Read Matthew 20:1-16 — (NIV)
Peter wants to know what’s in it for him. What’s the prize? Where’s the pot of gold waiting? Peter is trying to put a price on what it looks like to follow Jesus. Fair enough, the disciples literally left everything. They had no status, no money, no social life, for all intense purposes they gave it all up. They were status less, faceless and in societies eyes because they had nothing were worthless. (there is something to be said about how we come to Christ; we might need to let go of all the things that give us worth to find it) At the root of Peter’s question is I need something to give me worth. I need something that will give me status. Peter wants to make his life meaningful. he wants to know what he’s going to get out of it. Its about him.
Some churches are built on a meritocratic structure. Some conservative/neo-conservative theology is built around the idea that if we do something, we earn more. Or to be a follower of Jesus means the more we change ourselves the more acceptable we become. The more we morph into the cookie-cutter Jesus follower, the more acceptable to God we are. Jesus counters this very theology head-on, he essentially says all the laborers are the same. Also, notice they are day-laborers (they receive a ‘day-wage’); they need the work. They need the wage to sustain themselves, families and assets. These things give them status. In that culture, what you had gave you a name, remember the ‘rich man’, he had a lot that’s why he was called the rich man. The more you had the more important you were, Peter wants that more. He wants status. Much like we all do at one time or another.
This story isn’t anti-materialistic, it is anti-hierarchy. Having things isn’t the issue, how we have those things might be.
There aren’t some christians better than others. Christ-followers aren’t better than Mohammed-followers. Christ-followers aren’t better than Joseph-smith followers. There isn’t the hierarchy like there is in Rome, which was the known world. (I also think this has a lot to say to ‘top-down’ model churches)
The kingdom of God (according to some Rabbinic Scholars) is the same word for heaven. Now, as I shared in a previous post, heaven in the Hebrew is interchangeable with the Kingdom of God. In some Bible versions the word is Kingdom of Heaven instead. When you look up the word for heaven one of the words featured within the word is the word for universe/sky. So, maybe a better rendering for the Kingdom of God would be a ‘universal ethic’, or ‘universal way of life’, or maybe even ‘universal potential’. So when Jesus starts talking about a vineyard this is what he is referring to, he is saying this universal ethnic is much like a vineyard.
In the Hebrew, the word for vineyard is kereme. Its the simple word for plant. So, what we know is that these laborers came not only to tend but also to plant. To cultivate. To invest themselves in what they are doing. To bring new life into existence. To be responsible for life. To cultivate life into barren places. This is what this universal ethic looks like. It’s universal because everyone can share in this work. Notice that none of the laborers are named, now why in a society where your name has currency are there characters without names? I think this goes back to English class. I remember my teacher informing me that whenever an author left a character unnamed, it was because they wanted the reader to assume its them. We/whoever is reading it is the worker. Whoever is reading it.
Jesus is also responding to the social convention/expectation that we get what we deserve. That if we work hard enough, we will get the ‘just’ pay spoken of in the story. Jesus is violently divorcing the status quo from its ‘rightful’ place. Jesus is re-defining justice. We tend to define it in terms of karma or some law that dictates if we work hard than we get more. We are defining what we deserve by how much we put ourselves into something rather than putting ourselves into something regardless of the merit. Sometimes we do this just to be noticed. Just to be recognized. Our intentions stem from a need to be loved,accepted and validated. Jesus essentially swoops in with this story and respond to Peter by saying all are valid. All are acceptable.
There is also the general case for justice. We tend to define justice within a construct of social morality. What is acceptable on the whole or what is written in the ‘law-book’. Jesus essentially redraws the boundaries and invites Peter and all of us to see that true justice isn’t justice. that justice lies in the gaps. where justice hides is the space between where justice and injustice resides. He is saying that justice doesn’t make sense, well, at least the kingdom kind of justice doesn’t follow the Roman equation. This new kind of justice is egalitarian. It defies logic. Jesus is challenging Peter to rethink they way he sees justice. the way he sees merit. the way he see labor.
Also, the word for laborers in hebrew is amel – it has the meaning of someone ‘who toils’ but also mischief and wicked are two ideas that are carried with it as well. I stumbled upon a website that explains this concept well — “”the dissatisfaction that comes in life because we work, toil, and labor, and never find real contentment.” The same Hebrew word is used by Moses in Psalm 90:10, “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble (Heb: amel).” These laborers are in a state of hopelessness. They think they have no purpose in life. It seems Jesus is using Jewish sarcasm here in response to Peter’s question. He tells a story where in the story Peter is one of the laborers. Peter needs something to give him hope because he seems despondant without something to give him hope. Its the consumer idea behind the idea that we need things to validate or make us feel hopeful or purposeful. Yet Jesus talks of day-laborers who are also in the ‘now’. the right now. he is encouraging peter (IMHO) to live for the now. to be fully in the naked now. to rest in the fact that he has now is more than he will ever need.
a lesson i myself along with our culture need to learn.
* a link to check out: http://www.jackshea.org/articles-21stSundayOT.htm