"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"...doesn't philosophy amount to the sum of all thinkable and unthinkable errors, ceaselessly repeated?"--Jean-Luc Marion

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Monday, August 06, 2018

The Last Will Be First, and the First Last

For heaven's imperial rule is like a proprietor who went out the first thing in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.  After agreeing with the workers for a silver coin a day he sent them into the vineyard.

And coming out around 9 a.m. he saw others loitering in the marketplace, and he said to them 'You go into the vineyard too, and I'll pay you whatever is fair.'  So they went.

Around noon he went out again, and at 3 p.m., and repeated the process.  About 5 p.m. he went out and found others loitering about and says to them, 'Why did you stand here idle the whole day?'

They reply, 'Because no one hired us.'

He tells them, 'You go into the vineyard as well.'

When evening came the owner of the vineyard tells his foreman:  'Call the workers and pay them their wages starting with those hired last and ending with those hired first.'

Those hired at 5 p.m. came up and received a silver coin each.  Those hired first approached thinking they would receive more.  But they also got a silver coin apiece.  They took it and began to grumble against the proprietor.  'These guys hired last worked only an hour but you have made them equal to us who did most of the work during the heat of the day.'

In response he said to one of them, 'Look, pal, did I wrong you?  You did agree with me for a silver coin, didn't you?  Take your wage and get out!  I intend to treat the one hired last the same way I treat you.  Is there some law forbidding me to do with my money as I please?  Or is your eye filled with envy because I am generous?'

The last will be first and the first last."(Matthew 20:1-16, SV)

There are lots of ways to interpret parables.  The one I was taught, in my youth a lifetime ago, was to treat them as allegories.  I wouldn't do that anymore, for reasons too tedious to bother with.  Let's just say I won't be doing that here, and the change may well be noticeable.  There is a modern Biblical scholarship approach, which my approach will probably most closely follow.  Historicism is part of that; too much of it, sometimes.  I won't describe it so much as use it, but I want to do something original, so I'll try not to use it exclusively, and probably try to distance myself from it to some degree.  There are various literary theory approaches, some of them taught in biblical studies, some of them not formally known to Biblical hermeneutics, which is a pity.  Literary studies has a wealth of methods of analysis to contribute, but it's largely the red-headed stepchild of academia anymore.  Partly that's the fault of literary studies trying to be legitimate in the fight with science that C.P. Snow was writing about, back when science was still in its ascendency and humanities were enjoying the blush on the cheek of their fading age.  Things have wholly reversed since Snow's lament, in other words, and now literary theory borrows from science (Freudianism, when it was seen as scientific; structuralism, from anthropology) or philosophy (deconstruction) in an attempt to be legitimate again.  I'll employ some literary theories, and try to identify them when I do, just to keep things honest.

So, the parable of the vineyard.  If you want to understand the context, you can transpose it to modern-day America.  I'm within walking distance of a city park where day workers gather in hopes of being picked up and earning a day's wage.  The men in this parable are those men, out early hoping to work all day and so earn more money.  I can imagine they'd grumble if they were used like this by a contractor looking for lots of laborers (it's a title on construction sites; I did it myself for a summer, having no other skills aside from my English degree, which was worth nothing there.  It's been worth little more since, from a monetary point of view.).  So put it in that context, if it helps you.  If I veer away from that "fact," it's not because I need to ignore it.  It's more that I don't need to pay attention to it.

This is the virtue and the vice of modern Biblical scholarship.  It's another hermeneutic, developed (when I learned it; all has changed in almost 25 years, I'm sure) largely in response to the hermeneutic of literalism, of taking the Bible as translated (seldom do fundamentalists argue the words of the Bible, except maybe "agape" or "philos," two terms I heard dissected, badly, in Sunday school as a youth (feckless and otherwise).  I didn't hear it from fundamentalists, but focus on words tends to be one word or another, not the language, not the context.  "Abba," for example, is better translated, modern scholars say, as "Daddy" than "Father."  How does that change the "literal" meaning of the "Our Father"?  Anyway....).  So there's a weakness in the focus on the historical setting of the text; it can become "originalism" very similar to that which afflicts students of the late Antonin Scalia.  There are several reasons to reject "originalism" in law, but some of them have to do with modern philosophical theories on language (Ayer, Wittgenstein, a lot of contemporary French philosophers), and originalism is in no small part a reaction to "post-modernism," a term everybody uses and almost no one understands.

But I digress....

The historical setting can draw our attention too closely to anthropological and sociological theories about daily life in 1st century Palestine, which can cause us to accept and reject the comparison of the workers in this parable to the men standing in the park near my house.  I don't want to dwell on that, but I do want to use modern Biblical scholarship to take some of the varnish off this parable (and the others I'll get around to).  It may be my struggle simply to set aside the teachings of parables as allegories from my youth; so that could be a weakness, too.

