May 1, 2011
Somebody once asked Humphrey Bogart how he had the nerve to ask such phenomenally high fees for his movie acting; how did he figure he deserved that money? He replied, "I deserve it because I can get it." This is the same answer that rich people give when their lawyers drill gaping loopholes in their income tax returns, while lawyerless poor people continue to fork over ridiculous percentages of their paltry incomes to a government that has no concept of "fair".
Indeed, what is fair in the broadest spiritual sense? How does the balance sheet of God compare to the balance sheet of the IRS? According to the Hindu catechism, the laws of Karma are absolute: for every action there is a reaction; good works beget good rewards, evil acts earn commensurate punishments. The Bible is filled with like expressions of cosmic fairness: an eye for an eye, as you sow, so shall ye reap, etc., etc.
And yet, the sayings of Jesus often contradict and discredit (ha ha) the fairness math that is so natural, almost instinctive, to us. In fact, the paradoxical parables of Jesus abound with situations in which the Karmic ledgers are skewed every which way, surreptitiously endorsing acts of blatant unfairnesses.
Two of my favorite stories are "The Laborers in the Vineyard", and "The Prodigal Son".
The Laborers in the Vineyard or The Generous Employer
Scripture: Matthew 20:1-16
1 "For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place; 4 and to them he said, `You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.' So they went. 5 Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing; and he said to them, `Why do you stand here idle all day?' 7 They said to him, `Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, `You go into the vineyard too.' 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, `Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.' 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the householder, 12 saying, `These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' 13 But he replied to one of them, `Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?' 16 So the last will be first, and the first last."
Luke 15:11-32 (New King James Version)
The Parable of the Lost Son
11 Then He said: “A certain man had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood. 13 And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. 14 But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. 15 Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16 And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.
17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, 19 and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.”’
20 “And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. 23 And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; 24 for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.
25 “Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’
28 “But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. 29 So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. 30 But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’
31 “And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. 32 It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’”
"What a rip-off!! How dare that doddering old fool take in that scumbag brother of mine, when he has wasted a fortune, divided our house, and insulted everything we (I) stand for, by having the EXTREMELY bad taste to return in disgrace, to sully our good name with more bad report. Holy Moly, what a--"
And that generous employer who pays everybody the same wage for very different amounts of effort. Wussup wit dat?
Various comments on the Generous Employer Parable suggest various conclusions:
from The Expository Files:
"So the last to enter the kingdom have full remission of sins and hope, just as those who are veterans. It is all about grace, not about when you enter or some human standard of rank.
The parable in Matthew 20 illustrates that. . . .what we gain from following Christ doesn't depend upon the calendar or time clock. It is about diligence of heart, acting as a chosen one from the time you start (early or late). "Christ has turned the accepted order of things upside down: His kingdom includes those like little children (18:2), but excludes those like the ruler (v.25). Some who think they are great by men's standards, do not rate highly at all by heaven's standards. And those ranked last by men shall be ranked first in heaven."
I want to call attention to one phrase in the preceding paragraph: "heaven's standards". There are, in this parable two standards of reward, two standards of Karma: one is the physical world's eye for an eye reward system, and the other is a heavenly system of reward and punishment that transcends time, and material arithmetic. The heart of God deals in an exchange rate that does not compute in the ledgers on the mundane merchant.
Don Schwager on the Parables of Jesus 1988:
"God is generous in opening the doors of his kingdom to all who will enter, both those who have labored a life-time for him and those who come at the last hour. While the reward is the same, the motive for one's labor can make all the difference. Some work only for reward. They will only put as much effort in as they think they will get out. Others labor out of love and joy for the opportunity to work. The Lord calls his disciples to serve God and neighbor with generosity and joy."
This is a mind-bending idea--that the reward for the work IS the work--that the laborers who worked all day really did get more than those who worked only one hour, because they had the pleasure of working all day, and the joy of cherishing what they did with their own hands to the glory of God. The workers who perceived the disproportionate pay as unfair were missing the point. On several previous occasions, I have suggested that the material world and the world of spirit operate in different time zones, and calculate mass and velocity with different scales. The fairness of spirit comes from the Will of God, whose grace is so often irrational; and yet, the workings of the heart always, ultimately, make sense to us, because, as spiritual beings, all sprung from the same source, we understand spiritual logic as well as God--we just have to remember to forget our materialistic, mechanistic interpretation of the mundane in favor of the non-restrictive heart logic of the divine. We have to reach out with our will to embrace the higher reality; all we have to do is remember. We have to KNOW there is a sense behind the madness, and then we have to remember it.
This weekend I have been re-reading Arthur Koestler's The Roots of Coincidence; this is a book that examines various aspects of parapsychology and synchronicity in light of 20th century advances in quantum physics. The subject of the book, broadly stated, is the relationship of causal events and their acausal reciprocals. The idea is that: things happen in the physical which which have a cause, and things happen in the mental which have no cause, or at least no cause that we can see or explain. This quote from Schopenhauer gives an interesting model of the relationship of causality to coincidence:
"Coincidence is the simultaneous occurrence of causally unconnected events . . . If we visualize each causal chain progressing in time as a meridian on the globe, then we may represent simultaneous events by the parallel circles of latitude. . . "
[Thus progressions of causal events proceed in one direction, while coincidences link these events from a completely different direction, in a completely different progression. One might say the "motives" of coincidence are of a different "character" or even from a different "dimension" from causal events.]
