Sunday, September 18, 2011

All Things Being Equal

“I decided to give to the one who came last the same as you. Can’t I do what I want with my own money? Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?” Here it is again, the Great Reversal: many of the first ending up last, and the last first. (Matthew 20.14-16; The Message)

Mixed Messages

“The word of God is alive and active,” Hebrews 4.12 says, comparing it to a double-edged sword that slices through the clutter to reach our innermost thoughts and feelings. Scripture’s immediacy to speak to each of us “where we live” is one of faith’s most elusive mysteries. When we’re alive to God’s Word, actively engaging it in open-minded dialogue, the Spirit draws our attention to what God desires us to see and pronounces what God wants us to hear. Not everyone experiences this phenomenon, of course, because not everyone believes Scripture is alive and active. First Corinthians 2.14 comments on skeptics’ lack of perception, saying, “Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” Thus, it’s no mystery why those who approach Scripture unaided by spiritual discernment criticize its inconsistencies and contradictions. And let’s not kid ourselves. When read as an inert, fixed document, the Bible is overrun with mixed messages. What’s more, one needn’t comb its pages to locate them. It’s not unusual to stumble on seemingly crossed signals in a self-contained passage or story.

Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 20.1-16) serves up a classic example. Undiscerning readers will find Jesus’s parable about a landowner’s compensation policy confusing, even meaningless. The employer’s logic makes no sense—it’s unfair and unrealistic. There’s no denying the workers’ fury about discrepancies in their pay is warranted. And it’s hard to say what prompts Jesus to equate the owner’s high-handed response to their protests with justice and righteousness. Unaided by spiritual insight, a reader can’t perceive the magnitude of the “Great Reversal” that flips the story to reveal what Jesus wants us to see. When we allow the Spirit to enliven and activate the text, however, what others view as mixed messages becomes readily apparent, multifaceted truth.

Whatever is Right

Jesus couches His “Great Reversal” in a premise as mundane as it is timeless, leading us to jump to conclusions about fairness and moral objectivity. He even tosses in a few red herrings to spur us down the garden path. He likens the kingdom of heaven to a vineyard owner who, early one morning, employs a group of field hands at a mutually acceptable, standard wage. Then, around nine o’clock, he goes into the village square, where day laborers gather, and expands his workforce by promising, “I will pay you whatever is right.” (Matthew 20.3) Already we’re ahead of Jesus. By saying he’ll pay the nine o’clock workers “whatever is right” (as opposed to what the text terms “the usual amount” for the first group), we assume the owner means they’ll earn a fair wage, based on hours worked. This assumption sets the trend for what follows.

The owner returns to the square at noon, three, and finally at five and hires more workers. With each addition, our sense of growing inequities sharpens. No doubt a pecking order evolves, with the first crew at the top and the five o’clock crowd at the bottom. Since later arrivals will be less productive than those who’ve been at the job longer, it stands to reason their pay will reflect their reduced service and productivity. We might even go as far as imagining the owner reduces the pay rate as the day goes on. In tracking the parable’s moving parts, though, we forget Jesus began by saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like …” We’re about to discover what seems fair and realistic to us is often unacceptable and inconceivable in the eternal realm.

Six o’clock: quitting time. The owner instructs his manager to line up the workers in reverse order, from latest hires to the earliest. Watching the manager hand a full day’s wages to the five o’clock workers excites those farther down the line. All things being fair, they anticipate extra pay for working longer hours and producing greater results. But in the kingdom of heaven, all things being equal takes precedence. “Whatever is right” means no one is deemed less worthy or more deserving than the rest. Everyone who answers the call to work is equally rewarded, because God’s grace and favor can’t be earned. When the outraged workers confront the owner, he puts them in their place. “I decided to give to the one who came last the same as you. Can’t I do what I want with my own money? Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?” (v14-15) Before His listeners can object to the assertion greed drives the workers’ demands, Jesus closes the loop. “There it is once again, the Great Reversal,” He says, reminding them the divine dynamic habitually subverts human expectations and logic. “Many of the first ending up last, and last first.”

At the End of the Day

Time and distance encourage us to envision Christ’s tales of farmers, shepherds, and socialites in soft focus that glosses over the harsh realities of primitive provincial life. This parable retains its bite, though, as concerns for fair wages and workers’ rights figure prominently in our reality. Unlike other parables’ bucolic pastures, wheat fields, and banquet halls, this vineyard is in our backyard. And much of what occurs there makes us uneasy. We have a hard time overlooking the obvious: the owner’s generosity, admirable though it may be, seems grossly unfair to those who’ve earned their pay. Then we crash into the Great Reversal, and the Spirit brings the message home.

To see the world through God’s eyes, we must hold equality and acceptance in highest regard. Personal opinions about what's fair and reasonable obstruct our view of what's right and just. It’s nonsense to imagine the work we do and beliefs we hold make us better Christians than those who do less or believe differently. The call goes out and all who answer are equally entitled to God’s grace and favor. Obsessions with recognition and reward warp our understanding of the parable’s Great Reversal. “The first ending up last” isn’t a demotion; nor is “the last first” a hand-up. They’re a level set that abolishes vain prejudice and ambition. Jesus shows us—once again—at the end of the day, all things being equal is the kingdom of heaven’s governing principle. It’s what God wants and what we should be about.

O God, we get so caught up by relying on comparisons with others to gauge where we stand, we forget how You see the world and each of us. Forgive our nonsense and give us new eyes. Fire in us a heavenly vision that perceives all who answer Your call as equally worthy and acceptable in Your sight. Amen.

In the kingdom of heaven, the day ends with all things being equal.