Though there is nothing typical about my life these days, I have held on to my morning routine. After whispering a prayer of thanks for the new day, I count. Because my lower back is full of arthritis, I complete four exercises before I get out of bed. I count forty reps for each one. When I get up, I lie on the floor to complete four additional exercises which require a firm surface. Once again, I count forty reps for each one. Years ago, my physical therapist assured me that the results would be worth the effort. She was absolutely correct because my back rarely bothers me. Finally, I stand for one shoulder exercise which keeps that temperamental joint 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 left me with no idea of the number of reps I’d actually completed. I tried timing my efforts only to discover that I do them at a different pace 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 that you’re right. Still, I find a morsel of vindication in Peter’s frustration with counting and in 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-seven times. Jesus’ point was that the number of times we must forgive one another’s transgressions cannot be counted. We must forgive whenever it’s necessary. 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), Matthew tells us that Jesus presented another counting scenario in a parable. On this occasion, Jesus told the disciples that the kingdom of heaven operates like the vineyard of a certain landowner. That landowner went out early one morning to seek laborers. When he found a group who agreed to the standard daily wage, he sent them off to work. An hour later, he hired more workers to whom he promised a fair wage. The man 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 paid 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 profits. 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 quite a 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’d agreed to. The landowner then scolded 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 had simply given them all what they needed to survive.
I’m truly 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, we accomplish good. In the process, we improve God’s vineyard as we and those around us blossom in unexpectedly beautiful ways.
Today, God continues to be the landowner who seeks laborers to tend to the fields of this life. God is pleased with those of 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 do the best he or she can, God is pleased. God’s entire vineyard benefits 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 we can all count on!
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