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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
.) 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
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;
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
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
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
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
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).
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"
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
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
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.