Saints and Laborers

One of the pleasures of praying the Daily Office is the juxtaposition of Bible verses, prayers and spiritual readings that makes me reflect on familiar verses in a new way. 

Yesterday’s gospel was the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, in Matthew 20:1-16. That’s the one where Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a landowner who pays all his workers the same amount, whether they worked all day or only for an hour. This parable sometimes comforts, sometimes outrages, and always fascinates me. To feel validated as a human being, I need to believe two somewhat contradictory things: that God cares about fairness, and that God loves each of us unconditionally, in some way that doesn’t depend on our relative merits. 

The online Daily Office at Mission St. Clare includes brief biographies of saints and great Christian historical figures. To these, also, I have a complex relationship. Sometimes I feel deeply and personally cared for by these people whom I have never met, who faced martyrdom so that I could know the gospel. Other times I’m uncomfortably aware of how high they set the bar. Isn’t envy often rooted in fear that the same miracles will be expected of us as well? Saints and geniuses expose how the heights of endurance and achievement that we wrote off as safely impossible are actually within human reach.

I’d bet that most people wrestling with the vineyard parable, like me, automatically identify with the workers who did more than the average and felt shortchanged. Compared to the saints, though, nearly all of us are more like the late-hired workers, who should be grateful that they get an equal share in the kingdom of heaven despite their meager contribution.

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