Last revised: October 16, 2020
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PROPER 20 (September 18-24) — YEAR A / Ordinary Time 25
RCL: Exodus 16:2-15 or Jonah 3:10-4:11; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16
RoCa: Isaiah 55:6-9; Philippians 1:20-24, 27; Matthew 20:1-16
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
In 2020 the themes of my sermons continually developed what I see as a major subtheme running throughout Matthew: the contrast between God’s kingdom of heaven in Jesus the Messiah and human kingdoms. It begins at the birth of Jesus, hailed at birth as the new king by the Magi, contrasted with Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. It ends with the Passion. The teaching begins with an inverted Beatitudes of those blessed in the kingdom — an inversion of those ordinarily seen as blessed in human kingdoms — and ends a judgment of human kingdoms on the basis of how they care for the least rather instead of the usual propping-up of the powerful. In the middle Jesus tells us straight out that the kingdom of heaven is about intentionally suffering violence (my reading of Matt 11:12).
So in this parable I zeroed in on the grumbling of those who worked all day as, “you have them equal to us.” Mimetic Theory helps us to understand how mimetic desire leads to such envious comparisons such that a fundamental feature of human kingdoms in meritocracy leading to constant resentment against those we deem as of less merit than us. In the environment of grace in God’s kingdom, God the loving parent makes sure we know that we are all equally loved. As children of God, God’s grace ‘makes them equal to us,’ such that there is no longer us and them, only us.
Where do we see the collision of these kingdoms in today’s world? During this week in 2020, ELCA Pastor Lenny Duncan began a series of op-eds on “Why the ELCA Needs to Start a Reparations Process.” It prompted me to see this parable in light of arguments for reparations. The typical reaction of white people is to grumble, “You are making them equal to us.” The result is the sermon is “Doing Justice: Advocating Reparations in an Age of Resentment” (see also the video version).
In 2017 the contrast in kingdoms I read in Matthew’s Gospel was developed as a contrast in spiritualities in the following opening essay:
One of the most important books I’ve ever read is Richard Rohr‘s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. It did nothing less than articulate my own spiritual journey. Ever since my teenage years, I could not be satisfied with the God whom I was being taught. I considered myself “agnostic” in my late teens, early twenties. I was like Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky‘s The Brothers Karamazov — an intellectual who couldn’t make sense of the suffering in the world. So when I decided to go to seminary at about age 24, it was not just a vocational calling. The decision was also about needing to see if I could begin to encounter a new God. I sought to be more like Alyosha Karamazov, on a spiritual journey with guides like Father Zosima. In growing up, I had already experienced gracious pastors and my own father who encouraged my spiritual questioning and planted the seeds for a new encounter.
At the seminary and in my subsequent career as a parish pastor, I gradually began to encounter a different God than the one we are taught. The first pivotal guide was Jürgen Moltmann, especially his The Crucified God. Even the book description on the cover expresses my main issue:
Moltmann proposes that suffering is not a problem to be solved but instead that suffering is an aspect of God’s very being: God is love, and love invariably involves suffering.
While reading and studying theologians like Moltmann was important, even more so have been the countless parishioners over the years who have given me the privilege of sharing their lived lives with them — from the moments of great joy and celebration to the moments of great sorrow and suffering. How does one encounter God in all the moments of lived life?
Reading Rohr‘s Falling Upward when it was published in 2011, and sharing it with a Bible study group shortly thereafter, put new words with my own lived spiritual journey. His thesis is that the human journey of lived life generally encounters two quite different Gods connected with the notion of ‘two halves of life.’
There is much evidence on several levels that there are at least two major tasks to human life. The first task is to build a strong “container” or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold. The first task we take for granted as the very purpose of life, which does not mean we do it well. The second task, I am told, is more encountered than sought; few arrive at it with much preplanning, purpose, or passion. So you might wonder if there is much point in providing a guide to the territory ahead of time. Yet that is exactly why we must. It is vitally important to know what is coming and being offered to all of us. (Falling Upward, xiii)
So the first half is about constructing, with a lot of help from one’s culture, a safe container. It involves the legal structuring in a culture and the personal stories that shape our self-understanding.
I cannot think of a culture in human history, before the present postmodern era, that did not value law, tradition, custom, authority, boundaries, and morality of some clear sort. These containers give us the necessary security, continuity, predictability, impulse control, and ego structure that we need, before the chaos of real life shows up. Healthily conservative people tend to grow up more naturally and more happily than those who receive only free-form, “build it yourself’ worldviews, in my studied opinion.
