He answered one of them and said: “Friend, I did you no injustice. did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go. I choose to give to this last one as to you. Is it not allowed to me to do what I wish with my own? Or is your eye evil because I am good?” So the last will be first, and the first last.”
Matthew 20: 13-15
In the time of the composing of Matthew’s gospel, the tension in the relationship between those Jews who had become followers of Jesus and the rest of the Jewish community was all pervasive. Perhaps especially difficult for the more religiously observant to grasp was Jesus’ teaching that those who had been outsiders and who had not devoted their lives to the practice of the faith were welcomed with the same love and mercy as those who had “born the heat of the day,” who had throughout their entire lives tried to be faithful. The reaction can well be understood if we have ever been to some kind of elite event and perceive the presence of an outsider. “How did she or he get in here?” might be the first question to occur to us. The predilection of Jesus and the gospel for the marginal and the unaccepted remains one of the most difficult aspects of Jesus’ way.
The power of the “Parable of the Good Employer,” as Daniel Harrington entitles it, is that it focuses for us our deep resistance to a merciful God, when that mercy is extended to others. A reason for this is that a universal value in the conformation of the young into a group or society is that of being accepted and acceptable. The earlier stages of human formation are essentially experiences of “conformation.” We learn what it is to be a human being as we are indoctrinated and assimilated into the ways of the society of which we are a part. We learn, for the sake of conformity, to develop those aspects of who we are that are acceptable to the group and to diminish, if not repress, the strength of those aspects of who we are that are unacceptable. The more effective we are at conformity, the higher will be our status within the culture and the society. This is hard work, and we undertake it at great cost, even the cost of some of the most powerful and original aspects of our own being.
So, what kind of a group or society is it that gives the same wage, the same status to those who have not worked so hard to make it on the society’s terms? When we have worked our whole lives to be and to be recognized as “at the center,” how is it that we are to share that place with those who enter from the margins? Jesus and the gospel teach us that the ecclesia that gathers around Jesus is one which has as its core reality and cause the mercy of God. Our innate and developed understanding is that we find our place and society awards us our place based on our hard work to be who we think we are supposed to be in light of our culture’s values. We strive with all our being to be the “real Christians,” or the “real Americans,” or the “model family” and on and on. In our effortful striving for conformity, we tend to forget that we are all marginal, that we all share a common life, in need of God’s merciful love. It is interesting that in the parable the “Good Employer” goes out and first of all hires those who are “workers” for the labor in the vineyard. Later he goes out and hires this who are “standing in the marketplace without work.” Finally, at the eleventh hour, he goes out and hires those who are “standing around.” The householder, the “Good Employer,” gathers from every segment of society and every level of “success” as culture measures it, and pays them the same wage — for they all have the same value.
In the recent debate in the United States over whether or not healthcare is something due to every person, a member of Congress had a momentary lapse into honest self-expression. To paraphrase, he asked why one’s hard earned tax dollars should be spent to provide “them” with healthcare. This is precisely the complaint issued by those in the parable who were the first to be hired. “These last ones worked one hour , and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the heat.” The Employer’s answer is that he is showing the first-hired workers no injustice, but he is also merciful and so gives to those who’ve come last also what they need. What makes Jesus’ teaching in this regard so difficult for us is the system of reward and punishment which constitutes our early conformation. We structure our societies in such a way that we reward what conforms and we punish what is different and marginal. The result is that those who most fully absorb the values of the culture come to see themselves as “the center,” whose place depends on the despising of those on the margins. This basic illusion also becomes self-delusion, for the cost of attaining one’s place in the center is the repression of all in one’s deeper life that would remind one of one’s own marginalization.
In Psalm 85:10 we hear: “Grace and truth have met together; justice and peace have kissed each other.” Grace and truth, justice and peace are not contraries in the “Kingdom.” They are so for us because our early formation requires striving and denial. Those elements of the truth that we have lost or forsaken are perceived by us as threats to grace. To the degree that we live not in accord with our own deepest truth, then justice is always a threat to our peace. The inauthentic self that we create needs to see those in what we call the margins as foils to our centrality. What we constitute as the “centers” of culture and society are creations of our pride form. They are the way we order society, and so humanity, for our own comfort. From that place truth will never feel like grace, and justice will always disturb our self-manufactured peace.
To truly become human, however, is to come to know ourselves as the “common person.” When our peace is in God, then those aspects of ourselves and our lives that are in need of mercy are no longer threats to us. For mercy is the very nature of God and God’s tending toward us all. We no longer need to distance ourselves from “them,” from those on the margins whose place in our lives has been to ratify our own centrality and righteousness. We come to realize that we are all on the margins, and we all live only by the mercy of God. We are gathered not in our righteousness but in our sinfulness and woundedness. We care for each other because God is caring for us all.
The parable we read today is so striking in our time because the great value in the capitalist world is wealth and the power that comes with it. The “saying” of Jesus in this gospel passage is especially difficult for us to hear. We in the United States live in a country of enormous wealth and enormous military power. Yet, we feel on the edge of chaos and division. Increasingly we choose leaders who are reflections of our own deepest fears. A certain sign of the loss of justice and truth is the need to demonize others. “These last ones worked one hour and you them them equal to us . . . .” Perhaps as a country it is time to ask ourselves “What has been the cost we have paid in service to the values that have given our lives the form they now take?” How much of our own humanity, of our life as spirit, of our “common life” have we repressed for the sake of the comfort and the false assurances that these values have promised us? One way to avoid these hard questions is, as our current leadership encourages us, to harden into warring camps, each taking its identity in contrast to the other. If we live in fear, we shall cling “to our own kind” in search of a security that the reality of the world and of the others threatens. If, instead, we listen deep within ourselves and to the world as it is, we may find the grace and the truth to repent for how, in all our apparent success, we have distanced ourselves from our call to realize our vocation as “common” persons, as living a shared life which is pure gift to all of us.
Our cultural sins have now found us out. And while wealth does not seem to trickle down from the top of this economy to the bottom, it does seem that bad behavior and bad values do trickle down, and all of us have some serious self-reflection to do. The new maxims, “Greed is good,” “It’s all about me,” and “I want it now” have replaced old virtues. Being number one is now more important than anything or anyone else and has become even more important than the One who points us to things beyond ourselves—the One who will ultimately hold us all accountable. A market based on greed and fear has tugged on some of the worst things in us, and we are now paying the consequences.
Jim Wallis, Rediscovering Values, p. 43