A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew:
Jesus told his disciples this parable: “The Kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. Going out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’ So they went off. And he went out again around noon, and around three o’clock, and did likewise. Going out about five o’clock, he found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’ When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’ When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage. So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’ He said to one of them in reply, ‘My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’ Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”*
This parable is highly personal to me. This very same passage/reading appeared in last year’s reading schedule at the same time of year, and I happened to be at a conference for religious and lay supporters of LGBT advocacy and justice within the Catholic Church. It was an interesting conference—completely not what I expected, and yet I still learned things and had an experience hearing people’s stories there.
At first impressions, I had been really disappointed to learn that there weren’t any other religious there other than the one sister who was one of the founding members of the organization and of the conference. There were a couple former religious there—one former Jesuit, and two ex-chaplains—but there weren’t any other representatives of the Church there (other than laity). Where were the welcoming priests? Where were the brothers and sisters who advocated for compassion and mercy under the edicts of the as-yet unmoving Church and its condemnation of gay and lesbian Catholics? It was disheartening that there wasn’t any company of equals with whom to collaborate or talk.
What was even more interesting was that most all of the other attendees were not gay or lesbian. Most all of them were parents of gay or lesbian children who were trying to come to grips with the fact that the Church had rejected their children. That was a saddening situation by which to be surrounded—seeing not just the direct hurt of those directly rejected, but the repercussions of hurt that expanded outward from the direct rejection. As far as I could tell, none of the attendees’ children were active in the Church or attending service anywhere (and why would they when they had been rejected for who they are? When it is more satisfying to surround oneself with like-minded people in secular society…why would anyone purposely go to a place where one was made to feel condemned and corrupt? How does the Church not get that?) So the people at this conference, not unlike me, were simply struggling to love something that wasn’t loving them back. Pretty simple equation for a lot of pain.
The Church is like a fickle tease. “I love you; you’re perfect; now change.” But we can’t. You can’t change being left-handed; you can’t change the color of your skin; you can’t change DNA markers that define who you are (with the exception of cosmetic changes due to medical advances)… and if you’re gay or lesbian, you can’t change wether you are attracted to members of the same sex. Sorry; you just can’t. It’s innate. GOD CREATED US THIS WAY. If you can’t appreciate all the things that God has created, why should anyone trust in your claimed affection? It’s false. It’s a lie. And if you’re asking gay and lesbian people to hide or change or renounce their natural sexual attractions, you are asking those people to sin. Thou shalt not give false witness. Thou shalt not lie. It’s a commandment. Where does a person go whose faith religion commands that he or she not lie, and yet also demands that he or she must lie if they wish to participate or be accepted? Do you see the impossibility here?
Anyway, the reading at the top of this post—Matthew 20:1-16—was read during the closing Sunday mass service at this particular retreat, and rather than a homily by an officiant, all attending members of the conference who were participating in the mass were invited to share their thoughts on what the reading meant in context to each of us independently. Several of those in attendance expressed how the parable made them feel like the late-hired workers, that they were willing to participate, willing to work hard, but that they were not invited to contribute until the eleventh-hour (if at all). For them, this story was about willing to be called, and yet not being found as desirable to join in the work at hand. For them it was like being called last when captains choose team members for the game of kickball at recess.
Others latched on to the idea that regardless of whether they were desirable for the team on this earthly plane, that what the parable was saying was that in God’s kingdom they were just as worthy as anyone else despite having to endure the humiliation of being called second class citizens by their peers.
And then I decided that I would tell everyone a story that had happened to me only a few days before, and how it shed some light on what the parable meant to me…
A little bit of back-story was necessary for this tale… Before moving across country in order to join my monastic community, I had worked and labored for over twenty years in the LGBT human rights arena. I once was a reporter for a state-wide gay and lesbian newspaper, and most recently had worked for a non-profit that strove to build bridges between the gay/lesbian and heterosexual communities. It had been tough, if satisfying, work. The organization, although carving pathways nationally and internationally, was centralized and located in an urban metropolis in the Pacific Northwest where a demographic of highly educated people and progressivism helped to lighten the burden of the task. So many things were accomplished in the twenty years that I helped work towards LGBT equality and recognition: the AIDS crisis eventually received greater recognition and funding, and medical advancements made vast changes for those affected; civil unions and then marriage became law in a couple states, then a few more states, first by decree of court decisions, then—miraculously—by popular vote of the people in those states; sexual orientation was added to workplace discrimination clauses, first by several corporate entities, and later by city councils, and eventually by state legislatures; more and more celebrities determined that it was okay to publicly come out of the closet, providing society with more and more examples of bravery and honesty; and gay characters in movies and television (!) no longer were necessarily portrayed as evil or deranged… All these little victories were creating a new vision for gay and lesbian people, and having lived and contributed to the success of all those positive changes gave me a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, and affirmation.
Then a new pope made a comment during a plane-ride interview, and then released words of wisdom in an apostolic exhortation that gave me the hope and joy that the possibilities of equality for LGBT people and a common understanding of equal footing might finally have arrived. It meant that my [literally] life-long dream of becoming a religious might finally be able to come to fruition. And so I gave up my worldly life, and most of my possessions and came to my monastic community with anticipation and enthusiasm….
…And about my third month in, I was speaking congenially with a couple who were visiting my monastic community for a period of contemplation (welcoming them as the Rule of Saint Benedict commands), when all of a sudden the topic being discussed by these guests turned derisively and derogatorily towards the several lesbian couples that they had encountered at services. They informed me that back home at the Franciscan Center where they were accustomed to celebrating mass, there was no mis-interpretation of Catholic social teaching regarding such lifestyles! …so I was emphatically told.
