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From The Word

Sufficient Wages and the Reign of God

by Stephen Charles Mott

     I have long puzzled with the parable of the workers hired at different times of the day to work in a farmer's vineyard, but paid the same wage (Matthew 20:1-16). A parable is an earthly comparison to teach a truth about God's new way. One does not expect to learn from it normative truth about the earthly comparison--the treatment of workers--but about the different reality that Jesus is teaching by making the comparison. When Jesus tells the parable about the king counting the cost before going to war, the lesson is not about kingship or war. It is about counting the cost before making the commitment to be Jesus' follower.

     What is tantalizing about the content of this earthly story of the paying of the laborers is that it is so harmonious with the view of social justice that is very central to the Reign of God, God's new society breaking into the world with Jesus. This harmony is a key indicating that the treatment of laborers is a part of the teaching of the passage.

     This parable has two aspects which are intertwined. The primary focus is upon membership in Jesus' new society and standing within it. Those who are secondary in terms of the worldly power and acceptance are equal members by faith. This is the primary thrust of the parable.

     Every parable does not have its image of everyday life left out of its overall normative teaching, however. The parable of the prodigal son not only tells of the love of God in accepting the sinner in salvation. It also speaks in its image to earthly life as it actually relates to God's new world. In the story the alienated and destructive life of the younger son, the forgiving love which accepts him back, the envy which cannot abide his return have normative truth which finds only its highest expression in the welcoming love of God through Christ.

     The conduct of the farmer, most explicitly and most fully expressed in God in our salvation, is conduct expected of those who follow God in salvation. This is the secondary focus. The historical situation is one repeatedly addressed in Scripture. The wage earner is included with other vulnerable groups such as widows and orphans who are the particular objects of biblical justice (e.g. Mal. 3:3-5). Wage earners, cut off from the economic power of productive land ownership, were at the bottom of the economic heap; work was seasonable and undependable. They were extremely dependent.

     The parable applies to the earthly story the language and content of biblical justice. The farmer tell the earliest group that their wage will be "just" (Matt. 20:4). The wage all received is the denarius, the wage sufficient for the daily needs of workers and their dependents. All who accepted the work available to them received that wage no matter their might expressed in the length of their effort. They all did what they could , and they all received what was sufficient for their needs.

     There is similarity to God's earlier intervention in the manna in the wilderness. All who gathered had enough and no more than enough for their needs (Exod. 16:18). So in the parable, those who worked last and least are "equal" (Matt. 20:12; cf. 2 Cor. 8:13-15). The first and longest workers received what they needed for sustenance. They were not treated "unjustly" (v. 13). Biblical distributive justice is a rendering to each according to their need. The complaining early workers should not be filled with greedy envy (literally, the "evil eye" [cf this column for January 1998]) because the farmer is "good" (v. 15). The Good Farmer is both our savior and our model.

     The church's long battle for the living wage for all workers, a battle encouragingly revived recently, finds support for its conviction in the image itself of this parable.


From The Word

Jesus and the Politics of Galilee

by Stephen Charles Mott

    One of Jesus' most political acts during his earthly life was the triumphal entry into the city, into Jerusalem--a non-violent demonstration, proclaiming him as the promised ruler. When the shaken city inquires who this is, part of the reply is that this is the prophet Jesus from Galilee (Matt. 21:11). Jesus proceeds symbolically to take control of the temple, the seat of power of the ruling oligarchy. He draws on the prophetic tradition of Isaiah 5 to indict this leadership and to predict its removal from power (Mark 12:1-12 par.). He then acts against the temple by predicting its destruction (Mark 13:1-2 par.)

    The outsider from the hinterlands making this political intrusion brings to mind the role of the city in Palestinian history. The city from the very beginning of the nation of Israel represented the base of the power of the wealthy against the peasantry of the land. The book of Micah protests against the injustice of the mighty economic interests based in Jerusalem. Protests against the power based in the temple in Jerusalem rose again in the time of Jesus.

    Another tension fed into the urban-rural tension. Professor Richard Horsley has recently developed extensively the tensions between Galilee and Jerusalem and has shown its pertinence for understanding Jesus. (This is found in his 1995 book, Galilee; a shorter presentation of his argument is in Hervormde Teologiese Studies [1996].) Professor Horsley argues that Jesus and his movement were engaged in social and political organizing which brought them into the conflict the Jerusalem based rulers, which the Gospels indicate led to Jesus' death.

    The popular revolts in 4 B.C. and 66 A.D. involved Galileans as well as rural based Judaeans. Galilee, as part of the northern kingdom, was a society, like the south, based on the Hebrew Scriptures; but for centuries it was politically separated from the south and was not subjected to the Jerusalem temple system. About a hundred years before Jesus, Galilee had lost its political separation from Judea as it came under the Jewish Hasmonean kings. Professor Horsley suggests that in the decades before Jesus there was strong pressure, particularly in the presence of scribes and Pharisees from the south, for the inhabitants of Galilee to support the temple system religiously and financially. This financial pressure, combined with Roman tribute and the cost of Herod Antipas's building program, made Galilee's renewed domination by alien forces painfully evident.

