Christ Centered Church Resource Site

Human Justice and Divine Love

Matthew 20:1-16
Sun, September 22, 2002
Rev. Alan Reynolds
Watch what God does, and then do it yourself, like children who learn proper behaviour from their parents. What God does is because God is love. Keep company with God and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ expressed His love. His love was not cautious, but extravagant. He didn’t love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Live like that! …
(From Ephesians 5:1f., The Message)

Our reaction!

This is not an easy story! The natural and immediate human reaction to this parable is that it is grossly unfair. Isn’t it?

Is it fair, is it just, that those who work one hour should receive that same remuneration as those who have worked ten or twelve hours sweating in the hot sun through the heat of the day. These guys were there at six o’clock in the morning, looking for work. These others probably didn’t show up at the labour pool until ten or eleven. Yet the boss pays every one of them the same, a full day’s wage. It wasn’t much really. Day-labourers, then as now, were not unionized. They received barely enough to live on. So when these lazy slobs received a full day’s wage for one hour’s work, those who had worked all day had reason to expect that they would receive something more.

The capacity for order, which is the basis of justice, is one of the things that make our lives human. But we want to believe that in return for treating others with justice, we will be suitably rewarded. And if we are unfairly treated, we want retribution. If we are cheated, we want justice. And if we lead honest, moral, hardworking lives, we believe that in return we should enjoy reasonable prosperity and peace and the hope of heaven in the life to come. “Religion,” to most people, is belief in such a moral order. When they see immoral and dishonest people happy and prosperous, they feel that their very belief in God is threatened. So we cry for justice, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”

That may be the natural human reaction, but you who know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ will not share that reaction, will you? You surely don’t feel that way!

Or do you? Who do we identify with in this story? Don’t we tend to identify with “the good guys?” Most of us here, I dare say, are the upright moral types who have been toiling away through most of the years of our lives, hard working, reliable, struggling to be honest before God and in our dealings with others. We who come to church are, for the most part, the successful ones and we often don’t have a lot of patience with those who have failed in the struggles of life. We are the ones who feel cheated when we come in from the field where we have been all day sweating in the hot sun and find a party going on for the prodigal who took half the inheritance and made off to a far country and now comes home destitute and looking for mercy. Yes, we have a right to feel the story is not just.

Then, are we right and Jesus wrong?

The Teaching and Spirit of Jesus

It’s there of course throughout the teaching of Jesus: the sun which shines on the evil and the good and the rain which falls on the just and the unjust; the woman who in a great outpouring of love, wasted precious ointment on Jesus’ feet; the harlots and lepers who will enter the kingdom before the righteous; the two men who went up to the temple to pray (and it was man who confessed, “Lord be merciful to me a winner” who was justified). And on the cross He embodied his own teaching, looking on those who were murdering him: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing!”

But this still begs the question. Is Jesus’ teaching in fact true to reality? Maybe he was wrong all along. After all, he died upon a cross, not exactly an example of moral success. This “Gospel” which we profess to believe, is it real? Let’s look at the question more closely.

Jesus teaches his followers to live that righteousness which “exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.” But how could any one be more righteous, more religious, that these people that tithed even the seeds of the herbs in their garden? Jesus points out that they nevertheless neglected the most important things – mercy, forgiveness, love; those qualities which transcend our common moralities and our human concepts of justice. Because they were so rigidly righteous, they lacked the highest morality of all, forgiveness – “the morality beyond morality.”

It is significant that Matthew’s Gospel was written to Jewish Christians, those who had laboured to keep the law all their lives. Now they watched as Gentiles whose lives had never been encumbered with such restrictions, became part of the church. Worse, now the teaching was that you didn’t need to be circumcised and follow all the detailed rules of the law. The important thing was love, self-giving, forgiving love!

Reinhold Niebuhr: The Three Levels of Morality

There are three realms of levels of morality in our human experience (Reinhold Niebuhr). The first or lowest level is the realm of nature, the level of no morality, or amorality, nature “red in tooth and claw” where survival is the law -- the law of the jungle. Here the individual, beast or bacteria, seeks to preserve its existence at the expense of the others.

Second there is the realm of history, the level of ordinary justice without which human society could not survive, the realm of restricted retribution and balanced even-handed justice, the law of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” This is the level of human achievement which provides rules for our games, from childhood games to professional sports, which provides laws for human society and so provides some measure of security for our lives.

The Deuteronomic Code, with its prescription of “en eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” was an advance over the law of the jungle because it sought to prevent the ever-escalating scale of revenge that might result in an inter-tribal bloodbath within the tribes of Israel. The result of law in human society is that not only my own life and goods are secured, but also the very institutions and order of human society are maintained.

There is a third level of the moral order, as “all y’all” should know. This is the realm of grace, of mercy and forgiveness, which Nicholas Berdyaev called “the morality beyond morality.” This is the realm of unconditional and sacrificial love. Here we ascend into a realm that transcends our normal moral understanding, a type of relationship which both fulfills and annuls our common conceptions of justice.

