Monday, September 21, 2020

Grumbling about the Absurdity of Generosity and Universality of God's Economy

“So the last shall be first and the first shall be last.”

Parables are tricky. These ancient riddles subvert convention and dare us to expand our imaginations for the common good. Parables are sacred mysteries. Parables are playful. Parables are brutally honest about the way things are and the way things can and should be. Parables cut through the binary of either/or and call us into something far more inclusive. Yet we, from ancient days until the present, prefer competition over inclusion, me and mine versus a collective us. So we may not like parables- especially not the one in Sunday’s gospel lectionary from Matthew 20:19.

As I read Jesus’ parable of a landowner who hired workers for his vineyard, I could not think of a more potent passage for our current socio-political entanglement. The hired hands received the same wage, whether they worked a full day or only a small percentage. And those employed first, the Scripture says, “grumbled,” believing they were entitled to more than those who were hired last and worked less.

Here we must pause.

We do not know why some workers were hired first. Did their privilege make them more accessible to employment opportunities? Did they have an “in” with the vineyard owner? Were they born into the trade required to make the deep reds? 

We also do not know the story behind those hired last. Maybe they had a record or physical challenges or had to work covertly so not to be picked up by those who had it out for them for their unpaid debts? Maybe they couldn’t work a full day because they had a large family to care for and little to no help at home. Maybe they were born into circumstance or class whereby they were considered less than those hired first. 

Whatever the reason, the last and the first and those in between were all given a vocation by this landowner and each received the same compensation. All were paid. All were included. All had enough. Still, the first grumbled, forgetting equity did not tilt the scales in the favor of the last at the expense of the first. "Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.” 

Throughout history, social and earthen balance, what Scripture calls shalom, have often been less valued than conquest and winning. We want more than and greater than…We want to be better and best and first- even if we are standing there alone.  Despite the theological beginnings of all persons made in the imago Dei, we subscribe to present social constructs and ideologies that say you win worth and achieve value. I love what artist Anna Strickland writes in regards to her painting below, which is based on this parable:
If we associate the vineyard owner with God, who chooses to pay all workers a daily wage no matter the hours they worked, this parable makes a strong case for a universal living wage. These workers are not seen as hours of labor, but as people. The hours they work may be different, but their needs are the same. And so the vineyard owner pays them, not according to their economic value, but their human worth...God’s grace is not given in measure to our economic value, our hard work, or our humility. It is given equally to all. 
While the pandemic has uncovered, in an abundance of spaces, the beauty of human resilience, compassion, and neighborly love, it has also underscored how tight our grip is on self preservation. This is the very foundation of our American capitalist economy. Mask wearing, which is among the most effective ways to protect neighbor in this pandemic, is protested as a violation of personal freedom.  Black Lives Matter declarations in the midst of rising police brutality against people of color are countered with the fragility of All Lives Matter. (Read: my [white] life matters). Political platforms continue to trumpet a return to an era of perceived greatness and (America) first-ness that exploited far more than protected. We (falsely) assume universal provisions, from healthcare to basic income, means the boots one person is wearing will be unstrapped from their feet and given to someone less deserving. We ignore the complex truth that many do not have access to boots while others have a closet full handed down to them from generations on end. 

We have a lot of work to do as a people in this land that is not our land. In the midst of our modern dystopian saga, one thing is also certain: as long as justice and fairness are polluted by competitive quests for first-ness and greatness, the fullness of God’s dreams for the world will remain elusive at best. It doesn’t have to be this way. There is a better and more inclusive way. This Way flips the script and reverses how we keep score. 

Actually, it doesn’t keep score at all. 

Everyone wins. 

The absurdity of God’s generosity is that there are no losers in the economy of God- only vineyards full of workers with equal share in the goodness to come from the Landowner. May this divine economy shape how we live and move and work AND VOTE in our earthly one.  

*Header Image, Red Vineyard in Arles by Vincent van Gogh, 1888.