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Tag Archives: Last Shall Be First

Most priests get it wrong.

There is an unusual reading (Matthew 20:1-16) from the Gospel that comes up every three years in Roman Catholic churches. It is unusual because it appears either to be about contract law or management lore. It isn’t. So what typically happens is that the homily (sermon) says something about either topic and then segues into the idea of spiritual development – with the bottom line being that anyone can be called, and that the reward of salvation is inherently equal to all persons. Which is not untrue, but it is not the message of that reading. The message of the reading is actually extremely seditious and supremely revolutionary, and that is why it is so important.

The passage can be read here: http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=141121660

First, it is not about contract. If it were, the message would be jejune. It would go something like this: it is possible to contract to pay one person the same amount as another for less work, or to put it in more easily understandable terms, to pay one person more than another. Well of course it is. And just to firm the argument up, only the first group called has their reward specified (one coin). The rest are only promised a fair wage.

Secondly, it is not about management. It may not be smart for a manager to pay one person more than another for the same work, or to pay the same amount no matter the hours worked, as the practice would tend to foment dissatisfaction. It is within the manager’s power, however, to make such an arrangement. The manager in the story is God, and it is obvious that God would have such a power. The story is not enlightening if explained in this way.

The only possible way to make what I call the management explanation (or, if you will, the ‘same wage for less work’ approach) meaningful is to equate it with the idea that the people in the story are all saved, but at different times, and that the people saved first are not to be jealous of those receiving salvation later, since salvation is the same for all. The trouble with this approach is that it is based on the notion that those saved first would be jealous. Thus the teaching is for one not to be jealous in such a situation. But is this a problem? Are those saved early jealous? I do not think so at all. Why would one care in heaven that another made it there more easily?

The real explanation has to do with the mind-set prevalent at that time. This existed in the entire Indo-European region, apparently. The main idea was that whatever you had, your position, even your health, was given to you by the gods. Therefore, it was deserved. As was castigation of those less fortunate and even those fortunate who become afflicted with disease. As an aside, one takes note that such a mentality is in a way unconsciously cruel.

The first group called to the vineyard are the privileged ones. They have not earned the right to work the whole day – they did not, for instance, stand in line the longest. They did nothing. They were merely called first – the owner approached them, not the other way around. These then represent those at the top of the social pyramid: the emperors, kings, and governors; perhaps the pharisees and so forth. The others called at the various hours occupy intermediate positions.

The manager/owner calls the last group. Interestingly, he asks why they are not working. They say that they have not been called. This illustrates that it is not through their own fault that they have not been called. The owner/manager then calls them. Here I bemoan my own use of the word ‘call.’ It connotes salvation. They are not being saved, however. They are being placed in a hierarchy, and the point is that it is not of themselves, for their virtues or vices, that they are being ranked, but they are being placed at the pleasure of the manager/owner.

What is happening here? The denouement is that those who came last received the same wages as those who came first. Thus, those who came last got more (per hour). The story tells how the people in the first group protested, to no avail. Meaning that the hierarchy has been subverted.

Thus, the first shall go last and the last shall come first. In the kingdom of heaven.

With Christ, we are all called to a life of moral courage and enjoined to seek perfection. This is what matters. Even those who are in the lowest social, economic, or other position in this world may be the greatest moral heroes and the best Christians. And thus “wind up,” as it were, on the “top of the heap.”

This message, however, was completely and staggeringly revolutionary. That we don’t recognize its sedition is testimony to its success. It was new and brought forth a completely different type of person and mentality.

Yet it remains radical. As radical as can be. For instance, it gives the lie to socialism and communism (as well as what is often called ‘statism’), since an imposition of equality by government is as irrelevant to the new moral imperative as is an imposition of inequality.

I’ve been wanting to get this one off my chest for years.