Sunday Spotlight: Eyes on the Prize
Good peripheral vision is a blessing and a curse. It makes us aware of our surroundings. It alerts us to the people in our lives… their strengths… their weaknesses… their achievements… their failings. When blessed by Christian charity, good peripheral vision quickly zeroes in on those who need our help. When tainted by pride, peripheral vision identifies rivals and triggers jealousy and ill will. The choice is ours… resentment or kindness… self-centered or Christ-centered.
The lesson of today’s gospel is to make the right choice… to see past the clutter… to keep our eyes on the prize. The first thing we learn from this gospel is that God keeps his promises. All the rewards of a life in Christ will be ours. Don’t be distracted by the good fortune or failings of others. The gospel instructs us not to measure and compare their merits and their shortcomings to ours. That’s a pretty straight-forward message. But our egos resist and complain: “It’s not fair. I worked longer. I did more. God owes me more.”
As a kid reading this gospel for this first time, that seemed like a very reasonable position. My galloping ego immediately identified with the “good guys.” They worked longer, they should get more. It’s only fair. I had to learn that salvation is not a merit badge. We don’t earn it. It’s a gift from God.
Today, I thank God that he is not governed by my adolescent notions of fairness. We do not judge God. He judges us. And thankfully he does not judge us by our self-centered standards of fairness… or else no one would be saved. He sees us and knows us in intimate detail. He judges us with a forbearance and forgiveness bound by infinite love.
Christ spreads a wide net to gather us in. But if you were the only one to be saved… or I was the only one to be saved…or someone in some remote corner of creation were the only one to be saved, Christ would do it all again. Salvation is not a class-action event. Jesus is our own personal Savior. He did not come to save the early birds or the late arrivals. He comes for each of us-- one by one. He knows and loves each of us in our pride and foolishness, in our falls and resurrections. He does not weigh our worth against each other. Why should we?
Spiritual snobbery is Satan’s trap for the righteous. It tells us that we are better… we have worked longer… we have served the Lord more faithfully. Our pride would have us believe that God has some nerve asking us to share heaven with drunks and dope addicts… all those death-bed converts from a life of sin… all those latecomers to the vineyard. We need to be reminded that God’s grace is infinite. We don’t generate it. We can’t hoard it. We can’t use it up. He doesn’t take it from us to give to others. We are not the arbiters of God’s grace. We are the channels of his love. We are the instruments of his mercy. And the closer we follow Jesus, the more Christ-like we try to be, the more welcoming we become… rejoicing, not resenting, the arrival of each new laborer in the vineyard.
Lately I find the message applies to recent converts, as well as pillars of the church, to the faithful and to the fallen-away. While the lesson is timeless, it had a very immediate application back when Matthew was compiling this gospel. Jesus had made it clear that the new covenant was open to Jew and Gentile alike. But to many of Christ’s earliest and most faithful followers, this didn’t seem fair. The Chosen People had served the Lord from the time of Abraham. They had lived in strict conformity to the laws of God. Hadn’t they earned more than these Johnny-come-lately Gentiles? Jesus is telling them and telling us that earning has nothing to do with salvation. No one buys their way into the kingdom of God. We come by invitation only… an invitation written in the blood of Christ.
Today, I often find myself relating more to the latecomers than to the early risers. I am so very grateful that the grace of God has found me, the mercy of God forgives me, and the love of Christ brings us and binds us together. Early or late to the vineyard, I am… we are… so blessed to do God’s work today. I rejoice in our worship, in our fellowship, in our outreach… in all the labors of love that we share. Every day I try to be aware… to be responsive… to be grateful for God’s great gift of saving grace. I pray we stay focused and resist the petty, divisive instinct to judge our neighbors… to take their moral inventories… and to make self-serving comparisons. In the words of the old spiritual: Keep your eyes on the prize… the ultimate prize… our salvation… our love of God… our love of neighbor. Jesus will put everything else in perspective.