September 24, 2017 – Difficult Love

Text: Matthew 20:1-16

Iris Murdoch, Irish-born British writer said, “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.”

I like her definition of love, as it makes me think and wonder about the love I experience. Love is one of the words we use so often and so conveniently that it can become meaningless unless we clarify what we mean by that. We say ‘I love it’ for almost everything we like: ‘I love chocolate’, ‘I love my new phone’, or ‘I love the movie’ because there is something we really like, and it serves our needs well. Certainly that’s not the love Iris talked about. Even in our relationship with others, the real love seems to be rare. What do we mean when we say ‘I love you’? Do we mean only the parts we like, or the person as a whole admitting our inability to grasp fully, and honouring the great mystery in the person? Sometimes it’s the feeling of love that we love more than we love the person. If you can ever remember your first love, you can probably remember not only the pain of a breakup, but also the joy of being in love. Honestly, what do you miss most? Is it the person or the feeling you had?

Love is difficult because it’s difficult to realize that something other than ourselves is real. In the name of love, we do many things that don’t necessarily reflect the genuine love. Let’s think about the most recent argument we had with our loved ones. Setting aside who’s right or wrong, didn’t we all believe that we knew what’s good if not best for them?

Recently, I was in a meeting where people debated whether we should continue a newly initiated ministry in one of the rapidly growing neighbourhoods in the city. People spoke strongly about why they thought it’s important to have the presence of the United Church in that particular area. While I appreciated their passion and commitment, I couldn’t help but ask: ‘Whose needs are we talking about here?’ ‘Have we asked what the people in the neighbourhood really need?’ Or ‘Are we expecting them to be like us, sharing the same values with us and behaving like we do?’ Or ‘Are we willing to be challenged and even transformed by the people we hope to minister to?’

Those are the questions, I believe, we must ask ourselves to clarify what we mean when we say we love our neighbours. A good intention is not enough. We first have to admit how little we know. Such a humble attitude makes us curious about others, wanting to know more, and learn more. Then we must keep on showing up, being open to an encounter with those whose worlds are different from ours. That’s easier said than done. Confusion and discomfort are the signs that we are on the right track. I’m not saying that we have to give up what we are holding dear in our hearts. What I am saying is that we must examine ourselves to see if the life as we know it is life-giving, and in the grand scheme of things, to see if the life as we know it serves the wellbeing of all – the whole humanity, and other forms of life in their unique beauties.

Our individualistic worldview separates us from everything else. Unless we maintain the immediate and tangible human connections with family or friends, it’s easy to feel alone. No wonder loneliness is the huge problem in the individualistic society like Canada. It can hit us at any moment in our lives, if not
daily. We can be lonely even in the crowd. We can be happy and lonely at the same time. If loneliness is something we all share in common, we must do something about it.

Jesus never taught us to pray ‘give me this day my daily bread’. He taught us to pray ‘give us this day our daily bread’. The two words, us and bread shouldn’t be separated. Every time we eat our daily food, we are invited to think about the whole creation. Every time we think about the creation, we are invited to think about the daily food we all need. That is, we can always begin with gratitude for what we are already given, and turn that gratitude into actions – paying attention to see who’s hungry of their daily food, the necessities, and sharing what we can until no one leaves hungry.

Iris’ definition of love, “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real” can be read with a little more details. Love is the extremely difficult realization that someone other than us is hungry as we are, lonely as we are, and is worthy of what she or he needs as we are. You might ask ‘what if the love you give is not returned?’ But the kind of love we are talking about is not necessarily reciprocal. It doesn’t depend on the mutual affection. It can go on even if we feel like no one really cares about us. Such love challenges our understanding of fairness. Such love is difficult but is possible, and is absolutely necessary.

The parable we heard today speaks about that love. It is found in the peculiar landowner who is not good at business. The landowner goes out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sends them into his vineyard. He goes about at nine o’clock, and sees others standing idle in the marketplace. He says to them, ‘you also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ He goes out again at noon and at three o’clock, and does the same, hiring more people. And at five o’clock he goes out one more time, and finds more people who haven’t been hired, and sends them into the vineyard. When evening comes, the landowner calls all the labourers and gives them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first. They all get paid the daily wage. We don’t think that’s fair. The first who have worked longer hours don’t think that’s fair either.

If the landowner is interested in getting the work done efficiently, he could have hired all the labourers at once early in the morning. He was going to pay the usual daily wage anyway. But that’s not his concern. If the landowner is interested in treating everyone equally, he should have paid them differently according to the work hours. His primary concern is not equality, treating everyone the same, but equity, giving everyone what they need to be successful. The landowner is described as an agent who is actively seeking others until no one is left behind, as if he understands what it feels like to be lonely, what it feels like to be hungry, and what it feels like to be not needed.

Indeed, the landowner is the only one in this story who is concerned about everyone else in the market place, while all the labourers are only concerned about what they need or want. It is the landowner who realizes that something other than himself absolutely exists. By doing so, he invites all the labourers to be conscious of each other, as they all share the same need. What makes this story even more compelling is that it is a parable by Jesus to show us what God is like. Those around Jesus must have found the parable either troubling or comforting depending on where they stood. Those of us who still hear this parable find it either troubling or comforting depending on where we stand. No matter what our response is, we must encounter this mysterious yet generous God, who is always on the move, finding the lonely and the hungry until everyone falls in love, realizing that something other than ourselves is real.