Mother, father, you don’t say to your young children, “You haven’t earn your keep this week, therefore you shall not eat!” Husband and wife enter marriage, Christian marriage, without conditions “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.” Where there is love, the balance of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, while still important, is not given primary consideration. Where there is love, the common demands of morality and justice are largely irrelevant. They are both fulfilled and destroyed, because they are transcended – for this is the realm of love and mercy, the realm of grace!

Do you see? Do you hear? Do you understand? Some measure of human justice is important, even necessary, in life that is human. But we don’t find fulfillment in a life of justice. It is when we live in the Spirit of divine Love that we find Life with a capital “L.” Paradoxically, it is in this realm of grace, of self-giving and sacrificial love, that the self finds its most complete fulfillment. In caring for others without regard to the self, in the love of our children for instance, wherever we are moved to give ourselves in love, the self transcends itself and finds its highest happiness.

“The last shall be first, and the first shall be last!”

Is this not the meaning of the enigmatic closing words of this story: “So the last will be first and the first will be last!” It was just before this, in the previous chapter, that Jesus said how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom. Peter said, “Lord, we have left everything and followed you, what then shall we have?” And Jesus replied, “Everyone who has left houses or family or property for my sake will receive a hundred fold and inherit eternal life.” But then he added, “But many that are first will be last and the last first.” And it is precisely here that Jesus tells this story of the workers in the vineyard, ending with these same words, “The last will be first and the first will be last.”

And the words are repeated again in the Gospel of Mark (10:31) and in Luke the message is even stronger: “We ate and drank in your presence (here where we have so often receiving the bread and the cup), you taught in our streets (even here Sunday by Sunday listening to the Word).” But the Son of Man will reply, “I do not know you! Depart from me you workers of iniquity! And you will weep and gnash your teeth. For behold some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” (Luke 13:30)

Beware lest we walk in the spirit of the scribes and Pharisees rather than the Spirit of Jesus which is the Spirit of God. For if we demand of God only justice, we will find ourselves excluded from the kingdom of God. The “Good News” is that we are included – not because of our righteousness but by the grace and mercy of God – who demands that we show the same mercy and gracious care to all of God’s needy children.

Salieri and Amadeus

Through the week I have kept thinking of Peter Shaeffer’s play Amadeus, the story of Salieri’s jealousy of Mozart. It’s not relevant whether Shaeffer’s story is biographical. The main point of the play, it seems to me, is this very theme: human justice and divine love. “Its most important theme is a polemic against this mercantile religion which demands of God justice, forgetting our common need of mercy” (Samuel Terrien).

Salieri tells of his desire as a youth to serve God.

At twelve I was stumbling about the poplar trees humming my arias and anthems to the Lord. My one desire was to join all the composers who had celebrated His glory through the long Italian past! … Every Sunday I saw Him in church, painted on the flaking wall… an old candle-smoked God in a mulberry robe, staring at the world with dealer’s eyes. … Tradesmen put Him there. Those eyes made bargains, real and irreversible. “You give me so, I’ll give you so! No more, no less!

So he made a bargain with God. Salieri wanted fame, “to blaze like a comet across the firmament of Europe.” At the age of sixteen, “I went to see him and made a bargain with Him myself. … With a desperate sense of right, I knelt before the God of bargains and prayed with all my soul: Signore, let me be a composer, and in return I will live with virtue and honour you all the days of my life.” And he heard (or thought he heard) God say, “Bene. Go forth, Antonio. Serve Me and you will be blessed.” “Gracie, I called back. I am your servant for life.”

Soon after he received his appointment from the Austrian emperor in Vienna and concluded that his bargain with God was indeed fulfilled.

But at this very year of his triumph, “a young prodigy was touring Europe. A miraculous virtuoso aged ten years, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart!” “Amadeus” – the one God loves!

Eventually Mozart comes to Vienna and Salieri’s bargain with God is smashed! Behind closed doors, he hears what we now call “Kirchel 361” (the Adagio in Eb from the Serenade For Thirteen Wind Instruments).

“It started simply enough; just a pulse in the lowest registers, bassoons and basset horns. – Then suddenly, high above, sounded a single note on the oboe. … It hung there unwavering, piercing me though, … throwing long lines of pain around and through me…. I called up my sharp old God…. `Tell me, Signore, what is this pain?”

Salieri discerned through Mozart’s music, not through his own, the voice of God. Here was the genius he craved but realized now that he did not and would never possess.

I was suddenly frightened. It seemed to me that I had heard a voice of God – and that it issued from … an obscene child.

And he shrieks, “AMADEUS! Beloved of God! … They say the Spirit bloweth where it wills. I tell you NO! It must will virtue or not blow at all. “ Because he feels deceived, his faith turns to blasphemy. Because in his moral commitment he feels cheated, he becomes the face of malevolence.

God is gracious!

There is something that happens to us when we become conscious of our own righteousness and demand or expect “that which is coming to us.” Be careful, my friend. You might just get what’s coming to you. Justice without love has way of becoming destructive. Don’t be mad, be glad! God is gracious.

The God of our faith, the God of the good news of the Gospel, is the One who accepts each of us unconditionally. Here is the love of God – the Cross, which is both the fulfillment and the destruction of all human conceptions of justice; the One who hangs there with arms outstretched waiting to embrace each one of His precious children, calling to love all of this lost, haunted Creation.

For “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”