"All the events in a man's life accordingly stand in two fundamentally different kinds of connection: firstly, in the objective, causal connection of the natural process; secondly, in a subjective connection which exists only in relation to the individual who experiences it, and which is thus as subjective as his own dreams, whose unfolding content is necessarily determined, but in the manner in which the scenes in a play are determined by the poet's plot. That both kinds of connection exist simultaneously, and the self-same event, although a link in two totally different chains, nevertheless falls into place in both, so that the fate of one individual invariably fits the fate of the other, and each is the hero of his own drama while simultaneously figuring in a drama foreign to him--this is something that surpasses our powers of comprehension, and can only be conceived as possible by virtue of the most wonderful pre-established harmony. . . It is a great dream dreamt by the single entity, the Will to Life: but in such a way that all his personae must participate in it. Thus, everything is interrelated and mutually attuned."
This quote gives an unusual slant on the word, "coincidence"; we usually think of coincidence as having a random, unplanned character, while the paragraph above inevitably interprets the "co" in coincidence as the literal implication of "at the same time", but not necessarily random at all. That the reason behind coincidence is invisible to us, objectively speaking, does not mean that the ultimate sense of coincidence is irrational--it just means that we have to look outside the physical dimension, outside material causality and into subjective reality for its reason for being. But how truly invisible is this subjective reality? How truly inaccessible are the eyes with which we can see things unseen?
In Hebrews 11:1, we read:
1Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
Faith is the evidence of things not seen. "Evidence" and "not seen" in the same sentence. "Not seen" in the physical, but "evidenced" by higher sensitivities, reaching into higher dimensions of existence. The nonsense whose sensed two cents sense makes sense. The workers who had FAITH in the positive propensity of life toward some affirmative goal, never doubted the fairness of the master; their subjective reality merged effortlessly with the master's and they understood the fairness of their wages; those lacking that underlying faith will never be satisfied by any amount of material reward--always the jealous, ravenous balance sheet of the mundane would continue to demand more and more reward--never satisfied, never at peace. We accuse God of unfairness because he doesn't deliver what we thought He ought to--and in the same breath we turn our backs on the true gift, the legitimate reward, not what we thought we wanted, but what we truly needed.
"There is an old rabbinic parable about a farmer that had two sons. As soon as they were old enough to walk, he took them to the fields and he taught them everything that he knew about growing crops and raising animals. When he got too old to work, the two boys took over the chores of the farm and when the father died, they had found their working together so meaningful that they decided to keep their partnership. So each brother contributed what he could and during every harvest season, they would divide equally what they had corporately produced. Across the years the elder brother never married, stayed an old bachelor. The younger brother did marry and had eight wonderful children. Some years later when they were having a rich harvest, the old bachelor brother thought to himself one night, "My brother has ten mouths to feed. I only have one. He really needs more of his harvest than I do, but I know he is much too fair to renegotiate. I know what I'll do. In the dead of the night when he is already asleep, I'll take some of what I have put in my barn and I'll slip it over into his barn to help him feed his children.
At the very time he was thinking down that line, the younger brother was thinking to himself, "God has given me these wonderful children. My brother hasn't been so fortunate. He really needs more of this harvest for his old age than I do, but I know him. He's much too fair. He'll never renegotiate. I know what I'll do. In the dead of the night when he's asleep, I'll take some of what I've put in my barn and slip it over into his barn." And so one night when the moon was full, as you may have already anticipated, those two brothers came face to face, each on a mission of generosity. The old rabbi said that there wasn't a cloud in the sky, a gentle rain began to fall. You know what it was? God weeping for joy because two of his children had gotten the point. Two of his children had come to realize that generosity is the deepest characteristic of the holy and because we are made in God's image, our being generous is the secret to our joy as well. Life is not fair, thank God! It's not fair because it's rooted in grace."
Now as to the prodigal son,
Wikipedia has this to say:
"This is the last of three parables about loss and redemption, following the parable of the Lost Sheep and the parable of the Lost Coin, that Jesus tells after the Pharisees and religious leaders accuse him of welcoming and eating with "sinners." The father's joy described in the parable reflects divine love, the "boundless mercy of God," and "God's refusal to limit the measure of his grace."
"The request of the younger son for his share of the inheritance is "brash, even insolent" and "tantamount to wishing that the father were dead." His actions do not lead to success, and he eventually becomes an indentured servant, with the degrading job (for a Jew) of looking after pigs, and even envying them for the carob pods they eat. On his return, the father treats him with a generosity far more than he has a right to expect.
"The older son, in contrast, seems to think in terms of "law, merit, and reward," rather than "love and graciousness." He may represent the Pharisees who were criticizing Jesus.
"Many have argued the story is actually about the prodigals' Father who represents God, prodigals' (plural) rather than prodigal's (singular). One son had no love for his father, alienated and fell into deep sin, the other had no love for his father but stayed at home with the proper appearances of obedience without love. As many of the stories in Luke, the less likely person receives mercy and in this parable the most extreme sinner in a parable of Jesus is restored to his father while his more proper brother is not. The story passes through unexpected and jarring turns of events for the listeners. The parable ends with a deliberate unfinished nature. We do not know the final response of the run away's brother after the father's appeal to join the feast and the joy over the son who was dead and is now alive."
What causes the jealous workers and the older brother to misunderstand the generous employer and the loving father? I am reminded of two more stories: at the end of the Mahabarata, the victorious king turns his back on Heaven where his Earthly enemies now play in Elysian (sic) Fields; he descends into Hell to be with his family--thus affirming the conventional knowledge of the world in exchange for heavenly grace. At the end of "The Last Battle", the final Narnia book of C.S. Lewis, the dwarves sit at the opening of the cave in self-created darkness, preferring the eternal black of family loyalty to the heavenly light that shines just a few paces further in. How often do we sit in self-created darkness, when a simple act of faith, a slight incline of the head toward the light will assuage all out miseries? Why do we prefer the dark to the light? It must be because we forget to remember that the higher life is just a glance away, and that God's Grace is unfair, thank God!
May 1, 2011