As a few of us walked out of the church earlier this week, we each added some personal notes about Rose, whose funeral we had just attended. She was a remarkable woman, and the number and variety of her friends testified to that. Young and old and people of all sorts counted themselves lucky to have her as a friend, and we were privileged to have been included in her circle.
Then a parable of Jesus popped into my mind. In the gospel Jesus tells the story of the vineyard owner who had hired workers throughout the day. By evening the early hires naturally expected to get more than the latecomers, but that’s not the way it worked out. Everyone got paid the same amount, and not a few felt cheated. Not so, countered the owner. But that was little comfort to those who rued the day they’d agreed to work for that guy.
I know I’m not the only one who’s been puzzled by this parable, and I’ve always sided with the early hires and seen this as an issue of injustice. Clearly those workers deserved something more for their loyalty to the owner, as any fair-minded person would agree.
In fairness to Jesus, however, I think he actually hoped we’d see it that way, and from there he wanted us to broaden our horizons. In fact, as he points out, justice was done here, and people were paid what they’d been promised. Still, life isn’t always fair, and to make that point Jesus adds the element of generosity. The mixture of justice and gratuitous generosity creates a dilemma, and if we’re left scratching our heads, then so be it. If God is both just and generous, then that’s God’s business and not ours. So it’s best that we admit the conundrum and get over it.
That’s certainly one way to look at this parable, but it’s not the only way. Thanks to Rose I’d suddenly realized I’d missed something there. Rose had friendships that went back 50 and 60 years. She also had friends she’d known for 25, 10 and 3 years. In that company I was a relative newcomer, since I’d known her for only 11 years. Yet, remarkably, throughout her life Rose had made room for all of those people, no matter how recently they had shown up. She had grown from that experience, and so had we. Whether she knew it or not, Rose had modeled her life on the owner of the vineyard and his expansive view of life.
I wish I’d thought of this earlier, because I would have made use of it in my sermon. Alas, it was too late to reference it that day, but it wasn’t too late to store it away and use it on another occasion. Like the gospel householder who brings forth from the storehouse old things and new, this is an idea that will see the light on a day further down the pike.
For the moment, however, there’s two things that I take home from this experience. First, we should never assume that we’ve learned all there is to learn about a particular passage in the Bible. Just when you think you’ve heard it all, someone comes along with a new and interesting perspective. That’s as good a reason as any to justify the regular re-reading of the scriptures. You never know what else there is to learn. Buried among all the verses is a nugget that can make all the difference in a day, or in a life.
The second lesson is more specific to Rose. Friendships are among the greatest gifts we’ll ever have, and we need to treasure our friends accordingly. In that vein, friendship can never be a zero-sum game, so it’s not an especially good idea to put a cap on the number of friends we let into our lives. Whether they are close friends, good friends or casual friends, all are gifts from God. Each friend is the face of God, sent to walk with us on our pilgrimage to the Lord.
Who can begrudge the owner of the vineyard for hiring all the workers he could? Who can begrudge God for reaching out in love to any and everybody? Who would begrudge Rose from amassing a roomful of friends? Who wouldn’t want to be in her shoes!
Finally, we are left with one last issue. Can there be too many workers in the vineyard of the Lord? I seriously doubt it. Similarly, can we have too many friends? Same answer as before. In any case, from now on I’m standing with the owner of the vineyard when I hear this parable. Like him, I need all the help and all the friends I can get.
+On May 17th I attended and preached at the funeral of my good friend Rose, at Saint Agnes Church in Naples, FL. I met Rose and John many years ago, and they have welcomed me as their friend ever since. Even better, I have become a friend of many of their friends, and for all of that I am grateful.
+On May 21st I gave a day of reflection to the members of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo, in the Western Association of the Order of Malta. The retreat took place at Saint Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, outside of San Francisco. It’s a huge hulk of a building, and with the students and staff gone for the summer we felt overwhelmed in its vast hallways.
+The photos in today’s blog all come from the collections at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. It is among my favorite museums in the United States, both because of its strong holdings in medieval art as well as for its generous policy that allows personal photography.