A grandmother tells about growing up the oldest of four children. "My mother was always very fair," she said. "She didn't play favorites. We always knew that we could count on her to be fair. But my father -- well, that was another story. The truth is, I grew up secure in the knowledge that I was 'Daddy's favorite.' I was the oldest, after all, and the only girl until my sister came along when I was thirteen. I figured it wasn't hurting anybody; my father loved all his children, and probably they never even knew that I was his favorite. But I knew -- and that was enough for me."
"But then one day," she continued, "after I was grown and married and a mother myself, I fell into conversation with my brothers and sisters, and I was surprised and a little bemused to learn that each of them had also grown up with that same unspoken conviction. Each of us had always felt sure that he or she was 'Daddy's favorite.' How my father accomplished that, I'll never know!"
Sibling rivalry, of course, occurs in many families, especially when the children are young. Sometimes it even continues into adulthood. Those of us who are old enough remember the famous line from the Smothers Brothers television show: "Mom always liked you best." It is as though the children feel there isn't enough love or attention or approval to go around, and so they must constantly compete for their fair share, What parent hasn't heard the pitiful cry, "But that's not fair!" ?
These feelings and this kind of behavior can carry over into our other relationships. If we have learned to see life as some kind of a contest for power, wealth, approval, and fame, we will always be on the alert for things that are not fair -- that is, situations in which we feel we are not given our just desserts. We want to get the best grades, the best job, make the most money, have the nicest home or car. We strive to get ahead, we "look out for number one," we complain loudly, or perhaps silently, when favors go to someone we think less deserving than ourselves.
It's easy to understand the feelings of the laborers in today's Gospel story who had worked all day in the vineyard under the hot sun. They had, of course, agreed to work for the usual daily wage. But when they saw those Johnny-come-latelies receiving that amount, they were so sure that they would be rewarded more generously. They had worked 12 hours! Was it fair that they received the same amount of pay as those who had worked one hour? Obviously not!
And so they grumbled. If we are honest with ourselves, we will probably have to admit that we would have grumbled, too. And maybe we have done so, in similar circumstances. Maybe these feelings even carry over into our relationship with God. It seems that this was happening with Jonah in today's Old Testament reading. God had sent Jonah to warn the people of Nineveh what would happen if they didn't mend their ways. You may remember that Jonah went to some lengths to avoid doing this, but finally did as God had commanded. And now look what happened! Darned if those people in Nineveh didn't repent! Of course, that was the whole point of the message God had asked Jonah to deliver, but apparently Jonah was looking forward to seeing "those bad guys get theirs." He sounds downright accusing when he says, "I knew that you are a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing." Have you ever known anyone that you would like to see get the punishment he or she so richly deserved? Perhaps there are moments when we wish God wouldn't be quite so merciful! To others, that is.
Even among those who pray, "thy kingdom come," there is jockeying for position in the kingdom. Remember the request of James and John, who wanted to sit, one at the right hand, and one at the left, of Jesus in his kingdom. Remember how after the Resurrection Peter, after proclaiming his love for Jesus, and being told, "Feed my sheep," still had to ask, referring to the beloved disciple, "Lord, what about him?" And Jesus had to tell Peter, "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me."
Look again at the beginning line of today's Gospel: "The kingdom of heaven is like...."
What if God's kingdom is a place where there is no contest? What if "fair" isn't even a word that can be used in God's kingdom, because in that kingdom each and every one of us is Abba's beloved child? What if the kingdom is a place where we don't get what we deserve (thank God!), but rather what our loving Father wants so much to give us? What if God's infinite love and grace and mercy, all of it, is poured out on each of us and no matter how much you get, all of it is still available to me? What if everybody gets the best seat in God's kingdom because we all get the place that is prepared especially for us? If that is the case, we wouldn't want to trade places with anyone, would we?
If this is the kind of kingdom for which we pray, "thy Kingdom come," then it is up to us to help make it happen, insofar as it is possible, here on earth. What if we really forgave others their trespasses, in the knowledge that God forgives us, and them? What might happen if we stopped worrying about whether we were getting our fair share and, instead, recognized each of our brothers and sisters as God's beloved child? What would be the results if we made ourselves available to be the instruments of God's love to these other children of God, not worrying about what they did or did not deserve? What if we would earnestly pray that God would show us how God wants to use us, and would listen, and would act? You know what? That's what the kingdom of heaven is like.