Having recently worked my way through the Gospel according to Matthew, I've been spending some time thinking about the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Mt 20.1-16).
In this parable, Jesus tells the story of a landowner who hires day-labourers to work in his vineyard. The owner hires some workers very early in the day, then he hires some more at the third hour, some more at the sixth hour, some more at the ninth hour, and some more at the eleventh hour. Then, when the time came for the labourers to be paid, the owner pays the labourers in the reverse order — those hired last are paid first, and those hired first are paid last. What is shocking is that the owner pays all the labourers the same wage — a full day's pay. Although this is the wage that was promised to the first labourers hired, they are shocked that they do not receive more, since they worked many hours more than the labourers who were hired later in the day. However, the owner is adamant that he is not being unfair to those hired first; rather, he says, they should not be envious of the generosity that he has the right to show unto others. Jesus then concludes the parable with these words:
So the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.
Now, as I have turned this around in my mind, I have wondered about the way we seem to take this statement. Hearing that the “last shall be first, and the first shall be last” makes us think of a reverse ordering. Thus, for example, let's say we have a race where Steve came in first, Mike came in second, Dave came in third, and Adam came in fourth. If the last are going to be first, and the first are going to be last, then we would expect Adam to come in first, Dave to come in second, Mike to come in third, and Steve to come in fourth.
But this is not at all what Jesus is saying. In the context of this parable, when Jesus says that “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last,” he means that all will receive an equal share. It's not that the order is reversed, it's that everybody ends up coming in first.
In Jesus' parable, the labourers, who were hired earlier in the day, are offended by the sort of generosity that rewards all people equally. Having spent some years journeying alongside of those on the margins of society, I know that members of our society (both Christians and those of other faiths as well) are, in general, just as repulsed by this approach to equality.
Indeed, our society perpetuates an Equality Myth, in order to sustain inequalities in our day to day life. Now what exactly is this “Equality Myth” that I am talking about? The equality myth that drives our society is the myth that all members of our society are provided with an equal opportunity to “succeed” and live comfortably. If a person fails to attain these ends it must because that person lacks a serious work ethic or because that person lacks integrity (or is simply an evil person). Thus, precisely because we are all equal, I don't have to treat the homeless or the poor as my equals. After all, they are to blame for their poverty, their illnesses, their vices, and their early deaths.
The problem with this Equality Myth is that it is fictional. In our society, we do not all have an equal opportunity. I know many people who possess a strong work ethic, and who have a great deal of integrity — who also happen to be street-involved. I know all sorts of kids who never had a chance or anything close to a chance. Our society is sustained by a great deal of inequalities, a great deal of injustices, but the Equality Myth allows us to ignore such things, and pretend that we don't have to do anything to alter unjust circumstances.
Thus, Jesus' parable of the workers in the vineyard, confronts our Equality Myth and points us to the type of generosity that genuinely does treat all people as equals. Understanding that “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last” requires me to treat all people — including the poor and the homeless (or should I say, especially the poor and the homeless) — as my equals. As my equals, I do not treat them as people who are lazy, nor do I treat them as people who lack integrity; rather, I recognize that they are, more often than not, just as hard working, and just as righteous, as I am (and often they are more righteous and more hard-working than I am).
This is the sort of paradigm shift that is needed for Christians to meaningfully journey alongside of those on the margins of society. When the Church becomes a community of radical sharing and shocking generosity, then it will expose the violence created by society's Equality Myth, and reveal the true road to equality.