Proper 20A: The Walk of Privilege
By: Jay Butler
In our society, finding or discovering things first is highly valued. In some ways, that is a very good thing. When a doctor first discovers a cure to a previously untreatable disease, he or she is praised for their intellect and outward thinking. When a baseball scout discovers a young pitching talent in high school and they become an All-Star, the scout is praised for their vision and gut instinct.
However, in some ways, it’s incredibly annoying. Have you ever discovered a musical artist or band, and one of your friends says, “Oh I’ve known about them for years! Their early work was so much better.”? Their pompous response prompts me to give an over-the-top eye roll. People who get in on the ground floor of some trend or idea tend to look down upon the people who find out at a later time. Their attachment to something grants them the right to judge. This brings us to the Gospel reading for the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost.
In this reading, Jesus is illustrating the Kingdom of Heaven in a parable. He likens the Kingdom to a landowner of a vineyard and the workers he hired. This parable goes on to illustrate that no matter how long you work for God in the Kingdom, you will get the same reward, which is eternal life and a life spent with God. At first glance, there are some great insights that are not mentioned in the text.
First, it doesn’t say how hard each of the workers were working. For all we know, the workers that were hired at the beginning of the day were lazy, incompetent or prideful. The workers subsequently hired throughout the day might have been more productive than them. Just because someone has been hired to do a job first, doesn’t mean they are the right person for the job. Second, the landowner casts no judgement towards the people who have not found work the entire day. The landowner has a need, and finds people to fulfill that need. Simple as that. Finally, how do the early workers respond to the landowner’s chastisement? Have they changed their way of thinking or opinion? That’s why I think this parable does a great job of setting up a conversation of social justice and privilege.
We can’t help but be aware of what’s going on in our world, and the onus is on us to take sides in these conflicts. The problem lies with how we react when people join a certain cause. Our increasingly connected world allows to see injustices at a lightning-fast pace. What were once rumors and anecdotes of purported violence towards a marginalized population have been substituted with cell phone footage and live tweets that leave no doubt of incidence of discrimination towards a group of people.
One of the charges leveled at Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign was her supposed “flip-flopping”. She originally voted for the war in Iraq as a United States senator in 2003, and was initially an opponent of same-sex marriage. She later said that she regretted voting for the war, and is now a strong supporter of LGBTQIA rights. Critics lambasted her for her change of heart, myself included. However, this is an unfair judgement of a person. People change, their exposures change, and most importantly their hearts change.
Hearts change for many reasons. When a person is presented with a harsh reality, it can often cause them to consider their views differently. One of the most significant ways that happened to me was during my second year of seminary. We played a game called “The Walk of Privilege” in my prophetic preaching class. In this game, people are placed in a side-by-side line, and are given a certain set of questions that determine how much privilege they’ve been given. They either step forward for privilege given by society, or stepping backwards for privilege taken away by society. When the game was over, I realized I was the farthest forward in my entire class. It shook me. I was not guilty for the things I’d been given, but I was guilty that I had not used them for greater good in the world. This is what the landowner does for the workers in the end of the parable. He holds a mirror up to their own privilege.
“But what about if that person causes harm with their opinions and judgements before they changed their heart?” That is a very real possibility, and that’s something that should not be taken lightly. However, what if that person who’s had a change of heart has apologized and works to correct the imbalance they’ve caused? Do we as people of faith need to still judge them for the past? Does Christ do that towards us?
There is not a time limit for joining a justice movement. God’s desire for us to bring Heaven to earth does not expire. This is displayed in the parable. The landowner treats all of the workers equally. Maybe those later workers didn’t deserve to get paid as much. Maybe those first workers worked their tails off in the hot sun. No matter when they started working, and no matter how hard they worked, the thing to remember is that all of the workers accepted the invitation to be with the landowner. The landowner gave them enough to live, whether they deserved it or not. God gives us enough to live for eternity, through the death and resurrection of God’s son, Jesus Christ. It doesn’t matter when we start working for good in the world, nor does it matter when we figure out what God wants for this world. However, when we answer the call from God to accept God’s help, and to do God’s work in the world, then we can be justly rewarded with eternal life.
Jay Butler is Minister of Youth and Discipleship at Mt. Sylvan United Methodist Church, in Durham, North Carolina. He loves his job because he can pick on teenagers…but in a loving, Christ-filled way. He loves his dog, baseball, the theatre, and convincing you why college football is better than college basketball.