For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, 'Why are you standing here idle all day?' They said to him, 'Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard.' When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, 'Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.' When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' But he replied to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 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 20:1-16
The late-in-the-day workers are paid the same wages as the people laboring in the sun since dawn.
I love this hopeful story, although I understand the complaint of the workers bearing the burden of the day in the scorching heat. On the one hand I can feel resentful of God's generosity from the point of view of my long and difficult service to the church ( I am like the older brother of the prodigal son.) But because my love is always wanting, and because I feel like a perpetual beginner in faith, and because I've messed up so many times, the wages of grace collected by those hired at the setting of the sun is good news indeed.
The obvious quote to begin the meditation on the late-in-the-day laborers is from Augustine (meditation one). The Tao reminds the reader of the way of heaven is not like values in the world (meditation two). Einstein states the oft-forgotten obvious, that every aspect of life depends upon the labor of others (meditation three). This last quote reminds me of the prayer at Compline:
O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day, who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other's toil; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Meditation One (introit) late have I loved you Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now I pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.
-Augustine Confessions 8,xxvii,(38) trans. Henry Chadwick
(Here, Dante wonders if the inhabitents of this part of heaven mind that they are in a "lower" part of heaven. Of course not, they reply. Our highest happiness is God's will.)
"But tell me, you whose happiness is here, Have you no hankering to go up higher, To win more insight or a love more dear?"
She smiled a little, and the spirit-choir Smiled too; and when she spoke her looks expressed Such joy, she seemed to burn in love's first fire:
"Brother, our love has laid our wills to rest, Making us long only for what is ours, And by no other thirst to be possessed.
If we could wish to bide in loftier bowers, Our wish would jangle with that will of His Which hath assigned our proper place and powers;
And in these gyres thou'lt find no room for this, If love is here our necessary state, And thou bethink thee what love's nature is.
Nay, 'tis the essence of our blissful fate To dwell in the divine will's radius, Wherein our wills themselves are integrate;
Whose being from threshold unto threshold thus Through all this realm doth all the realm so please, And please the King that here in-willeth us
To His own will; and His will is our peace..."
-Dante The Divine Comedy: Paradise III:64-85 trans. Dorothy L. Sayers
The Parable of the Laborers in the Vinyard, Johann Christian Brand, 1769, detail
Parable of the Laborers in the Vinyard, Johann Christian Brand, 1769
Meditation Two (insight) reversals The way of Heaven, Is it not like stretching a bow? What is high up is pressed down, What is low down is lifted up; What has surplus is reduced, What is deficient is supplemented. The way of Heaven, It reduces those who have surpluses, To supplement those who are deficient. The way of man is just not so: It reduces those who are deficient, To offer to those who have surpluses. Who can offer his surpluses to the world? Only a person of Tao. -Tao Te Ching 77
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Meditation Three (integration) receiving and giving
A hundred times a day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of other people, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the full measure I have received and am still receiving. -Albert Einstein 1879-1955
We have learned a bit too late in the day that action springs not from thought but from a readiness for responsibility.
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945 Letters from Prison
The Late Laborer
“Peter was a low-down, goddamn, selfish son-of-a-bitch.” The congregation sucked all the air out the church. Then, a titter. Then an out- breath of relief. Then laughter. I was telling the truth.
“Peter said, 'You'll get me into that church over my dead body!' Well, we had a nice party in the narthex last night around your coffin, Peter! And we laughed a lot!” Thus began the funeral homily for Peter.
Peter was so mean he was cute.
When I first met him, he was smashing a low brick wall in front of the cottage he shared with his wife Sheila. “Oh, he knocks it down and then he builds it up. It's how he deals with his anger,” said Sheila.
Peter and Sheila had AIDS.
One of the several times we thought he was dying, Peter rallied enough to chase away the priest Sheila had summoned. But I often came to sit with him, although I knew enough not to pray with him. Once, when I thought he was unconscious, Peter suddenly responded to a TV news report highlighting Joey Buttafuoco, the lover of 'Long Island Lolita' Amy Fisher. Grasping his oxygen mask and tearing it off his face Peter barked, “That guy's full of shit!” then replaced the mask and went out cold.
Peter and Sheila fought often. But Sheila counted out his pills, never-mind that Peter often stole and abused them behind her back. He was a drug addict, after-all. He was angry with the world. Angry that he was dying. Angry with everyone. He was a genius at anger. And swearing.
But Peter got to see heaven. One day, the space beyond the television, beyond the wall and ceiling, opened into a billowing heaven. He saw dead relatives. He saw angels. Peter described in detail to his family what he was seeing. In the next death crises, Peter allowed the priest he'd previously thrown out to hear his confession. And Peter died in peace, having seen heaven in the eleventh hour.
Some of us, who've worked in the vineyard of the Lord all our lives, have never seen heaven. Not once.
Sheila and I chose the parable of the workers in the vineyard for Peter's funeral. And whenever I hear it I think of mean, goddamn, difficult, selfish, son-of-a-bitch Peter, seeing heaven at the eleventh hour.
'Or are you envious because I am generous?' So the last will be first, and the first will be last. -Matthew 20:16