Wednesday, 23 September 2020
Sunday, 20 September 2020
As humanity becomes ever more sophisticated in technology, in science, in communications, and so on, it sometimes seems as if it stays fixed morally and spiritually, at an infantile stage of development. when we see the level of political debate at present, the absence of good leaders, the increasing influence of the most basic human emotions - greed, envy, fear, rivalry - and the appeal being made to them by the leaders we do have - it can seem that we are living Lord of the Flies except with computers, drones, and nuclear weapons. We have good reason to be apprehensive and fearful - which further feeds the way in which politics is being played at present.
The instinctive reaction to today's parable - that those who spent the whole day working should receive more than those who only worked the last hour, or else that these latter should receive less - comes from that base level of understanding and feeling. There is a kind of justice in it, we will feel. The landowner's decision to pay everyone the same seems like a too simplistic, a too univocally mathematical, understanding of equality. Or perhaps it is we who want to apply a too univocally mathematical an understanding - equal pay for equal work, more pay for more work, less pay for less work. How else can things be done fairly?
One difficulty with that - as the landowner points out - is that it leaves no room for generosity but the gain there is in that exclusion is that it leaves no room either for envy and so might head off at least some of the reasons why human beings are so violent. All is clear when it is a matter of Xa for X1, Xb for X2, etc. Is the landowner a patronising capitalist, wanting to show off somehow, throw his wealth around, sow division, provoke envy, keep the workers of the world divided?
How can there be a place for generosity and gift - for grace - where a certain kind of iron mathematics determines how 'equality' is to be understood? How honour diversity at the same time as respecting equality? How leave space for the requirements of fraternity alongside those of equality? (It will be interesting to see what Pope Francis's new encyclical has to say about these questions.)
The needs of human beings are basically the same and in important ways varied. Can we imagine that the landowner is applying the criterion - known in early Christianity and in monastic communities - 'from each according to their ability, to each according to their need'? Or will such an ideal always be subverted by the baser emotions, especially envy, which will always see it as a kind of injustice, a kind of discrimination. Which it is, in favour of meeting human needs.
Putting the first reading from Isaiah 55 alongside the parable encourages us to interpret it along these lines - the landowner being 'God', his ways and thoughts not our ways and thoughts. Why be envious (angry, jealous, resentful ... sexist, racist, etc.) because God is generous (also in his creativity, spontaneity, freedom, in his delight in difference and variety and multiplicity, etc.)
The Lord is close to all who call him, the psalm says, ready to be found. But how ready are we to live in his kingdom? Is the 'first Adam' in us still so powerful - and we see it in the infantile passions that determine so much of human behaviour - that we are not even at the beginning of understanding the thoughts and ways of generosity and grace? What new way of seeing, what new way of thinking, do we need if we are to understand the economics of that kingdom, the value of each person, whether it comes to our attention in the dawning light of that kingdom's day or in the evening when the time of judgement has come nearer?