November 24, 2017

There is no such thing as a twelfth of the love of God, a pondion of the love of God

Matthew 20:1-16
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o”clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o”clock, he did the same. And about five o”clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o”clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

This sermon was preached at the occasion of the Book of Concord conference at the Christ the King Lutheran Church in Houston, Texas
There is no such thing as a twelfth of the love of God, a pondion of the love of God.

In the poor countryside of western Brazil every morning at day’s break was the familiar scene of the unemployed gathered in the town’s square, waiting for farmers’ trucks to come. The farmer’s men would select them, and then take them for a day’s work in the soybean plantations. After the young and the strong were first picked, left behind, almost always would be men and women, children or the elderly deemed not strong enough, or looking too frail for a day of hard labor. The selection process was not so complicated. The farmers’ deputies would just count those that were first able to climb up the truck to the number of laborers needed for the day, and the rest would be pushed away. That scene in itself became a parable for me, not a parable of the kingdom of God, but a parable of the kingdom of this world, a kingdom in which people trample over each other to gain recognition, to displace others and gain the right to be recognized as worthy of dignity, worthy of having the right to work and be rightly rewarded for it. And right reward meant getting a share that was better than those who did not work that hard or whose skills could be outmatched. Properly recognized meant getting on first to the back of the truck.

Those left behind would not wait for a second or third truck later in the day which incidentally never came.
But listen to the other parable, the parable of the kingdom of God. What prompted Jesus to tell this parable were the questions that he was asked: what does it takes for one to be saved and what is God’s criteria in awarding rewards? Is God going to reward according to what each had done? What is the hierarchy in the Kingdom of God? If we have the right confession, the right piety, how much is its cash value in the kingdom of God? If we are the finer church with the better teaching, the most successful charity, the greatest
devotion, the most impressive architecture, the most inspiring hymnody, the richest liturgy, so what is in it for us, Jesus? Indeed, we strive to do our best, but it is only the best if it is better than what others have done. That is not so bad, is it? But, Jesus had something different to say.

If we were to follow the rules of analogy, that which we think is a good example for the ways things are among us should be likewise in the Kingdom of God, only better. So if we say that we know what love means, we know something about God like God is love, except that God is even more so. If we know what being rewarded means so we would also know what God’s acceptance means, only that in God this is magnified. But this is not what the story of Jesus is about. It is not about analogy as the disciples thought. It is about another world, another way, as other household, another “plantation.” This household is of a different kind as Jesus explains to them. Jesus tells them a story about another way of handling rewards, a parable of another economy that in the ears of those who came to him was unsound. It is about a ridiculously illogical economy of a man that goes out early in the morning to hire laborers to work in his vineyard and agrees with them on a good pay for a day, or in modern terms enters into a contract with them, after which he goes out another five times throughout the day, the last one being barely one hour before the day’s labor is over, and finds more unemployed people hanging around. He offers them work and promise them the right payment without saying what that would be. And at the end of the day comes the surprise. Those who worked barely for one hour are paid first and worse they are paid exactly the same as those who worked all day, a denarius each. The cry that springs to our lips is: that is not fair! Justice does not seem to be served. The fundamental principle in the noblest tradition of legal thought that goes back to Cicero, to give to each what to each is due, is broken. How can a late comer be rewarded the same as those who have for so long labored in the field of the Lord?

Is this then a parable that says that the only criterion for distinguishing the right from the wrong is “anything goes”? And is this interpretation of it a naïve defense for the argument that nothing much really matters? So why bother with dedication, quality, work ethics, productivity, bonuses, etc.?

It is neither about ‘anything goes” nor is it saying that nothing much really matters. The context is another one. The question of justice goes deeper than the fair exchange between labor-time and wages. The great Jewish historian of the first century, Flavius Josephus, writing about the social conditions of that time registered the enormous amount of unemployed people in Palestine, and particularly in Jerusalem. And the text of the Gospel confirms it in the answer the workers give to the question as to why they were there all day long: “Because no one has hired us.” Unlike those hired early in the morning, those hired late did not know till the last hour whether they would bring bread home to feed their families when they would get back in the evening. Indeed the parable proposes another way of seeing justice.

