“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”
One of my college theology professors once said that the work of religion was about smashing idols in order to open ourselves to a fuller sense of the Mystery of God. When he mentioned idols, he was not referencing any particular physical representation of other deities, like the golden calf in the Exodus story. He was neither referring to ridding ourselves of artistic representations of God or icons in our Christian tradition. The idols about which we need to be concerned are the small conceptions of God that fail to capture who God really is. An idol could center on any attribute of God. We might have an idol in the place of God’s love that makes us believe sin causes God to stop loving us. Idols are more comfortable versions of God that stay us from seeking the living God beyond our conceptions. The Gospel story today tells us of another idol we might have in the place of God’s justice.
Jesus’ parable about the landowner challenges our sense of justice. The full-day’s workers have a rightful complaint against the landowner. They worked the field longer and assumedly performed more of the farm maintenance than the late hires. The full-day workers deserve more recompense if the landowner cared only about levels of production. To the surprise of the full-day workers (and to us readers), the landowner rewards the late hires with the same reward. They did not earn the full day’s salary, yet the landowner proceeded to give it to them anyway. If the landowner was truly interested in production alone, he would have rewarded the full-day workers more handsomely than the late hires. The parable hints that divine justice, the justice of God’s reign, is not equivalent to our normal economic sense of just rewards. For if the landowner symbolizes God, God prizes that others have joined in the task of laboring for the world rather than the number of assignments they complete. To paraphrase St. Teresa of Calcutta, God desires faithfulness not success.
The landowner parable shatters a narrow conception of divine justice. An idol that can be latent in all of us who take our faith lives seriously is the idea that God will reward us more for what we do now in our lives than others. The idol is hard to remove because on the surface it seems to be a truism about divine justice, but this idol also keeps our attention focused on ourselves. We are the ones who profit from this idol of God’s justice. God invites us to turn our gaze away from ourselves, and to look at others with His tender gaze. We are called to adopt God’s concern for all His people to be one with Him, and to go out to the places and people who need a sense of God’s presence and peace. When we hold onto idols of the god we have fashioned, we are prevented from moving our focus off ourselves and onto others.
Let us pray that God might free of us from any idols that we might allow to become obstacles to our joining the living God at labor in the world today.
When have I felt like an idol was smashed into my life? What did I learn about God in the process or the event?