DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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TRINITY
17
Life Isn't Fair

Matthew 20.11   "These men who were hired last worked for only one hour, while we put up with a whole day's work in the hot sun - yet you paid them the same as you paid us!"

Parents must possess the wisdom of Solomon. So difficult are some of the problems of bringing up children, that I for one regard parenting as a voyage of discovery no less hazardous than that of an explorer in darkest Africa.

How does one persuade a young child that kittens don't like being carried around by the tail? How do you tell a young boy who exclaims, "Dad, I think you're the best dad in the world!" that he's going to come down with a bump one day? And how can a teenager be reassured that when a week-old romance fails, the end of the world hasn't arrived?

A friend with two-year-old non-identical twins has to give elaborate attention to ensuring that each is treated with absolute equity. Toys, clothes, food, treats - they must all be carefully measured and selected so that neither twin perceives the slightest disadvantage. If not, there's hell to pay! How is she to prepare them for the realisation that life isn't fair? Each has differing talents and personality and will no doubt experience different outcomes in their lives. Each is going to have to discover one day that fairness isn't something God has programmed into our world.

The author of Matthew's Gospel makes the same comment at the end of the parable of "The Workers in the Vineyard." Life, he says, is one day going to get so unfair that those who came last in life's race are going to end up top of the heap, and those who thought they were first are going to be last. How's that for unfairness!

In drawing this conclusion Matthew is following a tradition common in his day of interpreting Jesus' parables as allegory, a tale "speaking one thing, and signifying something other" as Heraclitus puts it. That is, he assumes a hidden meaning, one which has to be teased out, a meaning which isn't necessarily obvious.

A serious problem with this approach is that each interpreter tends to project onto Jesus' parables his or her personal priorities and needs. The result is a babel of meanings which are as confusing as they are often contradictory.

Nevertheless, Jesus' parables do seem to require of each of us that we react to the tale in our own way. That is, there's no standard response to this or any other parable. It's easy to recognise that each parable is about real life. Those who heard them in the first century would have instantly recognised the situations and characters. But they had to decide for themselves in what respect the parable impacted them individually. In this instance, the interpretation doesn't come from Jesus but from Matthew,

In thinking about this parable for myself, I recall that I for one have picked up daily workers in exactly the way described here. I've driven my car up to a group of eager men, elbowing each other aside in the hope of getting a day's wage. 

I know what it's like to be the person doing the hiring. I can feel once more the discomfort of knowing that I'm one of the wealthy, and that there's nothing I can do to help these men except pay as generous a wage as I can. I can give the ones I hire a decent meal and a midday rest - but I can't alone cure the social ills which have put them in this position. I have my family to care for, my children to bring up. I can't be expected to penalise them by taking us all down to the level of the labourers I hire, can I? Life isn't fair, and that's that!

The Palestine of Jesus' time was a place in which, due to the economic development brought about by Herod the Great and the Romans, ordinary peasants were being moved off the land. The employer in this case would have been a mega-rich landowner (by comparison with landless peasants) who had taken advantage of Roman patronage. He would have been an exceptional and kindly man to give wages as he did - and the grumbling could be expected in the circumstances. Those who were favoured would have been grateful. Those who were less-favoured were understandably disappointed.

So what does all this mean for us today? Are there hidden meanings which we have to dig out of this parable? Or, once we understand the environment in which Jesus lived, worked and told this story, is there a plain message?

Work it out for yourself. How does the parable of "The Workers in the Vineyard" speak to you?

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