinsel out of the carpet—I spent them in China. And even out of the country for the holidays, I couldn’t escape the tense encounter of my terminally legalistic family members who—concerning my not straightness—can find it in their hearts to “Let me live the way I want to live” because I’m a growed ass man and they can’t do anything about it, but where they draw the line is that I would dare legitimize my sinfulness by walking down the aisle later this summer with another man and have the nerve to call myself a Christian!” “Only one of us can be right, Jai,” this family member said. “And I’m pretty sure I’m not wrong.” Another said, “If you’re going to sin, sin—but don’t be bringing G-d’s name into it!” (Reminding me of my late grandmother who tickled me whenever she would say, “If you gonna be a sinner, be a good sinner! Ain’t no sense in going to hell on a misdemeanor!”)

As I tried to—without much success—assert that my relationship with G-d was just that—mine, I thought about a parable Yeshua told—which brings us to our scripture text (Matt 20: 1-16). Overwhelmingly when this parable is preached, at least in my experience, it seems the general focus is on what happens in verse 15. When, expecting to receive more than they originally agreed to work for, the field-hand first responders were met with…surprises. A bit taken aback to understand that even those who had barely tied the laces on their work boots before the whistle blew were going to get the same reward, we’re told that the first shall be last and the last shall be first and we usually chalk this up to a treatise on deathbed confession. You know, Yeshua must have been trying to manage our expectations so we will be okay with the heathens who lived in sin all their lives, tippin and dippin, sinnin’ and grinnin’, and then say the sinner’s prayer right before the grim reaper snatches their trifling souls off the respirator. You know, Jesus must be saying, “Let ‘em in. And if they get orchestra seats center left while you’re sitting in the nosebleeds with the catholics, it’s all good. You’ll have that sweet smug grin on your face knowing that you actually earned your seat. You put the real work in.

Well, as I was enduring the constant haranguing over the holidays via email and Facebook messenger over in China, I wondered, “Is this what it was like to be one of those late-comers in the parable, getting their day wage while getting stared down by those worm-catching early birds who didn’t think they deserved it?” But upon closer examination, I think the point of the story was not so much about whether or not they deserved it. I think the point of the story might be that “it” belongs to the owner of the field and He can do whatever He darn well pleases with it! But as I read this text, my focus doesn’t stay on this drama at the checkout counter long, because my vivid imagination takes me back to earlier in the day. After our early birds had been there for a hot minute…they’d already dug a few ditches and picked a few bags of cotton and then here come these ‘others.’ I’m sure when the first batch of Joseph-come-latelys showed up, our early birds didn’t think twice. There was surely an assumption. “We’ve been working longer, they’re either going to get less, or we’re going to get more. Simple as that.” Via assumption, wages weren’t even an issue when the ‘others’ showed up on the scene. What I imagine was an issue, was how they were working. I’m sure they had a lot to say about how they should be doing things. “Chiiiillld! What are they doing? That’s not how you hoe a row!” After all, they were there first. The Master of the field made His deal with them FIRST! Don’t they get to establish how things should be done? And when it came to the ‘others,’ they were very interested in the affairs of what St. Paul referred to as, “Another man’s servant.” This went on all day in the field. I see it escalating from side-eye and shade throwing, to outright coaching. “Excuse me! That’s not how you do it. Here, let me show you. You do it like this.” “If you don’t do it like this, the Master of the field is going to—oh He ain’t gonna have this!” Entitlement.

When we’re the establishment, it’s very difficult not to fall into the trappings of entitlement. Easily I’m talking about spirituality and religion, but I could just as well be talking about gender, sexuality, economics, politics—anytime you have the introduction of the other—into a routine or system previously established, it seems our subconscious default is the exaltation of the normative expression at the expense of and usually invalidation of other-ness. But it’s an illegitimate default as it’s built on authority derived from a projection of ownership that does not exist. IT ALL BELONGS TO THE OWNER OF THE FIELD and that is not us. And the big surprise at the end is not that the conditions of reward made on arrangement when we enlisted won’t necessarily apply to the other people in the field, the big “I could have had a V8 moment “ comes when we realize the field belongs to someone else, and we don’t get to call the shots just because our names are on the pews, or our gender is on the bathroom door, or our traditions have always been husband and wife, or we’ve always dunked and not sprinkled, or we use Whelches and not wine, or this scripture has always been about death bead confession.

Let’s be real for a second. Justice has to be important to G-d. I mean, It’s called a days wages for reason, right? Applying justice to this situation, is it a stretch to say people who have been working for eight hours should be paid more than people who have only worked eight minutes? But there’s that word again…Should. That pesky little 6-letter word that was the logical basis for C.S.Lewis’s moral argument for the very existence of G-d. Should. It’s a word that, as we’ve explored, carries with it the weight of ownership whether real or imagined, and since we—our sentient will is the only real thing we existentially possess—such a word is probably best suited for use when we are the subject of its direction—when it is us, not the ‘other’ that is the target of its weighty implications. And while concern for the ‘other’s’ welfare, whether spiritual or carnal, can indeed be a lofty and altruistic pursuit, we would do well to pursue such causes mindful of the fact that otherness was created by G-d, just like the very field in which we all labor, and all of it belongs to Him. And He invited them to this shindig. And if you have a problem with the ‘others’ getting the same thing you get, it’s really not the others you have a problem with.

… there will be surprises.