Matthew’s parable of the workers in the vineyard is a harvest story, dealt with by the Elves around the time of the Fall Equinox. (See the original Revised Common Lectionary blog.) As usual, Matthew’s pious comment at the end (“The last will be first and the first last”), while it seems to be Matthew’s favorite quote, has nothing to do with the point. According to the Jesus Seminar commentary in The Five Gospels, the parable is not about the reversal of fortune for the greedy or the self-righteous (“the last will be first and the first last”) but about frustrated expectations. Conventional fairness in the imperial marketplace certainly does get turned upside down, whether from the point of view of the rich proprietor, or the poor workers hired throughout the day. But Jesus is talking about more than frustrated expectations. Jesus is illustrating how in God’s realm the reward is bestowed whenever the program is joined. That is the nature of God’s Covenant.
Read superficially, this feels suspiciously like “cheap grace.” Certainly that is what Jonah thought. If God is going to settle for cheap grace, Jonah would prefer to be dead, thank you very much. The deadbeats hanging around the well all day, pinching the women, get the same wages as the pious ones who worked from dawn. The proprietor looks like a typical CEO, cheating his workers with bait-and-switch promises of a days’ pay for a days’ work without defining the length of the day or the rate. How fair or just is that? It’s just like the old miscreant on his deathbed who confesses Jesus as Lord, and the angels waft him to heaven.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote the book on Grace, says: “The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. . . . Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth . . . An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins. . . .” The key in Matthew’s parable is the timing. God’s reward is paid as soon as the worker agrees to the bargain. And what is the bargain? To be first? To be last? Far from a position in line, the bargain – the Covenant – is in Bonhoeffer’s words, true (costly) grace: “the Incarnation of God.” When Paul says in Philippians 1:21, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain,” he is talking about incarnation – taking on the life and the purpose and the work that Jesus did. In Paul’s experience, to die doing that work is deliverance. Bonhoeffer’s “costly grace” is the radical abandonment of self-interest so that the great work of distributive justice-compassion can continue, and God’s Kingdom can come. The promised reward is deliverance from injustice – whether we live or die.
This is not easy piety. Paul is writing from prison, where the conditions were primitive and horrific: so bad, that it is possible they made his friend Epaphroditus ill to the point of threatening his life. We don’t know what Paul did that landed him in jail, but we can safely bet the rent that he wasn’t preaching about salvation from hell in the next life, which poses no threat to Empire. Paul got into trouble for the same reason Jesus did. Preaching deliverance from injustice in this life calls into question everything that Empire does.
An article in the June 28, 2011 issue of The Christian Century (The Anti-gospel of Ayn Rand; p. 41) highlights the work of the American Values Network. The AVN website supplies a video link to a 1959 interview of Ayn Rand by Mike Wallace, and offers commentary explaining why “Christians must choose: Ayn Rand or Jesus.” Among the quotations from Ayn Rand’s work that are paired with specific scripture verses are: “What I am fighting is the idea that charity is a moral duty”; “You love only those who deserve it”; “Nobody has ever given a reason why man should be his brothers’ keeper.”
The counter to the Christian right-wing political enamoration of Ayn Rand’s ideas most assuredly is to understand what those ideas are. But along with that must come a reclamation of what Jesus actually taught. It is not enough to lift popular quotations out of context, as the AVN website does – such as “Love your enemies.” It is not enough to refer people to John 3:16, Romans 8:31, and 1 Corinthians 13. The case has to be made not only for “love” and “charity.” The case has to be made for Jesus’ conviction that God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion assures security and wholeness for all beings in the Universe.
In her visceral reaction to the excesses of Soviet Communism and National Socialism, Ayn Rand missed the crucial point that security and wholeness for one depends upon the security and wholeness of all. In an essay titled “Man’s Rights,” Rand lays out her conviction that “If one wishes to advocate a free society – that is capitalism – one must realize that its indispensable foundation is the principle of individual rights. If one wishes to uphold individual rights, one must realize that capitalism is the only system that can uphold and protect them. . . . The concept of a “right” pertains only to action – specifically to freedom of action. It means freedom from physical compulsion, coercion or interference by other men. . . . Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product is a slave.” The outraged workers in Matthew’s story would be in complete agreement with Ayn Rand’s view. The Boss was either a dupe or a fool; the workers who came late to the vineyard had done nothing to deserve the same wages as those who started at dawn; both the Boss’s action and the late workers’ advantage in fact devalued the exchange of labor for wages of the other workers.
The saving grace for Randians is that while these economic actions were fatally flawed in capitalist terms, at least there was no government requirement that wage and hour laws reflect Jesus’ parable. People in the parable are free to choose how much to pay their workers, and which Boss to work for. But all is not well in the realms of free-market capitalism.
In the same essay, Rand attacks the Democratic Party platform of 1960, which “reaffirm[ed] the economic bill of rights which Franklin Roosevelt wrote into our national conscience . . . .” These are the “right” to a good job and a fair wage; food, clothing, shelter, medical care, education, and the right to adequate protection from “the economic fears of old age, sickness, accidents, and unemployment.” To those who might imagine these are indeed social values but they are values that arise to the level of “rights,” Rand says “A single question . . . would make the issue clear: At whose expense?”
Rand says, “Each man must live as an end in himself and follow his own rational self-interest.” As these commentaries have argued, Jesus taught the radical abandonment of self-interest as the way to participate in the Kingdom of God – or to use non-theistic language – The radical abandonment of self-interest allows participation here and now in the non-violent Covenant for distributive justice-compassion that creation itself participates in. Humans are the only part of the earthly ecosystem that thinks it can live alone, with no cooperation from any other being. Humans forget that even in the wilderness, where food is easily found for the hunting and gathering, if it weren’t for the interdependent web of being within which the human lives, it could not survive. Indeed, rational humans today are seriously considering what are the consequences for continued human existence given the predations of human civilization that are slowly destroying that very interdependent web.
Radical abandonment of self-interest brings justice and life – the presence of God. The joke is that the Covenant includes everybody and anybody who is willing to sign on. The Boss pays the same amount for a day, regardless of when the day begins or ends. The workers get the same amount regardless of how little or how much each one contributes to the job.
It’s the worst nightmare for U.S. Tea Partiers and their Ayn Rand fans.