Wednesday, October 22, 2008

"Are you envious because I am generous?"

The Red Vineyard --Vincent Van Gogh

It is the late expansiveness with which the kingdom of heaven is occupied that speaks so vividly:

And he went out again around noon, and around three o' clock, and did likewise. Going out about five o' clock, the landowner found others…

This continuous occupation of finding workers, even up until the last hour of day, is the constant inflection of the kingdom of heaven; the way heaven works.

If Jesus spoke many parables on the kingdom of heaven, again and again reiterating: "The kingdom of heaven is like…", then there is something obviously here that Jesus knew we were particularly blind to. We see here the kingdom becoming more and more lavish in its outpouring, and not exhausted in the least, the later the day gets, which of course also implies the darker the day gets.

Who goes out to hire more workers when there is only an hour left in the day? Indeed, we ask this every time we wonder what the use is of doing something which our circumstances tell us it would be foolish and to no avail to do the labour. But this is the way Christ works, in His bride, the Church, in our daily lives. We build on what Christ has already established, and we cannot be saved without works. A great consolation in the discomfort of our labour is that Jesus has laboured already to free us - and His labour was far greater, far more discomforting. Our consolation is not only that Jesus experienced the pain that we will have to experience, though perhaps not in the same way or in the same intensity (granted we follow Him and keep His word); and not only that our pain is little compared to the pain Jesus experienced, but that Jesus has identified Himself to that suffering so that no amount of pain can separate us from Him; we will find Him there.

There is this astonishingly joyful sense in knowing we are the children of the eleventh hour. That our labour time is short, and our reward imminent. It is not only because our labour period is short that we find it joyful (indeed, we should be ready to give thousands of lifetimes of labour for the Kingdom of Heaven), but that the chaos within ourselves will be made short order of; that the despairing rush of machinating Time will be ruined, as the eternal depth and as-yet-not-comprehended end of our work begins to resolve itself - in the face of the ideological opposition of our enemies. Our work becomes some of the most intense because it is the pinnacle work, and because of it, the work most infused with abundant and miraculous graces.

The reading in its entirety, from Matthew 20:1-16:

Jesus told his disciples this parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. Going out about nine o’clock, the landowner saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’ So they went off. And he went out again around noon, and around three o’clock, and did likewise. Going out about five o’clock, the landowner found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’ When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Summon the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’ When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage. So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’ He said to one of them in reply, ‘My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’ Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

How easy to mistake this parable as an affirmation of equality; to take it to mean that in heaven there is no hierarchal difference in reward; that in heaven the work that was done on earth becomes irrelevant in the now bequeathed eternal equality; that the specific works on earth were just sorts of arbitrary ways for God to see if we would follow orders, and that now in heaven, He bestows some assembly-line dispensation of "equal" reward.

How easy to assume this and close up the parable and walk away assured and safe and sound from the formidable notion that in heaven there are mansions made to the specifications of a particular soul.

This is no example of the landowner being equal in his pay. It is rather an emphatic example of the landowner being especially and gratuitously generous. And not just generous out of some social-minded welfare pity, but so disinterestedly generous and gracious towards those who work for him, as to give the one-hour workers their wages even in front of the eyes of the other workers without thinking they would complain. And so disinterestedly generous as to be not generous in just one fixed form that is then divvied out, but increasingly generous; for remember the hired workers from nine o' clock and noon and three o' clock. If he was being generous in giving the same wage to the nine o' clock-hired workers, then he was being quite a bit more generous in giving the same to the noon-hired workers, in which case he was being even more generous in giving the same wage to the three o' clock-hired workers. And to the five o' clock-workers, he was being generous in the extreme.

If that weren't enough, he starts giving the payment to the one-hour workers first.

Again, let's reiterate: it is the late expansiveness with which the kingdom of heaven is occupied that speaks so vividly. And elusively. Yet nothing is more fixed and solid. God is innocence. As the day dwindles, God expands His gifts, His solace, His anointing. Is it possible that our material affluence and luxury has blinded us to this and kept us hindered from seeing and accepting it? We have mistaken stasis for security. But our one true security is the thunderclap of God's complete otherness.

We come to one of the reasons why Jesus told parables: because they had a successive structure, as stories must necessarily have, that inherently informed the listener about the hierarchical way that God works. The way that God cannot work without somehow building on what came previous by His hand - and cannot build on what came previous without resolving more clearly its shape and colour, so that what came previous shows more clear than if it had been left alone.

But what if all this time we have not, in a certain sense, even arrived at the first work on which God has wanted us to build? Or arrived at it, but not realized it, which prevents one from building, or building with more abandon? It is never just the "moral" of the parable that matters, but the fact of the parable itself.

So, it is not a case of God equalizing every soul with the same pay. Rather, it is a case of God, first hiring the labourers in the morning on a just wage, and those labourers going into his vineyard to work for Him. Full-stop. Then God going out and hiring some people at nine o' clock. Full-stop. God then going out and hiring some at noon. Full-stop. Then God going out and hiring some more later. Full-stop. Then again, God going out and finding those who have not been hired, that is, the small, the invisible, the neglected, the spat out and forsaken, sinners and idlers, those who cannot prove to be removed from God's graces - in other words: us.

Now what God gives to each as their wages, it is imperative to see it the same way as God went about hiring them. That is to say, it is not God "thinking equally", but rather specially and distinctively in each individual hiring; such that though He is God and can see all things eternally in an instant, He has the full capacity, as the second Person of the Trinity, to enter into each specific situation as though He had not hired any other workers on that day. God is innocence.

He did not go out and hire the noon-workers until he had hired the morning ones. One might even say, in a mood of fancy that may not be too far wrong, that it was the hiring of the morning workers and the sight of them working in the vineyard that set the landowner with great delight and joy, so much so, that it sent him out again on the very overflow of that joy, to find more workers, who in their turn, would send him out for yet more.

Shall we put here the parable of the mustard seed?

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.” -- Matthew 13:31-32

There is no equality in heaven but what usurps its desired dimension of being on the same ground of knowing about one another, is love.

There is love in heaven, but not equality.

What grants each soul in heaven the same amount of fulfillment and no one lacking, is Love, not equality.

We do well not to carry over our citizenry-rights into God's treatment of us - though our citizenry-rights be based on God's law. We should not presume. We should rather throw ourselves on His mercy - and generosity.

And the economy? What about the economy of the kingdom of heaven? It does not hoard. It does not make slaves. It does not give what will only decay and pass away. Nor does it entreat of each with bland equanimity and safe comfort. Nor does it risk its own balance by expansion. It gives what expands - on into eternity. Even while it is given, here, right here, on this material earth.

It is time to look and see it: the joy that we have been missing. And the work of the kingdom of heaven has a way of alighting on the most diffuse and unremarkable of things - and people.

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