Here is my conviction: without law in some form, and also without butting up against that law, we cannot move forward easily and naturally. (25)
An important word in the above description is “necessary.” Human beings fail to thrive without a healthy experience in building a safe container. And part of the safety and goodness in this container is having a transcendent guarantor: a God who presides over, justifies, and gives secure structure to the edifice.
But since this is only the first basic stage of becoming human, it bears the imprint of its beginning: a dualistic structure from the ‘original dualisms’: me-other of the forming ego, and us-them of the structuring culture. From these derive all the other many dualisms that give meaning to the container built in the first half of life: good-evil, clean-unclean, fair-unfair (or just-unjust), successful-unsuccessful, rich-poor, deserving-undeserving, blessing-curse, reward-punishment, et al. This is the “way of the world” that all young people must learn in growing up. And the God who presides over it is the ultimate creator and arbiter of all these dualisms.
So what happens to prompt movement into a second half of life? Life happens. And among the lived experiences are always moments that challenge the basic structure of the container’s dualisms — moments that especially challenge the fair-unfair assumption — both positively at moments of wondrous grace but also negatively at moments of suffering undeserved evil. The latter moments often raise up shouts of, “Life is unfair!”
Such moments also call God into question as the arbiter of fair and unfair. And so the work of the second half of life begins, seeking a new spirituality — and perhaps a new encounter with God that helps to begin to make sense out of life as lived. It doesn’t do away with the container from the first half of life. But it makes sense differently of the dualisms. It begins to experience them within a unity of all that is. And the experience of God changes, too, from that of keeper of the dualisms to that of unifier. And as we gleaned from a theologian like Moltmann above, the suffering is not a problem to be solved but something we experience in the unity of God. Suffering is part of God. But so is joy. In God’s unifying presence, suffering and joy can be held together in love.
Above all, in the second half of life we come to experience life as neither fair nor unfair. Life simply is. “It is what it is.” And when we are most fortunate, that “isness” is . . . Grace, gift.
So why these deep ponderings on the occasion of this text from Matthew — or the story of Jonah, for that matter? I believe that the parables of the past two Sundays (including Jonah) are basically invitations into a spirituality for the second half of life. As I reflected last week, the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant is more than a conventional story of crime and punishment. The servant has been given the gracious version of challenging life’s fairness; he has undeservedly, by this world’s standards, been forgiven an unpayable debt. As such, he is invited into a world of Grace, where debts are no longer kept. When he continues to keep a relatively small, payable debt with his fellow servant, he doesn’t simply get punished for a wrong-doing. He steps out of the world of Grace offered to him and back into the world of debt-keeping, where slavery or jail cells await those who can’t keep their debts.
This week’s Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard offers us a similar and even more straightforward invitation into a whole new world of Grace, a world beyond the rules of fairness we were taught to a world of overflowing generosity.
But how does this spirituality for the second half of life work for the moments of painful loss and suffering? To be honest, I can’t say I’ve ‘arrived’ yet at the fullness of living in a world of such grace so that not even moments of great personal loss could extinguish the grace. I only glimpse it and hope that I will be far enough along on this journey to survive life’s greatest losses. And even if I’m not yet far enough along, I have experienced deeply enough the Crucified God in Christ to trust that God will be present with me in my times of greatest suffering, and then can help lead me out on the other side. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me.”
One story has become quintessential for me in my own spiritual journey. Richard Rohr, shortly after releasing the book, held a conference on “A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.” And he invited speaker Paula D’Arcy to co-lead with him, whose personal story very much adds the dimension of facing life’s greatest losses. When she was 27, and pregnant with her second child, her husband and first child were killed in an accident with a drunk driver. Paula tells many stories of being shaken out of the good and necessary spirituality in the first half of her life but then also the long journey into a spirituality for the second half of her life.
But it is a story that she tells about her friend Susan that stays with me. It is at a time when they are both older. Paula has finally moved through her darkness into a mature spirituality of Grace. Susan has also moved on from the first half of her life, having coped with a divorce from an evangelical Christian and then finding new life in marrying a Jewish man. Paula happened to be visiting Susan (they no longer lived in the same town) when Susan received the same terrible news that had rocked Paula’s world: Susan’s 22 year-old son Mark, on his way home from college, had been hit by a drunk driver and killed. Paula accompanied her friend to the hospital but initially gave her the privacy of going into the Emergency Room alone to be with her son’s dead body. After a long time, Susan called for her friend to join her, gently saying to her when she arrived,
“Please tell me the truth. He never was really mine, was he?”
