Sometimes a clock radio set to the news can yield weird results. For example, a few days ago I woke up to an interviewee re-framing one of Jesus’ parables – the story of the vineyard workers:
The vineyard owner’s choice to pay workers the same wage regardless of whether they started in the morning or afternoon is usually taken as an illustration that we can just get saved right before death and be just as saved as a lifelong Christian. But through my half-asleep fog some fella was arguing that this parable actually shows that God doesn’t like unions because the workers and owner were contracting directly. See? No union in Jesus’ story! God must not like unions!
It was an odd first thought of the day.
I was not so sure about the speaker’s conclusion, but I thought that he was onto something. Was Jesus’ economic-themed parable actually a story about economics, notwithstanding the dominant interpretation? I was only semiconscious, but the comment stuck with me.
So I finally looked up the article online. It was a muddled and overly-ambtious exploration of numerous issues, which all swirled around a false choice between two supposedly opposite positions offered by the Republicans and Democrats.
The article began by framing Jesus’ views on the US economy as “a matter of fierce debate among Christians – with conservatives promoting a small-government Jesus and liberals seeing Jesus as an advocate for the poor.” In fact, these are not at all contradictory statements; they are like debating whether sugar is sweet OR fire is hot. Both are true, and both fall short of Jesus-approved economic policy. Personally, I think the Republicans are less wrong on this one, and don’t see any case for legislating morality. But that’s another story, which I explored in Holy Cooperation! a few years back.
The mystery speaker was David Barton, whose organization “WallBuilders” is a reference to the story of the namesake of this blog! A theological cousin! His “about” page says this:
In the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, the nation of Israel rallied together in a grassroots movement to help rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and thus restore stability, safety, and a promising future to that great city. We have chosen this historical concept of “rebuilding the walls” to represent allegorically the call for citizen involvement in rebuilding our nation’s foundations.
Sounds good to me, although a brief perusal of the articles on the website confirms my initial suspicion that Barton and I have differing perspectives on the whys and hows of the rebuilding.
Even so, I appreciate his unusual take on a familiar story. Looking closely, I found the scripture to be transformative. And I’ll admit that there’s more to this story than economics (as much as I would like to leave it there).
The most important aspect of this story is its context. Here we have a great example of how the arbitrary chapter numbers used in the Bible can impede understanding; this passage appears as part of Matthew 19:16 – 20:16. We can tell those verses form a coherent passage because they are bracketed on both sides by Jesus’ clearly going from one place to another. In contrast, the chapter break obviously splits the story. The first verse of chapter 20, where people often start reading, begins with the second half of a thought: “For the Kingdom of Heaven…”
So what’s the first half of the thought? It’s the tale of the rich young man, which is ironically one of those more Democrat-friendly stories. This is the one where he delivers his famous line, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!”
But then Jesus almost immediately launches into a parable in which the Kingdom is likened to just the sort of rich (presumably Republican) person to whom he just barred the door. What’s up with that?
I think the key is in the transition. After hearing Jesus ask the rich man to hand over his wealth, Peter assumes that there is some sort of cover charge to heaven and inquires about whether there might be a VIP room. “We’ve given up everything to follow you,” he asks. “What will we get out of it?”
Jesus reassures Peter that he’ll get a good seat, but then apparently takes him down a notch, saying “But many who seem to be important now will be the least important then, and those who are considered least here will be the greatest then.”
What struck me was that in this transition Jesus did not use the usual language for Kingdom, although my translation (NLT) swaps in that word. Instead, Jesus speaks of the “regeneration” (palingenesias), which only appears one other time in the entire Bible.
I’m not usually a big translation geek, but the rarity of this term intrigued me. So I looked up the other case, in the book of Titus,which describes how believers will be washed by the regeneration. Washed of what? Well, prior to that, “Our lives were full of evil and envy. We hated others and they hated us.”
So regeneration, in addition to being a mystical reference to the world’s return to an Eden-like state, is about letting go of the envy and competitiveness being shown both by the young rich man and especially by Peter (who eventually won the big competition among the apostles and is regarded as the first pope, oddly enough).
Having straightened out all that, let’s look at the parable that Jesus uses to explain why he just disappointed the rich man.
Jesus is comparing the Kingdom to the owner of the estate, and not saying that the Kingdom has an owner of the estate. That is an essential difference, for it determines whether we are talking about the Kingdom being a benevolent boss or simply involving a benevolent boss.
I don’t think Barton is claiming that heaven will literally include idle poor waiting for work and wealthy landowners unilaterally setting wages – after all, Jesus just said that it is “very hard” for the wealthy to get in, let alone take over the joint.
Still, Barton seems to be holding up the absence of unions as an ideal, despite our living in a world where bosses generally don’t risk alienating their hardest workers by giving a full day’s wage to even those who start work just before quitting time. This is a rather bizarre selective analogy, used to make the strange assertion that because one illustration of the Kingdom (out of many) of Heaven doesn’t include collective bargaining, we should take that to mean that unions are not desirable here in the pre-regeneration world.
If Barton is going to argue for a lack of unions, he should also take into account that this parable does not feature a human in the boss-like role. So should we take action here to avoid having owner/managers and just let God run all the businesses? That would be sort of like worker collectives, but I doubt that’s where Barton is going.
Regardless, anyone who is looking forward to a heaven in which he or she gets to “do what I want with my money” is likely to be disappointed to discover we are all just workers together in a big collective where everyone gets the same wage regardless of our contribution.
The good news is that all our needs will be met. Everyone will get a fair day’s wage at the proper time. But those who expect special treatment for being hard workers or early adopters will be disappointed. If we believe Jesus’ parable, the whole corrupt transactional nature of our world will be regenerated to something like the abundance found in the Garden of Eden.
And there sure won’t be special seating for Democratic or Republican fundraisers.