Scripture text: Matthew 20:1-16
As bedtime reading, I’ve been reading recently a collection of letters written by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In a memorandum he wrote to Harry McPherson in May 1965, he wrote something that I have been chewing my mental cud on ever since:
American democracy is founded on the twin ideals of liberty and equality. Our education and general mindset does not much distinguish between these two ideals, but the fact is that they are distinct…Liberty has been the American middle-class ideal par excellence. It has enjoyed the utmost social prestige. Not so equality. Men who would carelessly give their lives for Liberty, are appalled by equality…Lincoln freed the slaves, but did not give them equality. Therefore we are still struggling with the issue. [Steven R. Wiesman, editor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary, New York: Public Affairs, 2010, pages 103-104]
I confess that I like most Americans have tended to merge the ideals of liberty and equality in my own fuzzy mind. Moynihan has helped me see how different they are, and how they provoke very different political and social aims.
As I read Moynihan, I began to ask: How do these two ideals come into the New Testament picture of the Kingdom of God? Do they come into that picture at all? Or are we importing two secular ideals into a spiritual world?
In the Letter to the Galatians, we get Paul’s ringing proclamation of the great Christian ideal of spiritual liberty. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” cries out Paul. (Galatians 5:1) And middle-class American Christians will heartily endorse Paul here. It fits well with our own attachment to the virtue of freedom.
But there’s not always been easy Christian acceptance of the other Pauline proclamation that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) Here Paul asserts a spiritual equality in Christ. And the struggle over women’s ordination shows how hard it has been for some Christians to buy into this radical spiritual equality.
But what about economic or social equality? Is that a part of the New Testament picture of the Kingdom? Here’s where I’m haunted by the parable of the laborers in the vineyard that Jesus tells in Matthew 20. A farmer goes out into the village marketplace and hires laborers to help bring in his harvest. Laborers are hired all through the day. Some work eleven hours; others just one. But all are paid the same wage.
What a picture of radical equality! All receive the same reward. And most of us grumble. We like the laborers who worked the longest feel this is unfair.
We can understand the point of the parable as teaching about the generosity of God in sharing his saving grace with all people, both those who come to God early in their lives and those who come to God as their lives come to a close. Salvation is shared equally with all.
Yet…does that exhaust the point of Jesus’ parable? Could Jesus also be saying something pointedly about God’s kingdom being a way of life that assumes a radical social and economic equality among the children of God? It is after all told in Matthew as one of Jesus’ responses to the rich young ruler who goes away sorrowful when Jesus invites him to sell all he has and follow Jesus.
If such equality is a distinctive feature of Jesus’ understanding of the Kingdom of God, then we must say Christians in general (and not just middle-class American Christians) have had a very hard time accepting this ideal. Social and economic equality has been a rare feature of most Christian communities. It has been an important ideal in the monastic tradition. But even in monasticism, the record of implementation is decidedly mixed.
But if this ideal of equality is an inherent feature of the Kingdom in Jesus’ mind, then we begin to realize what a truly dramatic conversion of heart is demanded for entrance into the Kingdom and its mindset. It means those of us who do not undergo this radical conversion of heart in this life are likely to find entrance into the Kingdom in the next life a wrenching experience.
It also raises questions about what political, economic, and social policies Christians should throw their support behind. That should give us pause as we listen to the various options thrown out to us in the upcoming political campaigns.
I invite your own thoughts on this.