Paula answered simply, “Susan, none of them are ours. It’s all gift.”
“If that is true, then he can’t be taken from me. If he was gift, then at this moment I will give him back.” And Susan took Paula’s hand and one of her son’s hands, raised her eyes to the heavens, and prayed, “God, before me is the greatest gift you ever gave me. And now I give it back. Thank you. Thank you for all these years.”
I don’t know if I could pray such a prayer in a similar situation. But I believe that this is what it looks like to live in the world of Grace, where times of sorrow are held together with times of joy and love. It is a world in which all law is fulfilled in the deep and wondrous mystery of Love.
[Note: much more from and about Rohr in the Resources and Reflections on the Gospel below.]
1. Sandor Goodhart, Sacrificing Commentary, ch. 5, “‘Out of the Fish’s Belly’: Prophecy, Sacrifice, and Repentance in the Book of Jonah,” pp. 139-167. Goodhart’s treatment of Jonah recalls a theme that I have emphasized in these lectionary reflections, a theme of Gil Bailie’s from his reading of the Elijah saga (see Violence Unveiled, pp. 169-173). Bailie refers to the climax of Elijah’s great victory over the priests of Ba’al, a climax which issues in the slaughter of all those priests, as an “anti-sacrificial sacrifice.” Using similar logic, Goodhart talks about the story of Jonah as revealing Jonah’s tendency to make an idol out of the law of anti-idolatry. His aversion to the idolatry of the Ninevites has caused him to idolize his own attitude toward them, leaving no room for the compassion of God. He would rather die than see God seemingly break God’s own law against idolatry. Jonah’s own idolatry of the law of anti-idolatry has blinded him to the fact that God can still hold firm against idolatry while having compassion on the idolaters.
The story of Jonah brilliantly brings out this point through the parable of the kikayon plant in the last scene. The most common reading is that it is an object lesson in compassion. God tells Jonah, ‘You felt sorry for this poor bush. How much more should I feel compassion for the people of the great city of Ninevah?’
But Goodhart suggests a more complex reading, having to do with idolizing the law of anti-idolatry. Jonah forgets that the Jews are themselves ex-Ninevites, people who used to practice sacrificial idolatry before giving it up. Goodhart writes:
Jonah [in having less compassion for the Ninevites than he does for the bush] is reenacting the very idolatry whose rejection enabled the Jews to give up their sacrificial origins and become Jews in the first place. To turn against the Ninevites is to turn against the Jews. It is to fall into a Ninevitian sacrificial mode of a new and more dangerous order since it is to do so in the wake of the revelation of anti-idolatry. It is to make an idol of the law of anti-idolatry itself (p. 156).
Finally, Goodhart, a Jewish scholar, places the story of Jonah within its context as the primary afternoon reading in the liturgy of the high, holy day Yom Kippur:
The story of Jonah becomes then our parable of the kikayon through which the dangers of our own idolatrous behavior may be narratively staged in order that we may stop and return to the ways of God (p. 163).
And the greatest danger of idolatrous behavior is that in condemning others we end up condemning ourselves, which Jonah pointedly, though unawaringly, states himself: “for it is better for me to die than to live.” Goodhart concludes:
In the context of the synagogue service we now understand that we must have compassion, the story tells us, in the first instance, not upon the others but upon ourselves, or, rather, upon others but precisely insofar as we recognize already in ourselves in those others. We must give up the judgment of ourselves, the self-condemnation, upon which the fashioning of kikayons [read as “idols”] is based. We must, in short, engage in self-forgiveness, and it is the lack of self-forgiveness (expressing itself first as anger against the salvation of the Ninevites) that is above all finally reflected in Jonah’s resonant words: It is better for me to die than to live (p. 166).