Several things made the situation even worse that a mere random outburst of heterosexist/homophobic defamation. It so happened that I had an old friend who was also visiting me that weekend—someone who had contributed to the LGBT human rights work that I previously did—who happened to be standing right next to me at the time that this other guest started spewing discriminatory language in regards to those “gays.” The couple obviously did not register that I nor my friend were indeed the very people about whom they were speaking derisively!
Also devastating and saddening was the fact that this couple had been coming once a year for over 35 years(!) to make a retreat pilgrimage at my monastery. Several of those years had been family excursions with their son and daughter as they grew up, whom I could only imagine might have been influenced towards a certain perspective by their parents. But what was shocking was that the brothers at my monastic community had ALWAYS indicated, both verbally and through example, that EVERYONE was welcome at the table of the Lord and amongst the brothers. (Again, the Rule of Saint Benedict commands as much.) So for this couple to have been attending services at the monastery for 35 year, and not have received any of the wisdom from those services or association with the brothers or other guests… was dumbfounding.
Obviously, despite the twenty years of hard labor and trials that I had committed towards creating equal opportunity for LGBT persons, despite the inroads I had labored at to make a better world for LGBT people, despite the patience of YEARS of trying to help heterosexual-centric people understand what it is like to be a sexual minority, despite enduring the instances of having beer bottles thrown at me, of being beat-up without provocation, of being spat upon innumerable times, of having derogatory slurs screamed at me in public places, and somehow thinking that eventually “it would get better”…
It doesn’t get better.
I mean, yes, there have been significant legal improvements in my immediate country. But those victories are never going to change the fact that I am still a minority who will always have to be aware—and wary—that some people feel like I should be eliminated from the face of the earth… just for being. That’s hard to fathom; and there are a lot of people who think that such a statement is overly dramatic. But if you’re one of those people who think I’m being a drama queen… I’m not. If you don’t believe the statement that there are people out there who would like to see me—and all LGBT people—wiped from the face of the earth, then you don’t understand what it means to be a minority, and you have never bothered to try being empathetic towards the plight of minorities. History says I’m correct: the Holocaust was not solely about the elimination of the Jewish people; gay people were also rounded up, sent to concentration camps, and tens of thousands of gay people were killed in an attempt to eradicate them from the population. Sometimes it takes an atrocity to bring to light the apathy of discrimination and hatred.
African-American people understand. It’s where the phrase “Black people matter” comes from. There is indeed a segment of the population who feels that black people are expendable, and thus when they are gunned down indiscriminately by militant law enforcement as a preemptive tactic to deter violence, the public turns an apathetic eye from the deed. (Yes, you read that insanely ironic statement correctly—killing black people is used as a deterrent to violence and is considered a lesser evil than mediation because black people are too often considered second-class animals in our human-species kingdom.) If you treat a class of people differently than another set of the population, then equality does not exist. White people are approached and treated differently than black people during civil disobedience and law enforcement interactive situations; ergo, equality does not exist (despite laws or media outlets that say that it does exist).
And you, as a non-minority (if you are a non-minority), think that the paragraph above is somehow irrational and untrue and melodramatic and unfathomably irresponsible to state. …And yet from the minorities’ standpoint, and from case studies, it reverberates with honesty and truth.
If you don’t think it’s true, then you likely have never been forced into a classification of “less-privileged-to-life” by the rest of society. And you just simply cannot know.
And so as my contribution to the homily of Matthew 20:1-16, I told about how I had spend 20 years fighting against discrimination and for the rights of LGBT people. And I told about how I left that life believing that so many inroads had been made that I could move on to my next adventure, thinking I might now be in a more peaceful, accepting, egalitarian world where I could focus on the next phase of life, and other types of social justice. And I told the story about the guests at the monastery who shattered that perception through their ignorance and vitriol…
And I said how rather than feeling like the late-comers who were hired throughout the day to work in the vineyard, I rather felt like those first early morning laborers who worked the whole day, and then at the end of the day felt slighted because their longer, harder work hours were not rewarded. It was like they had to do twice or thrice or even quadruple the amount of work of others, and even those who came within the last few minutes of the day were rewarded with just as much payment as those who spent the entire day sweating.
Somehow in this lifetime, I—and other LBGT people—have been tasked with having the harder, longer workday. We have always had to defend and explain ourselves as true and valuable members of society, and it is likely that we will have to perform that labor until the whistle blows at the end of the day. Our work isn’t done. There will always be another shift to clock through; there will always be another bigot to whom we have to explain what a world of true equality looks like; there will always be another place we come across where ignorance needs to be overcome… and so we labor on and on and on.
It’s not fair that we should have to labor harder than others our entire lifetime. But the point is that if we keep plugging away at it and work hard enough, others may come to enlightenment. And if we help another to understand what true equality and true empathy is, then that person can reap the same benefits of enlightenment and egalitarian society just like the rest of us. And then the labor is made just a little easier for the next generation to come. That’s why we all “win” equal pay at the end of the day.
Yes, some are tasked with harder tasks than others. Minorities are tasked with a harder struggle. But it’s because those minorities have so much to share and teach us—it is the oppressed, the burdened, and the poor of spirit who better understand equality because they are forced to gaze upon it from the outside with the hope of being able to attain it—they understand the hard work it takes to achieve.
Faith becomes relevant because we have to believe that our hard work will someday pay off. We have to have faith that the minority can help the majority achieve grace and understanding and wisdom about bringing everyone together to the table.
Our work isn’t done. We have been given the task of laboring harder than our brethren in order to bring wisdom to our brethren. Keep working and we all might win. That is the message of Matthew 20:1-16.
* from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970