    Against this pressure a tradition of protest based in the agrarian society was articulated. It sought not the reform of the temple system, but its rejection. At times the protest became politically manifest in forms of symbolic conflict. Professor Horsley argues that this is the context of Jesus and his movement. Recognition of this situation adds social depth to our understanding of Jesus teachings and exemplary actions.

    For example, Jesus' activity and commissioning of the "twelve" leads to the "renewal of all things" in the restoration of Israel to economic sufficiency and egalitarian mutuality (Matt. 19:16-30 par. [the rich young ruler and the subsequent interpretation]). Jesus sharply criticizes the scribes and Pharisee who come down from Jerusalem (Mark 3:22; 7:1). The "burdens" which they impose are economic in their extortion of the principle crops on which the peasants depend (Luke 11:39-41; Mark 7:9-11).

    Those who continue today to "walk as he walked" must then strive in all arenas of life for this in-coming Reign of God in which true worship of God will be combined with just relations among all of God's creatures.



From The Word

When There Is No Comforting Power

by Stephen Charles Mott

    Ecclesiastes 4:1-3 illustrates well the complex view of power in the Bible. The power of being, the life that the Creator gives, has been crushed for the oppressed (cf. 5:19 with 6:2). "Look, the tears of the oppressed" (NRSV). This is because exploitive power, the power of the oppressors ("on the side of their oppressors there was power"), receives no just opposition. There is no intervening power: " . . .with no one to comfort them."

    The atmosphere of powerlessness and domination is accented, as Jean-Jacques Lavoie points out in a recent article (in French) (Studies in Religion, 1995), by the fact that the words for the exploiters and exploited are in the plural while term for the comforter is in the singular. There are oppressors and oppressed but not a comforter.

    The situation is not one particular socio-economic location or time, as Lavoie also demonstrates. "Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun" (v. 1a, NRSV). Two expressions in this statement, which are also used elsewhere by Ecclesiastes, show that this is to be understood as the typical human situation. All is used by the author before a judgment that relates to all the reality of the world and the human condition. For example, speaking of the wise and fools, he observes that the same fate befalls "all of them." What he observes happens "under the sun." This phrase occurs twenty-nine times in the book and always of injustice. For example, in 3:16 he writes, "Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, wickedness was there . . . ."

    The situation calls for intervening justice. Lavoie suggests that the phrase (fairly literally from the Hebrew) "from the hand of the oppressors there was power" echoes two others uses of this phrase. In Jeremiah 21:12 and 22:3 the command is given to the ruler to "deliver from the hand of the oppressors." Here this intervening power is absent. There is no deliverer. There is no comforter. This divine mandate is flouted. There is no one to comfort between the exploited and the exploiter.

    God is so often the comforter, as in Isaiah and the Psalms (e.g. Isa. 40:1; 52:9 and Psalms 71:20-21), that Lavoie suggest that Ecclesiastes expects the reader to see that it is God who is absent. The phrase "there is no one to comfort someone" occurs elsewhere only in Lamentations 1:2, 9, 17, 21, where God is the comforter of Zion who is absent. In this connection, Lamentations 1:2 is the only other text with tears along with the absence of the comforter.

    An attribute of God is missing. Life in this situation of oppression without God's intervening power is worse than death (Eccles. 4:3). Death is a deliverance from the sad and intolerable struggle of life. Lavoie sees Ecclesiastes contesting the absence and indifference of God to the exploited. God is not a saviour.

    Ecclesiastes can be read differently, however. The book in the early chapters shows what life is like without God. It not only is empty; its oppression is intolerable. The book goes on, however, to show that we must bring God into the picture. We are to remember God in our youth and to fear God and keep God's commandments (12:1, 13).

    When this is done, there will be intervening justice. God looks for someone "to intervene" as a faithful channel of God's intervening power (Isa. 59:16). The channel may be the ruler, who is to receive God's justice and deliver from exploitive power (Ps. 72.1-4; Jer. 21:12; 22:3). Then there is a power to comfort.

From The Word

Hanging in There Politically

by Stephen Charles Mott

    There is danger that the political idealism of youth can turn into a complacency in later years. The values of social justice and the need for social change remain, but one no longer has the surging hope that political effort makes a significant difference. One reason is a sense that evil is too much endemic to society and in government.

    The book of Ecclesiastes is of help in this situation. The author has seen and experienced the lasting power of evil, yet he advises continued involvement. Professor Duane Garrett understands the political passages of Ecclesiastes to be written to those who have access to the circles of political power (Trinity Journal, 1987). He has several helpful insights. Christian political activists in a democratic society can take heed.

    We aware of the pessimism of Ecclesiastes about life humanly understood. Its abiding sense of evil is applied to governments also A reason for oppression being unresolved is the multiplicity of government officials. "The high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them" (Eccles. 5:8, NRSV). The political system often prefers social position and prestige over soundly moral insight just as dead flies make foul perfumers' ointment (10:1).

