After whispering a prayer of thanks for the new day, I begin what remains of each new day with counting. An ages-old lower back issue compels me to complete four exercises before I get out of bed. I count forty reps for each one. My physical therapist at the time assured me that the results would be worth the effort. Since my arthritic back rarely bothers me, I assume that she was absolutely correct. When I get up, I lie on the floor to complete four more exercises which require a firm surface. Once again, I count forty reps for each one. Finally, I stand for one shoulder exercise which has kept it moving appropriately since surgery some years ago. And, yes, I count to forty for that as well.
In spite of the benefits of these exercises, I grow weary of the counting. I tried singing my way through each movement. Unfortunately, this effort left me with no idea of the number of reps I’d actually completed. I tried timing my efforts only to discover that, for unknown reasons, I do them at different rates each time. I even tried praying my way through them only to find that I couldn’t give appropriate attention to either activity. As I write, I imagine that the serious workout buffs and trainers among you will respond to all of this with, “Mary, just count and be done with it!” I smile as I admit to myself that you’re absolutely right. Still, I find a morsel of vindication in the apostle Peter’s frustration with counting and God’s lack of interest in the same…
In last Sunday’s gospel (Matthew 18:21-35), Peter asked Jesus if it was enough to forgive his brother seven times. Poor Peter certainly didn’t expect Jesus to respond that he must forgive his brother not only seven times, but seventy times seven times. Of course, Jesus’ point was that the number of times we must forgive one another’s transgressions cannot be counted. We must forgive whenever it’s required regardless of how frequently this necessity presents itself. As I reconsider my morning exercises, I admit to being grateful that my forty reps of each one are enough. Poor Peter wasn’t as fortunate!
In today’s gospel (Matthew 20:1-16), Jesus presents another “counting” scenario in the form of a parable. On this occasion, Jesus tells the disciples that the kingdom of heaven operates like the vineyard of a certain landowner. That landowner went out early in the morning to seek laborers. He found a group who agreed upon the standard daily wage and sent them off to work. An hour later, he hired more workers to whom he promised to pay a fair wage. The landowner hired additional workers at noon, at three o’clock and then at five o’clock. When the workday ended at six o’clock, the landowner told his foreman to pay all of the laborers, beginning with those hired last.
The foreman began by paying each man the standard day’s wage. When they realized what was happening, the laborers at the end of the line who were hired first began to count up their fortunes. If those who worked only one hour were given a full day’s wage, they could only imagine what they’d receive for the ten hours they’d worked. Ten times the daily wage was a tidy sum! Much to their dismay, the foreman ignored their calculations and paid these laborers the standard day’s wage as well. When the men grumbled, the landowner reminded them that they’d been given exactly what they had agreed to. The landowner went on to scold them for resenting his generosity toward the other men. Those who worked only six or three or one hour had families to feed and debts to pay as well. The landowner simply gave them all what was necessary to survive.
I admit to being relieved by that landowner’s choice to ignore the numbers when it came to providing for his workers. I’m even more relieved by Jesus’ insistence that this is precisely the way God operates when it comes to you and me. Though I’m compelled by my potentially aching body to count those reps when I exercise each morning, God isn’t compelled to count a thing. As sorely miserable as our efforts may be, God doesn’t keep score regarding them. God’s main interest is the moment at hand and our use of that precious gift. Every time we do the right thing, even when these occurrences are few and far between, we add to our own goodness. In the process, we improve God’s vineyard by helping those around us and ourselves to blossom in unexpectedly beautiful ways.
Today, God continues as the landowner who seeks laborers to tend to the fields of this life. God is pleased with those among us who begin our labor at daybreak and give our all for the duration. At the same time, God continues the search for more laborers. Every time another accepts God’s invitation to work at being the best he or she can be, God is pleased. That brave soul and God’s entire vineyard benefit from these seemingly delayed efforts. The lesson here is that God isn’t counting the hours we work. Rather, God celebrates the quality of our labor whenever it is the best we have to offer at the time. Now that’s something you and I can count on!
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