Offensive Equality

Recently one of the readings in church was the parable of the workers in the vineyard from the gospel of Matthew. It’s a story of the upside-down-ness of God’s kingdom, and I noticed something I’ve never thought about before. Equality is what gets everyone really angry.

Parable-of-Vineyard-Workers-Law-and-Grace-1-10-BT-fs2For the kingdom of heaven is like… Jesus begins. It’s like a business owner who goes out to hire workers for a day. He hires some guys and they agree to $100 for a day’s work.

Later that day, the business owner goes out and hires some more folks. Then later he does it again.

When there’s only one hour left to work, he goes out and hires some more. Each time, he promises to pay them fairly.

At quitting time everybody gets paid, starting with the people who were hired at the end of the day. They get $100.

Of course, the guys who were hired first think they are really going to rake it in. If the short-timers get paid $100 for one hour, how much will we get for working all day?!

The guys who worked all day get $100, as promised, and they are MAD. They aren’t mad because the boss cheated them. They’re mad because “You have made them equal to us.”

It’s not the money, it’s the equal. We want to be the winners!

How do I know that I am good enough unless I am better/richer/more important/smarter/more fill-in-the-blank than someone else?

“You have made them equal to us.”

Here’s how the business owner (God) answers their complaint:

“I am doing you no wrong… I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” 

Here I see the basis for humility and the opportunity for healing.

Humility In the kingdom of God, I am worthwhile because God says so. My neighbor is worthwhile because God says so. His generosity is the point. His generosity is the source of worth.

Healing Robert Sapolsky wrote a fascinating and surprisingly funny book on stress called Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Chapter 17 an excellent examination of the connections between poverty, stress, social rank, and health. How I feel about my place in society is connected to my well-being. “Show someone a ladder with ten rungs on it,” Sapolsky writes, “and ask them, ‘In society, where on this ladder would you rank yourself in terms of how well you’re doing?'” Do you feel like you’re winning or feel like you’re losing?

A critical piece of what makes poverty stressful is lack of connection, or what sociologists call “social capital.” Social capital refers to trust, reciprocity, lack of hostility, and active engaZebra Ulcersgement in a community. The more people trust each other, the more willing everyone is to give and to participate in ways that benefit the whole community (like volunteering, joining the PTA, voting).

Here’s where this comes together with our parable: Sapolsky writes that “trust requires reciprocity, and reciprocity requires equality. In contrast, hierarchy is about domination, not symmetry and equality.” That ladder is a visual representation of hierarchy.

The workers in the parable were angry because the ladder was smashed.

Equality doesn’t mean everyone has the same income. Equality means everyone has the same value. I matter, you matter, they matter.

In the kingdom of heaven, that’s exactly how we stand: equally dependent on God’s generosity. I believe that this can be the foundation on which to build relationships that are truly healing.

Next week I will write more about how this can look in practice. How can we build social capital in our community, in Lake County?

For today, thank God he has made us equal and we all belong to him.