Deacon Cornell's Homily


Isaiah 55:6-9
Philippians 1:20c-24,27a
Matthew 20:1-6a


September 22, 2002, Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Todayís parable of the workers in the vineyard is one of those parables that elicits a different emotional response depending on who we identify with in the story. Someone who identifies with the owner of the vineyard will have quite a different emotional response to the story from someone who identifies with the workers who worked the whole day, or who identifies with the workers who only worked an hour. But I suspect that no matter who we identify with or where our response is on the emotional scale, our response is generated by a common way of looking at the world, a way that is very different from the way Jesus is trying to get his disciples to understand.

Jean Bethke Elshtain, a philosopher and author, in a Chicago Studies article on Families and Trust in Spring of 2000, calls the way most of us look at the world a cash economy as opposed to the gift economy revealed by Jesus. A cash economy is basically a balancing of the books. In every transaction, or exchange, ideally what is given and received balance out, as measured by some objective measure. Whenever the relative values of what is given or received are far enough apart, we get uneasy about the transaction, either recognizing it as unfair or unjust if we are on the short end, or worrying (or congratulating ourselves) about taking advantage of the other person if we are on the long end.

Professor Elshtain, uses St. Augustineís words to explain the fundamental differences between the cash economy the world teaches and the gift economy that Jesus reveals as the way the kingdom of God works. Augustine focuses on two essential differences characterized by the medium of each economy. In a cash economy, the medium is money. If I give you money, I have less money myself. This is different from a gift economy where the medium is love. If I give you love, not only does that not reduce the love that I possess but it actually increases it.

In a cash economy, there is a conflict between what is best for the parties in any transaction. If I give you money, the best thing for you is if I do not expect anything in return. But the best thing for me is if I get something of equal or even greater value back.

In a gift economy there is no conflict between what is best for both parties. If I give you love, the best thing for you is that I request that you give me love back. Even if you donít love me back, I still have more love for having offered you love. And since love is not really yours until you give it away, it is best for you if you love me back.

Another subtle but important difference is that in a cash economy, my benefit depends on what I receive, and many times I have no control over that. In a gift economy, my benefit depends on what I give, over which I have full control.

†In this section of Matthewís Gospel, the author is trying present us with Jesusí teaching that the kingdom of God is not governed by a cash economy. Moreover, until we start looking at the world differently, we cannot start to enter into the kingdom of God.

Last week we heard Jesus tell the disciples that we must forgive 7 x 70, essentially without limit. That doesnít make sense in a cash economy. If we are hurt, the person who hurt us must earn our forgiveness. In todayís Gospel we have the unbalanced exchanges between the vineyard owner and the groups of workers who worked various parts of the day. That doesnít make sense in a cash economy. In a gift economy, a just wage is one that gives each worker what is needed to sustain him and his family for the day. It is not one that is strictly based on effort.

From the many stories that Jesus told about this different ordering in the kingdom of God, I suspect that he realized how difficult it is for most of us to switch the way we think. Professor Elshtain, in her article, focuses on the negative impact that buying into the cash economy has had on the family, turning its value into something measured by how many things we consume.† I believe it is one of the reasons that our culture does not celebrate those women who are full time mothers. There is no exchange of value that can be measured by the cash economy, so our culture cannot see its worth. For a brief moment after 9/11 last year, we started to see it. We started talking about the value of spending time with family and friends as being more important than working to earn more money so we can consume more things. We started to articulate that it might be better to spend more time with our family than to work more so we can buy them the latest video game or ballet lessons. For a brief time we started thinking about a gift economy.† But it only lasted a short time; I donít think many of us are doing things dramatically different now from how we were doing them on 9/10/2001?

To get the full benefit of todayís parable, I think we have to see ourselves both as the workers who only worked the one-hour, and as the vineyard owner. As the one-hour workers we realized God has gifted us far more than we have any right to be. Because we have been so gifted, we have an abundance that lets us turn around and like the vineyard owner, give to others without counting what we get in return.

So high are Godís ways above our ways, and Godís thoughts above our thoughts. But so high is Godís generosity above ours that God reveals to us his thoughts, and give us the strength and the wisdom and the courage to follow his ways.

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