    Ecclesiastes' greatest pessimism and sorrow relate to social oppression. In a transitory world of sorrow, the book advises most people to learn to be satisfied with the simple joys of life: food, companionship with one's spouse, and the good sleep of the laborer (e.g. 3:11-14). Oppression, however, deprives people of even these pleasures; this deeply grieves the author.

    Professor Garrett demonstrates this contrast. He notes that understood by their normal meaning, the words, "God seeks the persecuted" (v. 15b), which occur at the end of a passage advising contentment (3:11-14), provide a transition and link to the following passage. That passage despairs over injustice: In the place where justice is decided, instead of the rights of the poor being secured, injustice and oppression reign (v. 16). As we may sometimes feel when looking at their misery, the poor and oppressed would be better off never to have been born than to face this heartbreaking reality (4:1-3).

    Ecclesiastes responds in two ways to the despair of social oppression. Both can be helpful in keeping us going. One is the growing realization in the Bible that present life only makes sense in the light of eternity and God's ultimate judgment. God is the ultimate vindicator. "I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for he has appointed a time for every matter, and for every work" (3:17, NRSV).

    The response to that future hope is not passivity, however. For those who have access to political power, Ecclesiastes commends hanging in there, even though glorious victories for justice are not imminent. This is the second response. Despite its corruption and failures, government is necessary to avoid chaos, as Professor Garrett suggests for 5:8, "a king is needed for the sake of agriculture."

    One should "not be in a hurry to leave the king's presence" (8:3, NIV) because of despair or disgust. That would be abandoning political opportunity. Instead we should select what causes are capable of being pursued (8:3b-6). With patience and tact we accept political reality and work with it. Effective politics for the sake of justice require savvy and tact, as public interest lobbyists will acknowledge, although we may not often affirm that in our idealism. "If the anger of the ruler rises against you, do not leave your post, for calmness will undo great offenses" (10:4).

    Such patience, tact, and forbearance will keep us moving toward modest victories, but they must be kept servant to the controlling political mandate to "establish justice in the gate" (Amos 5:15).

From The Word

A New Millennium and the Politics of Time

by Stephen Charles Mott

    We are probably tired by now over the beginning of a new millennium. We also are harried by our culture's struggle to do everything in the shortest amount of time. Serious attention to time, nevertheless, is a contribution to our civilization from the Judeo-Christian tradition.

    Cultures, and even political ideologies in a culture differ sharply according to their attitude toward the three dimensions of time. A reactionary politics may give value only to the events of the past while a revolutionary political faith may look only to the future. A materialist culture looks only to the present. Biblical theology places great significance on all three dimensions of time.

    In a fascinating study Professor Simon De Vries shows how the Hebrew references to "that day" or "this day" on which an event occurs reveal the importance given to the past, present, and future (Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, 1975).

    The day past is "a moment of revelatory confrontation." "That day the Lord saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians" (Exod. 14:30). For Israel and the church, the past provided the evidence of God's purpose in history in mighty acts and the knowledge of God's will. Direction in life comes from the past. Accordingly, the Hebrews were the first to produce any extensive historiography.

    This sense of history gives a basis for self-identity and a sense of community. Clarity on what we have been provides a basis to build on the past and to transcend it so that the future can be faced with a sense of individual and group purpose. From this sense of purpose policies can be made for the present.

    Professor De Vries describes the day present "a moment of crucial decision." "Today, if you hear his voice (Heb. 3:13). "This day" is a call for decision. Something with a decisive effect for time to come is involved. Every aspect of public life is included. "I have set before you, this day, life and good . . . if you obey . . . "(Deut. 30:15-16). The present is the time of responsibility and action.

    Political orientations which glorify the past (and thus also distort it) can be the basis of resistance to opportunities in the present. Likewise, over-concentration on the future with its indeterminate possibilities also can excuse a neglect of difficult responsibilities in the present. As Martin Luther King stated in his letter from the Birmingham jail, "We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right."

    The day future is described by Professor De Vries as "a new opportunity for decisive action." The view of the future provides new reasons for decisive action in the present. The prophet Isaiah warned that "on that day" human arrogance will be brought low and the Lord alone exalted (Isa. 2:17) He appealed for a corresponding change in current behavior. "O house of Jacob, come let us walk in the light of the Lord!" (v. 6, NRSV).

    Jürgen Moltmann has stated that the future as a form of sensitivity for history arose for the first time with the God of promise of the Old Testament. Since the promise has not yet found its fulfillment, it draws the mind to the future in creative and obedient expectation (Theology of Hope, 100, 118).

    The promise also affects most significantly the attitude toward the present, so that by comparison to the hope the present loses its aura of final truth. A different and superior future "in which justice dwells" (2 Peter 3:13) devaluates the present. The present is not the automatic product of the past. We can work for change and must. Present conditions with their woes are capable of being surpassed.

    Professor De Vries notes that the biblical future can be affected by two factors in interrelationship: God's will and the human response to God's will. We are not helpless or passive before the forces inherent in nature and history. They guarantee neither happiness nor corruption. Constructive change must come from who understand God's purposes and respond in obedience and hope.

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