It was going to be a fantastic party. The flowers and decor were coordinated. The caterer was the best in the city. The playlist was on point. The only problem was, there were empty seats. All that planning, all that work and forethought, and several guests were running late. VERY late. The hostess fretted and scrambled and texted “Where are you??”
When the stragglers finally came through the door, she said “where have you been??” They said, “it’s just that we only got your invitation just now, when you texted to see why we were late…” So that was awkward.
The hostess went to the desk where she had addressed all the invitations and sure enough - there were several still sitting there. The names from the bottom of the guest list. THe ones in the ‘maybe’ pile, pending the RSVPs of others. She had waited to see if there would be room, after the more important or slightly more interesting guests replied - then she forgot them entirely.
“Oh, well,” said the hostess. “What matters is that you’re here now.” And then she gave them the best seat at the table.
* * *
The interns were late to the meeting. It was a big meeting, The Boss was in town. The team had made the good coffee and bought the good donuts. Today was a big deal, with future plans to be shared from corporate, and most importantly - advancement opportunities. Lots of ways for those just starting out to make connections that would lead to future jobs. Where were those interns? They would be crazy to miss this!
Someone finally thought to go down to reception and see where the young folks had all ghosted off to. And there they sat, answering phones and greeting guests as usual. When asked why they weren’t rushing up to this momentous gathering happening upstairs they said “nobody told us we were allowed to come! We thought it was for managers only” The team went back through their email thread and then realized that yes, as it happened, everybody thought someone else had extended the invitation.
When the whole team came back, finally, to The Big Meeting, the interns got the front seats. And the first donuts.
* * *
The migrants had waited all day to be chosen for work. Others had been called up first thing in the morning. Now it was almost dark, so it was looking like there would be no work today. As they packed up to go home, a truck pulled up. “Why are you not out working today?” asked the farmer.
“Nobody hired us,” they replied.
Then the farmer asked: Why not?
Well. Nobody had ever thought to ask them that before. But they had answers. “Many reasons,” they said. “Because we are older. Because we are immigrants. Because we are strangers. Because we don’t look like the others. Because of our accents. Because of our clothes. Many reasons.”
“Well get in,” said the farmer, “I can use all the help I can get.”
The men worked til sundown, which is to say, only about an hour and a half. And at the end of the day, that generous farmer paid the migrants, who had worked only a short time, the same wage as those younger men who had been working since sun up. “That’s not fair!” the others hollered, then hollered some more. “Why should they get the same pay for a fraction of the labor?”
“Because,” said the farmer, “I have it to give. And you might say… we’re making up for lost time.”
* * *
If you want to understand the complexities of economic justice, you could ask a politician; you could look to any number of community organizing groups or activist leaders… or you can read the parables of Jesus. In these stories, he gives us living examples of what the kingdom of heaven looks like in the flesh, in real life and practice.
And if his subversive, controversial ideas of what that kingdom should be make us uncomfortable, then know we are not alone - people in his own time didn’t really like it either.
On the world’s terms, it’s absurd to pay someone for 2 hours work the same thing you would pay for 8 or 10 hours work. It’s a terrible business model! But truly, sometimes what’s bad for business is what’s good for the neighborhood. What’s bad for the bottom line is good news for the poor, the weary, the left out and forgotten. The last guest on the list, the overlooked intern, the migrant worker waiting to be called to the field.
As Richard Rohr says, “Jesus’s ministry is not to gather the so-called good into a private country club and punish the outsiders, but to reach out to those on the edge and on the bottom, those who are last, to tell them they might just be first!”
Nobody wants to be last. Not the workers who actually arrived first, and certainly not the people who’ve always had a privileged seat at the table. But the kingdom of heaven is terrible for business, and even worse for those who are used to being the boss of things.
It's understandable that the all-day laborers would want more compensation than those that just rolled in midafternoon. Of course they pitch a fit about the unfairness of it all.
But nobody seems to ask what caused the others to be late.
When the landowner finds the workers at the end of the day and asks why they aren't working, they say, "because no one has hired us."
The landowner in this parable has privilege of place and power. And he chooses the way of abundant generosity. He chooses to compensate the late comers for MORE than they are worth on the world’s terms, perhaps to show them their infinite worth in human terms; in kingdom terms.
Could it be that he, like no one else in the story, bothered to wonder– why did no one hire them in the first place?
Once he started asking that question, once he got interested in the realities of life for his neighbors, he would begin to get to the source of the gap between those who have enough, and those who were forgotten. He would begin to see that he had the means available to close that distance. That it was as simple as giving a living wage to those who had just been waiting for an invitation to work.
That is how you build the kingdom of heaven.
Once we identify the people at the margins, and ask why they are there rather than continue to exclude them ... then we might be on our way to following Jesus into something new.
As it turns out, most often, people are not actually late to the party. They are just the last on the guest list.
How about one more parable?
God’s people, who called themselves the Church, were doing everything they could to get their neighbors to come gather; to worship, and to keep up the work Jesus started. They did everything. They built big buildings, and they got hipper music; small groups for every interest imaginable, strategic planners and 5-year growth strategies; dazzling websites - Instagram even!
But fewer and fewer people were showing up to do the work. Especially the young people! What has happened to the young people?? became their common refrain.
Finally, the people of God (the Church-with-a-capital-C) went out to the neighborhood and asked around. They stopped going straight to the people who looked just like them and they ventured to some farther corners - and to the people they found there, asked “Where have you been? Why don’t you come?” And the neighbors, every last one of them said - I was not invited. None of this was for me.
“I was gay and you told me I was a sinner.”
“I was homeless and you hid me from tourists.”
“I was divorced and you withheld communion from me.”
“I struggled with addiction and you told me to just pray more.”
“I was Black and your people voted for white supremacists. Again, and again.”
“I was trans and you made my very existence a crime.”
“We were very last on the guest list, and you just forgot to come back for us.”
What do you suppose the Church said then?
I know how I’d LIKE for this story to end. I’d like to hear the followers of Jesus say: Nobody is going to be late on our watch. Not late to work, not late to the party, and certainly not last at the table. Not ever again.
It’s time for us to get interested in where the people are–who has been left out and forgotten– then maybe we can build something like the kingdom of heaven, right here in the neighborhood.
And in the kingdom of heaven, the early shall be late - and the late will be right on time.