2. James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment, ch. 4, “Spluttering Up the Beach to Ninevah,” pp. 86-104. Alison reads his own story from the story of Jonah:
In my own case, the exile into which so many gay men, at least, send ourselves, as our battle between pride and shame wags our lives like some unremitting tail on a hapless dog, was a real geographical one, acted out a whole ocean away over many, many years. Like Jonah, I managed to set myself up to be thrown overboard in a storm which was at least in part my own, and like Jonah, I found that just where I thought that I had at last managed to get myself thrown completely away, I found myself caught and held through the depths in which the utterly terrifying and yet completely gentle, unambiguous “yes” of God started to suggest into being the consciousness of a son, to bring forth the terrifying novelty of an unbound conscience. I find myself having been vomited up on the shore, and wondering where on earth is Nineveh, and what on earth to say to it. As I stumble up the shore, spitting out remnants of salt water, astounded to be alive, let alone to be a human being, there’s so much to be worked out, and I come to you for help, to ask you to join me in my splutterings. (pp. 94-95)
This chapter also is one of the places where, without taking the argument head-on, Alison relates the hurtful experience of arguments against gays revolving around orders of creation.
3. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, pp. 259-60. Marr writes,
Jonah’s readers, having experienced Assyria as “the rod of God’s anger,” (Isa. 10:5) would not likely be in a sweet enough mood to imagine God forgiving these ruthless invaders. Like Jonah, they were likely inclined to sulk at the idea and go back to relishing Nahum’s prophecy. Jonah’s story ends quietly with a bit of comedy. A bush grows to give him shade, but then the bush withers the next day. Jonah grows angry about the bush that had given him comfort only to die and leave him unsheltered in the sweltering heat. God then asks Jonah: “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jon. 4:11) This book gives us a chance to laugh at ourselves over our desires for vengeance. If ever we should manage to laugh, we will have begun to let go of our vengeful desires, at least a little. This book is a challenge thrown out to a whole nation with fresh memories of a severe trauma. They, and we, are asked to choose between Nahum and Jonah. The message of love of enemies in this tale surely inspired Jesus as he read the scriptures. When asked by the Pharisees and Sadducees for “a sign from heaven,” he told them the only sign they will get is “the sign of Jonah.” (Mt. 16:4) This sign is God’s call to all people to accept God’s merciful love. The Pharisees and Sadducees didn’t seem to like that. What about us?
Reflections and Questions
1. The Jonah story is a good companion to the parable of the vineyard: both stories focus on those who would begrudge God the divine generosity.
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from September 22, 2002 (Woodside Village Church).
Reflections and Questions
1. Paul says essentially the same words as Jonah: it is better to die than to live. But how different the context! The preacher might want to flesh out the difference between someone who is suicidal and a person of faith who is ready to die. I think that Goodhart’s reading of the Jonah story is helpful in seeing the dynamics of suicide: to seeing the kind of condemnation of others which leads to condemnation of self.
1. This is the second of four consecutive major parables in Matthew that begin with a double designation to introduce the main character:
- 18:23: anthrōpō basilei — “a man, a king” — Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (18:23-35) (Proper 19A)
- 20:1: anthrōpō oikodespotē — “a man, a housemaster” — Parable of the Generous Vineyard Owner (20:1-16)
- 21:33: anthrōpos ēn oikodespotēs — “There was a man, a housemaster” — Parable of the Wicked Tenants (21:33-46) (Proper 22A)
- 22:2: anthrōpō basilei — “a man, a king” — Parable of the King’s Son’s Wedding (22:1-14) (Proper 23A)
Some commentators say that the use of anthropos before “king” or “housemaster” is a typical Aramaism. But what if Matthew is trying to tell us something? Very often in history an allegorical interpretation is applied to these parables in which this main character is interpreted as God. But what if Matthew is using the double designation to make sure we don’t do that? That this householder should simply be seen as a man and not as God? This would be most crucial for the fourth of these parables where the king is downright brutal and vicious (see Proper 23A). I have come to frame Matthew’s Gospel as a encounter between God’s kingdom, the “kingdom of heaven,” and human kingdoms.
2. V. 16: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Jesus ends his shocking teaching in chapter 19 with the first instance of this line in 19:30, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” So this parable is actually bookended by the same saying. The Greek for 19:30 is, polloi de esontai prōtoi eschatoi kai eschatoi prōtoi, for which a more straightforward translation would be, “All will be first-lasts and last-firsts.” 20:16 is a bit different: houtōs esontai hoi eschatoi prōtoi kai prōtoi eschatoi. In keeping with the first translation, we might render this verse as, “Thus, there will be the last-firsts and the first-lasts.” For more on the significance of this way of translating these sayings, see the James Alison video resource below.
1. Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self, p. 20. Written two years after Falling Upward, this book essentially offers the same spiritual insights but from the angle of a more tricky language (because of the negative connotations): False Self and True Self. It isn’t meant to be judgmental. In fact, as with all Rohr’s works, he is seeking to get beyond judgmental dualisms to describing what simply is.
