This Isn't How It Works
Divine priorities are different than human ones. Learning this means learning more about God...but also about the kinds of people we are.
Back in a previous blogging effort, I began spending some time working through the Gospel of Matthew, chapter by chapter. The goal was to engage the Scripture in an ongoing series. A good idea, as far as it goes. The only problem is that it has been almost four years since I wrote about Matthew 19.
Despite the long interval, I pick up today with the 20th chapter. Within, Jesus tells a story of workers in a vineyard. The setup is simple: a landowner desires to hire some day laborers. He goes out in the morning and does just that, promising a set amount of pay. He brings additional workers on board four additional times throughout the day--one group as late as five o'clock in the afternoon.
So far, so good. A landowner needs workers. He hires a bunch. Nothing very interesting there. The trick, though, is that when it comes time to distribute the day's wages, the late arrivals were paid the same amount originally promised to those who came on board first thing in the morning.
This seems like a good deal for 5pm additions. But the early adopters? As expected, they are a little grumpy. They assume that they will be given more in light of the landowner's largesse. Instead, they are simply paid what they were initial promised. Unfair, they say--and let's be honest, they are not wrong. We would be a little upset too. But to their complaints the landowner simply says he has the right to do whatever he wants.
And then Jesus says, as he is known to do, that "the last will be first, and the first will be last" (20:16).
It is an interesting, if odd, story. And despite any possible attempts to argue that this is a biblical case for socialism, I am not convinced it is really about economic theory. We know, though, that its economic framing is provocative. It would likely have aroused some debate amongst the pre-industrial peoples to whom Jesus related the story. For them, like us, there is a central idea in it that strikes us as unfair and just plain wrong. Even if we may never be in a position to be hired as agricultural laborers, we have solidarity with what lies behind their complaint. We, like them, expect that we will not only be paid fairly for our work, but on a scale that stands in reference to others.
Come on, Jesus. This just isn't the way the world works.
But then, of course, perhaps that is the point. Perhaps that is completely the point. This is not the way the world works. This is not the way we have built our structures. It is difficult for many to imagine an economy or culture or set of stable human interactions working this way. To operate a society like this might very well invite collapse. Of course, maybe collapsing our broken human efforts at building things (and what a job we have done) may be what this is all about.
I think that is why in Matthew, Jesus follows this parable with his familiar comment about first and last. His inversion of our normal human expectations. Because he is trying to tell his disciples--and we his much later readers--that what we have constructed in this world runs nowhere near parallel with divine realities. That the ways of God are as separate from the ways of humanity as a landowner who pays people the same regardless of the amount of work. As different as a Samaritan who will take the time to care for a member of a group that hates him. As strange as a God who will embrace death so that God's murderers will live. These are radical things...and definitely not the way the world normally works.
But it is, apparently, the way that God does. Such a story both calls into question our preconceived ideas of what is and opens the door to considering a different world--a divine world--of what might be. One that is so distinct from ours that we might not even be able to imagine it.
To that I simply say: may your Kingdom come.