Imagine yourself standing in the middle of a long line of people. Far ahead, out of sight on the other side of a hill lies the American dream. You seem pretty far back, but it is scary how many people are behind you. Mostly they are people of color without college degrees.
In principle you wish them well, but you have waited a long time and worked many hours to get here. You don't complain but you have been exposed to dangerous work conditions. Your body is worn out. Your pension was cut. There don't seem to be any jobs these days and some of your friends have just given up trying.
Always on time, you don't cut corners. You do your best. People like you made this country great. You faithfully followed the rules but you notice that up ahead others are cutting in line. Some made bad decisions before the 2008 financial crisis; others are immigrants and refugees. Through affirmative action programs the Federal Government is putting them ahead of you.
When the Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild interviewed people in the Louisiana Tea Party, she discovered that what united them was not so much a party platform or a set of policies but what she calls a deep story. A deep story helps to explain our feelings. In this case, it is about honor, fear, shame, resentment and the relation between social groups. Her study subjects instantly recognized themselves in this story.[i]
The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes that, "human nature is... intrinsically moralistic, critical and judgmental," that, "an obsession with righteousness (leading to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition... a feature of our evolutionary design."[ii] He goes on to point out that we are not primarily rational creatures. Our moral intuitions come first. Then we make up a rational argument to justify these feelings.
You can test this yourself. Next time you read a newspaper or drive a car try noticing, "the little flashes of condemnation that flit through your consciousness." We constantly, without effort, form moral judgments.[iii] At this preconscious level, we make sense of the world and the meaning of our lives. Furthermore, this basic non-rationality leads us to be even more resistant to change than we realize.
In the face of our human nature, Jesus confronts us with his own deep story about the realm of God. In Barbara Brown Taylor's words, he challenges "the sacred assumption by which most of us live our lives, that the front of the line is the place to be, that the way to win God's attention is to be the best person, the hardest worker, the first one into the vineyard in the morning and the last one to leave at night."[iv]
Jesus' example could not be more familiar. Right now, in Madera, Fulton, Turlock, Winters and thousands of towns across the West, Spanish-speaking day laborers stand around waiting to be hired. In this case the landowner, an oikodespote - literally a "house despot," hires workers at dawn agreeing to pay them one denarius. He returns four times to hire more workers. At the end of the workday, he lines them all up to be paid. The workers are astonished when the foreman starts with those who were hired last and then pays every one of the workers one denarius or a full day's wage.
One of my favorite Greek words is gonguzo. It sounds like what it means, "to grumble." Most of us, we feel sympathetic to their complaint. "You, you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden (the weight) of the day and the scorching heat" (Mt. 20). Being paid last only adds insult to injury.
In what respect does Jesus mean that the kingdom of heaven is like this? It might help to look at the context in which he tells this parable. Immediately before, Jesus tells the disciples that, "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God" (Mt. 19), and Peter responds to this, bragging that "we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?"
Immediately after the vineyard parable, the mother of James and John asks Jesus for a favor. She wants her sons to be honored with the best thrones in Jesus' kingdom at his right and left hand. She has in mind satin pillows, gold armrests, engraved coats of arms when Jesus knows that he will come into glory on the hard wood of the cross with a sign that says, "King of the Jews." He answers, "You do not know what you are asking." We understand the irony but perhaps not his lesson.
Between 1932 and 1967, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) in thirteen volumes wrote more than 9,000 pages of his never-completed Church Dogmatics. He re-wrote the earliest sections trying to establish his theological method. Barth did not want to begin with a particular philosophical or scientific picture of what it means to be human. He was concerned both of these kinds of ideas are constantly changing and that these assumptions would bias our theological conclusions.
Instead, he had this idea of beginning with the Word of God. Faith does not come from inductive or deductive reasoning. Through the Holy Spirit, scripture and preaching, God gives us faith. Perhaps like our moral psychologists, Barth understands that we are not as rational as we like to think we are.