And today’s Gospel actually is cited in this book (not in Falling Upward) in a crucial section on God as the Great Allower:
In this regard, God is the Great Allower, despite all the attempts of ego, culture, and even religion to prevent God from allowing. Show me where God does not allow. God lets women be raped and raped women conceive, God lets tyrants succeed, and God lets me make my own mistakes again and again. He does not enforce his own commandments. God’s total allowing of everything has in fact become humanity’s major complaint. Conservatives so want God to smite sinners that they find every natural disaster to be a proof of just that, and then they invent some of their own smiting besides. Liberals reject God because God allows holocausts and torture and does not fit inside their seeming logic. If we were truly being honest, God is both a scandal and a supreme disappointment to most of us. We would prefer a God of domination and control to a God of allowing, as most official prayers make clear.
Both God and the True Self need only to fully be themselves and generously show themselves. Then the major work is done. The Source will always flow out, through, and toward those who want it. I would go so far as to define God as a “deep allowing” to the point of scandalous “cooperation with evil,” both natural disasters and human evils. To allow yourself to be grabbed and held by such a divine wholeness is a dark and dangerous risk, and yet this is exactly what we mean by “salvation.” We are allowing the Great Allower to allow us, even at our worst. We gradually learn to share in the divine freedom and must forgive God for being far too generous. This is not my “liberal” idea; Jesus says the same thing (see Matthew 20:15), but we cannot hear it for some reason.
Once your soul comes to its True Self, it can amazingly let go and be almost anything except selfish or separate. It can also not be anything that you need it to be or others want it to be. The soul is a natural at detachment and nonaddiction. It does not cling or grasp. It has already achieved its purpose in pure being more than in any specific doing of this or that. It can daringly and dangerously say with St. Paul, “For me there are no forbidden things, but not everything does good. For me there are no forbidden things, but I am not going to let anything dominate me either” (1 Corinthians 6:12). Finally we have become a human being instead of just a human doing. This is what we are practicing when we sit quietly in prayer: we are practicing under-doing and assured failure, which radically rearranges our inner hardware after a while. (18-20)
2. Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, pp. 160-61. Rohr is an enthusiastic reader of René Girard, as one can readily tell by his borrowing the title from Girard’s magnum opus. Here is a relevant citation of today’s passage:
One parable that everyone is familiar with is the story of the man coming to work at the last hour, who gets paid as much as the one that comes at the first hour (Matthew 20:1-16). Let’s be honest, none of us worker-bees appreciate that story. We’re good, well-trained Americans. We all say, “Thanks be to God” at Mass when we hear this Gospel read, but we don’t really like it or believe it. It’s not the way we think; it’s not the way you and I have organized the world. Such a parable as this should be a clear signal that Jesus is presenting a very different world-view than the achievement contest of Western capitalism.
A parable is a unique form of literature that is always trying to subvert business as usual, much like a Zen koan or a Confucian riddle, both of which use paradox to undo our reliance on what we think is logic. Yet we typically do not let parables do that for us. Our dominant consciousness is so in control that we try to figure them out inside of our existing consciousness — or more commonly we just ignore them or consider them out of date. Yet as Einstein was reported to have said, “No problem can be solved by the same consciousness that caused it in the first place.” Parables aim to subvert our old consciousness and offer us a way through by utterly reframing our worldview.
So often the biblical text is not a transformative document and does not bring about a “new creation,” because we pull it inside of our own security systems and what we call “common sense.” At that point, no divine breakthrough is possible. Frankly speaking, much of Scripture, then, has become largely harmless and forgettable.
3. James Alison also offers a video homily for Proper 20A (Ordinary 25); in 2020 Alison began a new website during the pandemic, “Praying Eucharistically,” which included weekly homilies. The recap of last week’s parable is that ‘as we continually forgive one another it opens up creation.’ Now we skip chapter 19 for the last major parable before Jesus arrives in Jerusalem for the Passion, but we can’t fully understand this parable without knowing the intermediate scenes: teaching about divorce and eunuchs, Jesus blesses little children, the rich young man is asking to sell everything, and the disciples are promised reward for giving up much. All of these teachings about living in the kingdom based on forgiveness are shocking, so Peter ends the chapter by expressing that shock. To which Jesus concludes his reply with the saying he repeats at the end of today’s parable. A better translation of 19:30 would be, “All will be first-lasts and last-firsts.” It signals not so much a moral reversal as simply the topsy-turvy nature of the kingdom.
