One of the bravest things I did as a child was to touch Snow White. I touched her bumper.
The city of Belleville, Illinois bought a new fire engine in the late '30s, a huge white one. And because Walt Disney's first animated feature movie was still fresh in everyone's mind, everyone called the machine Snow White.
Assigned to Engine House #2, a block and a half from my home, she was the biggest, most uncontrollable force in my life. I'd rush to our front door and out onto the porch whenever the fire house alarm sounded, knowing in a few seconds Snow White's siren would start, and in a few more seconds she'd explode out the door, a half-dozen helmeted, raincoated men crouched and hidden in her huge body.
Power at rest
From experience, I knew she'd only demonstrate her power and force on rare occasions. Most of the time, she sat motionless in the engine house, restrained, ready for the alarm to go off.
Sometimes, when I'd walk by the open first house door with my mom and dad, I'd look up and ask if it was okay to run in and touch her bumper. Knowing the alarm could sound at any second, I ran as fast as I could, put the palm of my hand flat against the cool metal, then raced back breathless to the security of my parents -- a real man.
I always think of touching Snow White when I open the lectionary to Sunday's three readings. Without putting it quite that way, the sacred authors invite us to touch God's bumper. Each writer presumes God is the most powerful, uncontrolled force in the universe. Yet from our experience, God frequently seems still and peaceful enough for us to reach out and touch Him.
Deutero-Isaiah says we can do this in our first reading (Is 55:6-9). "Seek Yahweh while He may be found," he encourages his people, "call Him while He is near....Turn to the Lord for mercy; to our God, who is generous in forgiving."
But just when we bravely put the flat of our hand on Yahweh, the alarm sounds: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts," Yahweh replies, "nor are your ways my ways....As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts."
We follow a God totally different from ourselves, a God never restrained by human logic or religion. Just when we're certain we've confined God in a resting, controlled position, something happens to demonstrate God's force and power. Jesus warns us about this in the Gospel (Mt 20:1-16).
At first glance, Jesus' parable provides a terrific argument for the unionization of vineyard workers. At second glance, He tells us never to restrict God to human concepts of fairness.
Always remember, Matthew writes for a Jewish/Christian community having problems with Gentiles being accepted -- as Gentiles -- into the faith of Jesus. These non-Jews didn't know the difference between bagels and phylacteries, yet they were receiving as many faith-benefits as the Jewish/Christians of Matthew's community who had "worked a full day in the scorching heat."
Jesus seems to be saying that organized religion rarely gives us a glimpse of God in action. If it did, it would be admitting it had no control over God. In this case, not even the time-proven rituals and regulations of Judaism can restrict the force and power of God's love for all people.
Paul, in the second reading (Phil 1: 20-24, 27) gives us good advice on how to deal with such a God: "Conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the Gospel of Christ." In other words, instead of fighting against God's strength, "Go with the flow." Like Paul, we should integrate God's powerful love into our own love of others.
Touching Snow White would have been meaningless if I hadn't seen her in action. If touching God in Scripture, ritual and one another doesn't take our breath away, we haven't seen God in action.