According to Barth, scripture becomes a way of getting beyond our natural self-righteousness with its "little flashes of condemnation." He writes, "As [one] knows God's word... It becomes real... There takes place an understanding, a personal involvement, an acceptance, an assent, an approval, a making present of remote times, an obedience, a decision, a halting before the mystery, a stimulation by the inner life, a basing of man's whole life on this mystery that is beyond himself."[v]
We need this help right now more than ever, as individuals and as a society. Our two greatest problems are the environment and an existential crisis about the meaning of work. Since the 1970's when American jobs began moving offshore, we have been experiencing the effects of globalization. Really, this is a subset of vast and disruptive technological change that has only just begun. This will affect every sector of our society. We are not just talking about jobs in manufacturing, coal mining and steel. The Los Angeles Times newsroom has only a third of the people it did at the turn of the century.[vi]
If you spend a day in Mountain View California, you may see as many as a dozen driverless cars. The next generation of these robots will soon replace the 3.5 million professional truck drivers (and many of the 5.2 million other people who work in this industry).[vii]
We have to face up to the reality that, whether you like it or not, today earning is becoming decoupled from wealth. Yes, in the future, how hard you work will have even less to do with what you ultimately receive. Although this accelerating problem has been with us for a while, politicians have no idea what to do about it. The left has not taken the problem seriously enough. Right-leaning politicians bent on shrinking the government and cutting taxes have only exacerbated massive inequality that threatens our democracy itself.[viii]
The problem is that work gives us meaning. Since 1999, death rates for middle-aged white people have increased dramatically. More and more are dying of despair and hopelessness, from suicide and addiction.[ix] The poverty breaking families today, and the isolation of having no meaningful contribution to make, is creating an epidemic of loneliness.
In many respects, it is strange that Jesus' story about the day laborers troubles us at all. Imagine being there and the feeling of the last workers' gratitude as they hear that they are being paid twelve times what they had earned. Nearly everyone in the story is better off than they expected and even the early morning workers received fair pay. And yet, we feel dissatisfied.
What we think Jesus' story means depends on what we believe we deserve. For whatever reason, many of us tend to identify with the early morning workers. We grumble that the vineyard owner is not fair and that the Kingdom of Heaven might not be either. We do not understand it but the God of Jesus seems to love everyone without even thinking about who deserves it.
Really submitting to the authority of scripture, even in difficult passages like this, transforms us so that we do not merely go through life reacting thoughtlessly to what upsets us. Karl Barth writes, "The Christian is not a stone that is pushed or a ball that is made to roll. The Christian is the [one] who through the Word and the love of God has been made alive, the real [one] able to love God in return, standing erect just because he has been humbled, humbling himself because he has been raised up."[x]
Imagine that line of people again. Only this time, rather than finding yourself in the thought experiment of a sociologist, picture yourself among the laborers waiting to be paid. Do you even know where you stand in this line? What do you think you deserve from God?
If you find the tumult of today's politics unsettling, it may actually get worse. As technological change accelerates and upends all the social arrangements that comfort us, there does not seem to be much hope for you and me, for creatures who constantly and often harshly judge others without thinking.
And yet, Jesus still invites us to be his people. Can we believe in Jesus enough to put him ahead of our self-righteousness? Can God take the place of our picture of fairness? What will it take for us to allow our hearts to believe that God loves everyone equally, for God's deep story to become our own?
[i] Arlie Russell Hochschild. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (NY: The New Press, 2016), 135-151.
[ii] Jonathan Haidt. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (NY: Pantheon Books, 2012) xiii.
[iii] Ibid., 45.
[iv] Barbara Brown Taylor. "Beginning at the End," The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004) 100.
[v] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume 1, Part One Tr. G. W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clark, 1936) 219.
[vi] James Warren. "Big Cuts Coming to L.A. Times, Likely Other Tribune Papers Amid Tumult," Poynter. 15 September 2015. https: //www.poynter.org/2015/big-cuts-coming-to-l-a-times-likely-other-tribune-papers-amid-tumult/373014
[vii] Santens, Scott. "Self-Driving Trucks Are Going to Hit Us Like a Human-Driven Truck." Medium. 14 May 2015. https://medium.com/basic-income/self-driving-trucks-are-going-to-hit-us-like-a-human-driven-truck-b8507d9c5961 (accessed July 12, 2017).
[viii] Thomas Piketty. Capital in the Twenty-First Century tr. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).
[ix] Jessica Boddy, "The Forces Driving Middle-Aged White People's Deaths of Despair," Shots: Health News from NPR 23 March 2017. http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/03/23/521083335/the-forces-driving-middle-aged-white-peoples-deaths-of-despair
[x] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume 1, Part Two Tr. G. W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clark, 1956) 662.