Thus framed, the parable can be seen to talk about the relationship among those in the kingdom of heaven. All have come into the kingdom in unique ways — sometimes with elements of first-last and sometimes last-first. The problem is the comparison . . . playing the game of comparing how each person came into the kingdom and becoming envious. Only God who is outside time is able to rightly judge. When we try to judge, jealously often prevents us from being thankful for what we’ve been given through the grace of entering the kingdom. And pre-judging where each of us is at in the kingdom now often becomes an obstacle to the unfolding nature of what comes next. Judging, and the mimetic jealousy that comes from it, prevents us from seeing how each of us is being uniquely brought into being as sons and daughters in God’s kingdom.
4. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, pp. 249-50. As with the Jonah passage, Marr comments on this passage in the context of the chapter on forgiveness:
Our strongest resistance to forgiveness is that it just isn’t fair. It blows apart everything we think we know and believe about the economics of life. We think everything has a price, or should. We instinctively keep a tally of what we owe and what is owed us. Usually the latter is much higher than the former. This tally makes up a huge amount of our identity, an identity that forgiveness shows to be totally false. The tally is a desperate attempt to separate ourselves from others by letting the figures on our running tally come between us and them. This keeps mimetic rivalry alive and well. (And keeps us not so well.) The Parable of the Vineyard Workers (Mt. 20:1-16) speaks to this resistance. The workers who worked all day grumble when they get only the day’s wage they agreed on after the workers called in at the last hour of the day got the same day’s wage. I think all of us identify with the grumbling workers. The master sees the problem and seems to shrug his shoulders and say with a divine smile: “This is how I operate. Get used to it.” God’s economy takes a lot of getting used to. We are wise to start practicing now. (249-50)
Marr also offers a blog on this passage in 2020, “A Man, a Landowner.”
5. Michael Hardin and Jeff Krantz, Preaching Peace, Proper 20A. Very important over the next several weeks, during Matthew’s “Parables of Judgment,” is to suspend an allegorical reading that too easily sees wealthy landowners and kings as God. This will be especially true in three weeks for the Parable of the King’s Son’s Wedding (Matt. 22:1-14; Proper 23A). The Girardian reading of judgment in the New Testament is as a self-judgment. God judges us by turning us over to our own human judgments. This was very clear in last week’s parable (Proper 19A). The master turns his servant over to the jailers only after the servant has insisted on living in the world of human judgment by refusing to forgive his fellow servant’s debt. Offered the world of forgiveness, the servant chooses, by his own actions, to live in the usual human world of debt-keeping.
In today’s parable, Hardin and Krantz corroberate a reading that resists seeing the landowner as God, but on different grounds than the one of God’s turning us over to self-judgment. They cite mimetic theory’s other principle tenet, our human entrapment in a mimetic desire that leads to rivalry and envy. This owner of vineyard is a human model of having more. The God we meet in Jesus Christ takes his place in the human world on the cross as one of the last. Hence, Jesus’ conclusion of, “The first will be last, and the last will be first.” Here are part of Hardin and Krantz’s fine reflections:
Mimetic theory might also suggest that we might desire to become a “model” to another, to wish the other to have “less” so that I might become a model of desire by having “more.” What is missing here is the “model” for “more.” How might those who worked longer come to desire to have “more” than another unless they have had it mediated to them by another? Who is left in our parable to serve as a mediator?
Once again, the character in our text who first appears to stand in for God exposes our culturally conditioned notions of the identity of the one Jesus knew as Abba. This “owner” gives out of his great wealth. He gives because he has the “more” that the resentful workers have been led to desire. They resent what he has paid them because he could have paid them more, because he is NOT the God made visible as described in Philippians 2.
Their resentment is perfectly justifiable in the world of the parable. It makes no sense at all in the world of Philippians 2, the world of the God of kenosis, of self-emptying.
It is important to keep in mind the setting of this parable, among so many other parables whose focus is forgiveness. We have noted recently that “conditional” forgiveness is no forgiveness at all. Today’s reading would add “partial forgiveness is no forgiveness at all.” In the world of the parable, “more” forgiveness seems possible, as the “owner” is the “owner” of so much more than he has given to the workers. In the world of Jesus’ Abba, there is only forgiveness. Everything else has been relinquished as the Creator enters into the abyss (thank you Tony for these wonderful images and metaphors). In what world does the worker of the first hour complain about an “owner” who has given up ownership of everything but love, but forgiveness?
