Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Week 20 Wednesday (Year 1) - 19 August 2015

Readings: Judges 9:6-15; Psalm 21; Matthew 20:1-16

The buckthorn is no fool. The other trees - the olive, the fig, the vine - prefer not to rule over the kingdom of the trees because they have more important things to do. Or at least important things to do that they could not do if they were to take on the responsibility of 'waving over the trees'. The buckthorn senses he is chosen because he is not much good for anything else but warns them of what will happen if their decision has not been made in good faith.

It is a cynical view of kingship. Up to now the people of Israel had only one king, the Lord, their God. There were human leaders of course, prophets and judges, but never kings: that position belonged to the Lord alone. As in other matters, the people wanted to be like the people round about who seemed more sophisticated, more developed, less restricted. The teachers of Israel, more conservative no doubt, but also looking at the ways in which kings tended to behave, warn against the consequences of appointing one man as king over them. Their warnings are not heeded and what they warn against does, usually, come to pass. The issue reaches a dramatic climax during the passion of Jesus when, in a chilling moment, the leaders of the people say to Pilate, 'we have no king but Caesar'. They have cornered themselves into a radical rejection of the faith of Israel for which there was to be no king but the Lord.

We know well the cynicism and disillusionment that accompany political leadership most of the time. Would be leaders make promises they are rarely able to fulfill, distract the population with some bread and lots of circuses, and in accordance with the art of the possible introduce some changes that they believe will be good for the society. In modern times political leaders speak much about equality and today's parable bears reflection precisely from that point of view.

The lord of the vineyard observes an absolute equality in relation to the people he has hired. Or does he? He gives them all exactly the same wage no matter how long they have worked. That is one kind of absolute equality. But it is unjust, say the ones who started earlier, although they receive the wage for which they were contracted. They seem to have a point: more work, more wages; less work, less wages. The equality should be in the exchange, in the contract they make with the vineyard owner.

But he looks to a different criterion of equality and treats each individual in exactly the same way. Human need and dignity are not tied to how much a person can contribute to a society, they are the same no matter how fit or gifted a person is. Where is justice here? The vineyard owner too has a point: has he no right to do what he wants with what is his? why be envious because he is generous? why resent his broader understanding of what is just?

Is political power a necessary evil or better, as Karl Rahner says, a good thing in a fallen world? Are we to look to what people can do and contribute, measure their value by that, or are we to look to what people need, and to their fundamental dignity, and measure their value that way? In a civilization of love, a kingdom where charity rules, there will be no envy. There what is shared with others, even with a generosity greater than I receive, is shared also with me. My brother's prosperity and flourishing is not a threat to mine and is even a reason for rejoicing because he is my brother. Charity enables me to see his dignity and his need as equal to my own. Human leaders struggle to establish justice in human affairs whereas 'the Lord of the vineyard' is always absolutely just in His generosity and in His grace.

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