I can see today’s story being used in the early church to combat the subtle prejudices, favouritisms, and snubs that might otherwise have kept from full inclusion and assimilation new Christians, non-Jewish Christians, Christians from other countries, cultures and languages. After all, we see in Acts that the Hellenists already after a very short time felt that they were getting short shrift when it came to the food distribution and assistance plan for widows (Acts 6).
I still occasionally hear echoes of the resentment of the day labourers when people talk disparagingly of death-bed conversions or confessions; when people complain about the newcomers to the church who don’t understand everything it takes to keep the place going; when people say who should or should not be considered a “real” Christian.
Our understanding of who deserves a full place at the table, a full meal, a full day’s bread has developed over time. When I was growing up, those coming into the church waited for Confirmation before receiving Communion; for children, this meant years of waiting. Over time, the realization that the accident of separating Confirmation from Baptism had resulted in this two-tier membership of the church which had never really been intended or justified, and we remembered to include all the baptized in Communion, even the ones baptized ten minutes ago from their mothers’ arms. It looks very much as though that understanding has not finished its development yet.
When the change took place, there were some few who complained that they had needed to wait, to go through classes, “jump through hoops” (which I find a slightly disturbing way to refer to a commitment to one’s faith, but oh well), so why shouldn’t everyone else? I think that this parable applies to those complaints, too.
I recently heard a sermon from a friend and colleague about a youth event at which the children learned about prejudice and outcasts, and how God’s love will have none of that; that God loves all of us, no exceptions. God goes out at the end of the working day and gathers up the leftovers, the left-behind, the outcasts. God puts them to work, too, with the others, so that they not only get their living wage, but they end the day together with their co-labourers, side by side and equal.
I suppose that I was hired early in the day. I entered this religious life during childhood, with a reasonable understanding of what was required of me and what I expected from the relationship. So the question that this parable poses for me is who I am looking at with a tinge of resentment, jealousy, disapproval. Whom do I begrudge a place at the table? Who do I think should wait their turn before they are served, because of where they have come from, or what they have been doing all day?
Because it seems rather likely that whoever that person is, God has already invited them to the front of the buffet line ahead of me.