The Last Shall Be the Same as the First and the First the Same as the Last

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

But he answered one of them, I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didnt you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Dont I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”  (Matthew 20:13-16)   

12345It’s good to be back!  At the end of last month, I found myself needing to take a break for a little self-care.  I had just completed giving 27 presentations to three separate audiences within nine days.  I appreciate the patience of each of you.  I’ve missed you!  Let’s dive in this week.

I want to begin by asking you to experiment with me.  Let’s, for the sake of experimentation, just for a bit, NOT spiritualize everything Jesus said about money and economics.  Not spiritualizing Jesus’ teachings on money enable us to gain deep insights into Jesus’ new alternate society that we are simply prevented from seeing when we spiritualize it all.

I also want to define the word denounce.  To denounce means to “publicly declare to be wrong or evil” (New Oxford American Dictionary); its synonyms include condemn, criticize, attack, censure, decry, revile, vilify, discredit, damn, reject, proscribe, malign, rail against, lay into, formally castigate, expose, betray, inform on, incriminate, implicate, cite, name, and accuse (Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus). A denouncement can also be a public accusation or reporting (Wikipedia).

In Matthew 11:20, this version of the Jesus story tells us that “Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed.”  What did this look like?  What form did Jesus’ denouncements take?  They come to us in the same form as the denouncements of the Old Testament prophets.  They come in the pronouncement of a “woe.” In the very next verse (Matthew 11:21) we find “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!” Eerdmans Dictionary states that “In the New Testament ‘Woe’ functions as prophetic denunciation.”  Jesus is standing in his prophetic lineage in his use of language here.

Yet what I want us to contemplate this week is another denouncement Jesus made.  This denouncement is made in Luke’s Jesus story, chapter 6:

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.  Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.  Woe to you who laugh now [as opposed to mourn over the present social order], for you will mourn and weep.  Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.” (Luke 6:24–26)

Let’s back up and look at the big picture.  Jesus had just pronounced a blessing (the opposite of a denouncement) on the opposite group.  Remember, Jesus is not saying that there is something “righteous” about being poor.  He is saying that for those whom the present social order has left poor, hungry and morning, the changes Jesus had come to make were especially favorable.  The alternate human society Jesus was inviting all to join would be a blessing for those who were poor under the present system and, at a bare minimum, be problematic for those benefiting from the present system.  But we will talk about that in a moment. Let’s look at the two groups first.

“Looking at his disciples, he said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who hunger now [as a result of the present system], for you will be satisfied.  Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.’” (Luke 6:20–22)

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.  Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.  Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.” (Luke 6:24–25)

Jesus is doing two things.  First, yes, he is proclaiming that the new social order he is teaching is good news for those who are presently in the position of being “last” and at least problematic for those who were presently “first,” benefitting from the present system.  Second, he is indicting the rich.  There is no way around it.  To understand the logic of this, this planet and its resources are not infinite.  It provides enough for every person’s needs, Gandhi once said, but not every person’s greed.  I understand the “opulence” for everyone argument, but the resources of this earth simply do not work that way.  If someone is hoarding more than he or she needs, someone else is going without what he or she needs. (Think of the truth of the Hebrew manna story; everyone had what he or she needed because those who “gathered much” shared with those who “gathered little.”)  To say that Jesus was putting forth an alternate society seeking the equal distribution of earth’s resources so that each person could have what he or she needed was good news to the poor.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18)

What does this mean? At minimum, it means that if our Jesus is not first and foremost systemic good news for the poor, we have to at least wonder if our Jesus is the same Jesus as the one in the story.

Jesus’ new economic teachings also have something to say about debts that had been incurred under the present system.  All debts are to be cancelled!  This, too, is good news to the debtors and problematic for creditors.  But remember, Jesus’ goal is equality, not just in opportunity, but in result.  What Jesus is announcing is the never-practiced Hebrew tradition of “Jubilee,” during which all debts were to be forgiven.

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12)

This was hard news for those economically benefiting from the present system.

“Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:25)

The idea that there was a gate called a “needle” that camels had to get down on their knees to enter and was difficult to enter but not impossible has long been debunked by scholars.  That’s a made-up story.  What Jesus is saying is that it’s impossible for the rich to enter Jesus’ new alternative society here on earth because fundamental to this new society’s core is a sharing of one’s superfluous riches with those who have less.  At its core, Jesus’ new alternate society is a divestment of and a redistribution of the riches of the dominant class with the aim of equality.

Notice how this played out in the Corinthian church:

“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is EQUALITY.” (2 Corinthians 8:13–14)

The reason the rich cannot enter is not an imposed reason but an intrinsic one.  The first step for the rich in following Jesus is a divestment of their riches.  It’s making the rich un-rich.  It’s alleviating the poverty of the poor through sharing those riches, not, as some claim, making all people poor but equal.  Jesus taught the rich, “Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)

This was not an isolated occurrence only privately applied to this specific person.  This was a staple of Jesus’ words to all who were rich:

“But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock (Jesus’ alternate society), for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.  Sell your possessions and give to the poor.  Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:31–34)

This is exactly why the very first expression of following Jesus in the book of Acts was manifested in Jesus-followers’ selling their properties and giving to anyone who was in need.

“Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.  They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.  All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:41–45)

When the wealthy young man heard this, it was too much.  “He went away sad, because he had great wealth.  Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven [new alternative society, here, now].’” (Matthew 19:22–23)

I want to juxtapose this statement from Jesus, that it is “hard” for those with wealth to enter into Jesus’ beautiful alternative community, with the statement of Matthew’s Jesus just eight chapters earlier:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28–30)

What can’t be missed is that Jesus is saying if the present system has caused you to not be at ease and not be surrounded by riches but to be “weary,” “heavy laden,” and in need of “rest,” you will find entering Jesus’ alternate society “easy.” It is a blessing!  But if you are one presently benefiting from the current system, Jesus unmistakably states that you’re going to have a harder time embracing Jesus’ teaching on economics.  Entering into this alternate society centered in the teachings of Jesus is impossible on your own and only possible with God (see Matthew 19:26).

Again, why is it so “hard?” It is hard because Jesus is not selling the American definition of “equality.”  Jesus is not simply offering equality as a matter of “opportunity.”  Jesus is calling for a system which creates equality in results as well.

This is the point in the story at which Jesus tells of the workers who arrived at the end of the day but were paid the same as those who had been there all day:

“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend.  Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?  Take your pay and go.  I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you.  Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?  Or are you envious because I am generous?’  So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’” (Matthew 20:13–16)

This, again, was good news to the last.  It was at least problematic for those who were first.

Gandhi is one of the many in history who have experimented with Jesus’ teachings on equal pay.  There are two books that Gandhi states had a bigger effect on his life and thinking than any other books he read.  The first was Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You.  The second was John Ruskin’s Unto The Last.  Gandhi, in his autobiography, states that this second book crystalized for him three truths.  In the words of Gandhi himself:

1. The good of the individual is contained in the good of all.

2. A lawyer’s work has the same value as the barber’s, inasmuch as all have the same right to earn their livelihoods from their work.

3. The life of labor, e.g., the life of the tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman, is the life worth living.

Gandhi embarked, from Ruskin’s book (the title of which was taken from our featured text this week: “I desire to give unto the last the same as I give to the first”), on an experiment called the Phoenix Project, in which everyone was paid the same amount regardless of the job they did.  The sense of community and mission this produced is breathtaking if one takes the time to read about it.  Everyone worked for the mission; they looked at each other as equals.

We all know how Hasbro’s Monopoly game ends.  Gehenna, in the Old Testament prophet’s sense, may be unavoidable. Jesus is offering a way to life—an alternate, beautiful community.

There are two narratives we can live by:

Narrative 1: Scarcity – Anxiety – Competitive Accumulation – Stockpiling/Hoarding – Violence

Narrative 2: Abundance – Confidence – Cooperative Sharing – Generosity – Peace

Narrative 1 involves believing that there is not enough for everyone’s needs and allowing the anxiety that belief produces to drive you to a life of accumulating stockpiles that you must protect with violence.  The other narrative involves believing that there actually is enough for everyone’s needs to be met if we share and cooperate.  We can subscribe to a narrative of confidence rather than anxiety, of generosity rather than hoarding.  And rather than producing stockpiles one needs to protect with violence, a shared mutuality that produces peace arises.

The least we can do is begin to be honest about our narratives.

I’ll close this week with the words of Leo Tolstoy.

“I do not say that if you are a landowner you are bound to give up your lands immediately to the poor; if a capitalist or manufacturer, your money to your workpeople; or that if you are Tzar, minister, official, judge, or general, you are bound to renounce immediately the advantages of your position; or if a soldier, on whom all the system of violence is based, to refuse immediately to obey in spite of all the dangers of insubordination.

If you do so, you will be doing the best thing possible.  But it may happen, and it is most likely, that you will not have the strength to do so.  You have relations, a family, subordinates and superiors; you are under an influence so powerful that you cannot shake it off; but you can always recognize the truth and refuse to tell a lie about it.  You need not declare that you are remaining a landowner, manufacturer, merchant, artist, or writer because it is useful to mankind; that you are governor, prosecutor, or Tzar, not because it is agreeable to you, because you are used to it, but for the public good; that you continue to be a soldier, not from fear of punishment, but because you consider the army necessary to society.  You can always avoid lying in this way to yourself and to others, and you ought to do so; because the one aim of your life ought to be to purify yourself from falsehood and to confess the truth.  And you need only do that and your situation will change directly of itself.

There is one thing, and only one thing, in which it is granted to you to be free in life, all else being beyond your power: that is to recognize and profess the truth.”

The Kingdom of God Is Within You

HeartGroup Application

This week for our HeartGroup Application, I want to recommend to you the book The Kingdom of God Is Within You by Leo Tolstoy.  You can download a copy free of charge at amazon.com.

1.  Dedicate some time each day to reading and contemplating what you are reading.

2.  Journal your thoughts, feelings, questions, and insights.

3.  Spend some time in your HeartGroup this upcoming week discussing what you are reading.  In other words, process some of what you’re reading out loud with others.  Jesus’ teachings were never meant to be understood or applied in isolation but with “one another.”

Together we can make a difference.  Together we can learn to recognize and participate in Jesus’ alternate society, the beloved and beautiful community, centered around a shared table.  It is a beautiful community.

Keep living in love until the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns.

I love each of you, and I’ll see you next week

IMG_0332