As per the ways of the world, according to the merit earned, a denarius should be divided (like a dollar divided into ten dimes or a hundred pennies and so forth) in such a way that the payment or wages would seem to be fair. A denarius was regarded a good wage for a day’s labor. And actually there was something called a twelfth of a denarius. It was called a pondion. This is what those hired for the last hour of labor should have rightfully received. However, the point of the parable is that you cannot divide the love, mercy and
justice of God. There is no such thing as a twelfth of the love of God, a pondion of the love of God. You might have come late; you might not have been quite straight. Yet, if you were there, ready to join the crew when the Lord called you, as insignificant as your contribution might seem, rest assured that this response alone gives you what is plenty. It puts you there, first in line with the saints, and, yes, even with the great confessors and the martyrs of the faith.

Each individual in the parable and each of us who stand at the market place of this society built on merit, waiting to be recognized, waiting to be seen, each is given a worth equal to all the rest, total recognition, regardless of the worth of our contribution. And that is what the parable is about: the worth of each individual. And that is the reason that this story tells us something about individualism. Individualism measures the worth of a person against another person. But the parable tells about our worth in God’s eyes. It is about the new definition of justice: Jesus Christ the son of God. A God of Love that does not parcel love. A God that does not make a cost-benefit analysis. And if we need this love just so bad enough to stand there through the day of our lives, the call will come. And when the day is over we will rejoice in thankfulness and surprise, for we all are late comers. This is the story of our lives. No one was really there at day break. This is what we call our sinful condition. And as long as we don’t realize it, we try to raise ourselves over an above the
rest of the crowd, to be someone on our own, and thus impress God. That is when we also miss the call that invites us into another economy: Offering a vision of the kingdom that is indeed already among us, in the signs of the things to come, in a gesture of undeserved love that is a gift, which is neither a pay-back nor an investment for a return, but plainly a gift.

The Swedish film director, Ingmar Bergman (son of a Lutheran pastor, and someone who struggled with his Christian identity) once wrote about his calling as an artist. He knew the meaning of this parable better than he probably realized:

There is an old story of how the cathedral of Chartres was struck by lightening and burned to the ground. Then thousands of people came from all points of the compass, like a giant procession of ants, and together they began to rebuild the cathedral on its old site. They worked until the building was completed—master builders, artists, labourers, clowns, noblemen, priests, burghers. But they all remained anonymous, and no one
knows to this day who built the cathedral of Chartres. …

… it is my opinion that art lost its basic creative drive the moment it was separated from worship. It severed an umbilical cord and now lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. In former days the artist remained unknown and his work was the glory of God. He lived and died without being more or less important than other artisans; “eternal values,” “immortality” and “masterpiece” were terms not applicable in his case.
The ability to create was a gift.

Thus if I am asked what I would like the general purpose of my films to be, I would reply that I want to be one of the artists in the cathedral in the great plain. I want to make a dragon’s head, an angel, a devil—or perhaps a saint—out of stone. It does not matter which; it is the sense of satisfaction that counts. Regardless of whether I believe or not, whether I am a Christian [or a Lutheran] or not, I would play my part in the collective building of the cathedral.

This parable of Jesus attests the response to a call that came in a given moment. It may or may not be the first hour and it need not be the eleventh hour either but very well could be. But what is pertinent is that when that call came it was faithfully answered. What is asked of us is to respond to the call and thus do our share in the vineyards of the Lord as Bergman did and do neither more nor less than what his passion was eager to give, and ready to receive his gift. What is expected of us is to be no more than one of those anonymous faces who built the cathedral, to be no more and no less than any one of them and yet now and forever beheld in by the glory of God.

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