The “owner” who is our God “pays” to each of us the whole of what there is to give. It is not until we make God into another “owner” who behaves as we do that resentment might grow up in us.
6. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2011, titled “It Doesn’t Matter“; a sermon in 2017, “Take What Belongs to You and Go.”
7. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from September 18, 2005 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
Reflections and Questions
1. Missing from my Opening Comments above is the role of René Girard‘s work in my spiritual journey. Obviously, it has played a huge role, since discovering it in 1992. But Mimetic Theory’s contribution points to another important track within that journey. Reading Rohr made sense to me because MT already provided the critique of dualistic thinking from the standpoint of anthropology. Rohr’s work adds the dimension of personal spiritual practice.
Also, combining Rohr‘s idea of a spirituality for the two halves of each person’s life combines with the macro view of an anthropology to ask: is there a spirituality for the two halves of human development as a species? Do people like the Buddha and Jesus represent a pivot point from one spirituality to another? This is the sort of question one should be prepared to ask with an evolutionary timeframe in mind. Did our species evolve for many millennia in what Rohr identifies as the spirituality of building the cultural/religious container? And now it is taking several millennia for us as a species to mature into a spirituality to take us into a more mature evolution of our species? A spirituality for the second half of our collective life as a species?
2. In 2017 this text comes after the incredible suffering caused by an earthquake in Mexico City and a series of devastating hurricanes: Harvey, Irma, Maria. And that was just North America. Flooding in Bangladesh and genocide in Myanmar were also in the news. How does one preach a God of Grace in the face of such suffering?
3. “Are you envious that I am generous?” Perhaps a more loaded question than first appears. We usually think of stinginess as the opposite of generosity, but maybe the true opposite is envy. Isn’t envy the root cause of stinginess? In mimetic theory it is easy to see the relatedness. When we come to desire the same objects as our model/obstacles, those objects appear scarce to us, even when they aren’t. The children playing tug-of-war over a toy in a room full of toys, even duplicate toys, perceive that one toy as scarce. Thus, they want to horde it; they become stingy.
The question even takes us deeper in seeing that sin itself can be described as being envious over God’s generosity. When we properly focus on God as our model of desire, what we find is generosity. But the mimetic nature of that modeling can still lead to envy. The serpent convinces the man and woman in the garden that God’s generous setting of boundaries (forbidding only one tree among many) is actually stinginess: God is trying to horde the divine knowledge. An envious perception of generosity turns it into a perception of stinginess. The man and woman buy into it and thus condemn themselves to living in a world marked by stinginess and scarcity instead of a world of generosity and abundance. This parable once again invites the hearer to step into the latter the world, God’s world (like the unforgiving servant was invited to step into another world last week). See the 1996 sermon that continues the theme from last Sunday’s Gospel text, “Living in the World of Forgiveness, Part II.”
4. Another element of this parable that has become meaningful to me is that of the owner’s persistently going out in the vineyard to invite more laborers. There’s never a mention about needing more laborers. Rather, the parable makes note of a need in those invited as the owner notices their idleness. As such, this parable is about, as I highlight in the 1999 sermon, “The Grace of Fruitful Labor.”
5. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. Jesus calls us to look after the least, the last, and the lost. Last week (2002) during the first anniversary of September 11, we repeatedly heard and saw the slogan, “We will never forget.” Is this “never forget” in the sense of, “Remember the Alamo!” — in other words, as revenge? Or is it in the sense of, “We will never forget the Holocaust”? With the latter, it has generally been a compassionate remembering that looks out for the least, the last, the lost, who are most likely to become the next victims of a sacrificial slaughter. If in remembrance of September 11 we say, “We will not forget,” can we say it in the latter sense of caring about the innocent people of Afghanistan and Iraq, who may become the victims of our “Remember the Trade Center!” sort of military actions?
6. Contrast our “We will never forget” over September 11 with a line that white folks can often be heard saying to African-Americans: “Forget about slavery already. That’s way in the past!” It’s easy for the first to tell the last to forget about it, isn’t it
7. In 2005 I used the metaphor of Differential and Integral Calculus to talk about the parable. We calculate based on differences we see. God calculates in a way to bring integration and unity; the sermon title reflected a planned fall theme, “Standing Firm in One Spirit.”