Enough of putting my tools on the table; let's get to work.  Literary theory tells us to keep this parable in its context.  Scholars might argue this parable comes Special Matthew, since it doesn't appear in Luke or Mark.  (Special Matthew is the conjectural document of passages peculiar to Matthew.  Overlaps between Matthew and Luke that don't come from Mark are conjecturally from "Q," the "source" document (source in German is "quelle").  There is also a "Special Luke.").  In Matthew, it appears in the narrative as Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem.  Matthew opens chapter 19 with Jesus arguing with the Pharisees about marriage and divorce (that's truly an arcane historical subject); then he blesses the children and tells the rich young man it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the basiliea tou theou.  Which, if you equate the "empire of God" with the afterlife, is depressing news indeed; and if you don't, is rather interesting.  But again, I digress; except it is right after this that Matthew inserts the story of the laborers in the vineyard.

I say "inserts" because to this point, starting at chapter 19, Matthew has been following Mark (I have a "Gospel Parallels" that lays this out rather neatly; don't be impressed with my ability to keep three gospels in mind at once, I can't).  After that parable Matthew picks up Mark again and echoes him, with slight interruptions from "Q" and one more from "Special Matthew," down through chapter 21 (and perhaps further, let's not belabor the point now).  My point is not to study how Matthew follows and diverges from, or even rearranges, Mark; it's why he puts this story where he does.

Coming just after the story of the rich young man, however, and ending his parable with the line: "The last will be first and the first last," Matthew clearly means to connect this parable to that encounter.  Just as clearly, he means to provide a graphic presentation, an object lesson, in what it looks like to make the first last and the last first.  It is a vision of radical equality.   "For heaven's imperial rule is like...." is what the parable is supposed to illustrate.  This is exactly how heaven's imperial rule works:  everyone is treated equally, no one who shows up early gets more than someone who comes in at the last minute.  Set this against the story of the rich young man and it's clear Matthew means to disabuse anyone of the idea that they are at least better than that man, who "went away dejected since he possessed a fortune."  For God, Jesus tells his perplexed disciples, all things are possible, so even the rich young man is not necessarily lost, cast into the place of darkness and gnashing of teeth (the fate of the goats in Matthew's final parable).  Jesus is not interested in judgment, Jesus is interested in justice.

But God's justice does not look like our justice.  Our justice says the workers who worked longest deserve more pay than the ones who worked only an hour.  And there's where the parable really sticks the knife in:  " 'Or is your eye filled with envy because I am generous?' "

Go back to the rich young man a moment:

Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be perfect, make your move, sell your belongings and give (the proceeds) to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven.  And then come, follow me!"

When the young man heard this advice, he went away dejected since he possessed a fortune.

Jesus said to his disciples, "I swear to you, it is very difficult for the rich to enter Heaven's domain.  And again I tell you, it's easier for a camel to squeeze through a needle's eye, than for a wealthy person to get into God's domain."

When the disciples heard this, they were quite perplexed and said, "Well, then, who can be saved?"

Jesus looked them in the eye and said to them, "For mortals this is impossible; for God, everything's possible."

In response Peter said to him, "Look at us, we left everything to follow you!  What do we get out of it?"

Jesus told them, "I swear to you, you who have followed me, when the son of Adam is seated on his throne of glory in the renewal (of creation), you also will be seated on twelve thrones and sit in judgment on the twelve tribes of Israel.  And everyone who has left homes of brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms, on my account, will receive a hundred times as much and inherit eternal life.  Many of the first will be last, and of the last many will be first."

Matthew 19: 21-30, SV

Just picking up on Peter's question, you can read the parable as a lesson to him (especially if you are honest and see Peter asking the question for all of us).  We who have given up so much, what do we get? Same as those who gave up only a little. The first will be last, and the last first. Even Peter will be last, although he was first; and the rich young man could yet be first, even if he comes last.  God's grace is for all.  Jesus means just what he means, and yet, the parable undercuts that promise of receiving 100 times as much. Or at least, it seems to.  Maybe the "100 times as much" refers, not to a greater reward in heaven (the sweet bye and bye), but in comparison to "homes...or farms."  Maybe those are the things not worth as much as doing things on Jesus' account.  Or maybe, even harsher, it's not just homes and farms, but giving up brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, or children.

There's the basis, by the way, of Roman Catholic priests being celibate and disconnected from family.  Priests are buried with their fellow priests in the end, not with their family.  Do they gain 100 times as much in the sweet bye and bye; or is that recompense gained here on earth, in ways not measured by human standards of value?  The answer to that question depends on where you place the basileia tou theou:  in some Platonic after life where we finally, through of own efforts and the grace of the Creator, achieve our place in the presence of the Good?  or in life here and now, the only life we know, arguably the only life that matters?  If you give up homes, farms, and family in this life, do you only gain a vague promise of a possible recompense of some undefined nature in the sweet bye and bye?  Or is there an option closer to the day spent in the vineyards, where another day follows, and life must be lived through.  As Wittgenstein said, death is the only experience of life that is not lived through.  So unless we think this parable has a hidden lesson about death, it seems reasonable to understand it as a lesson about life.  And the lesson is that God's justice, God's promise, is true and just; it's only that it may not look that way to us, especially if our eye is filled with envy because God is so generous.


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