Amy Waldman’s timely novel, The Submission, begins in a conference room, high above the site where the towers stood. The jury, all thirteen of them, had been gathering for four months, wading through 5000 anonymous entries, all to select the design for the memorial to the attacks of September 11. In the opening scene they argue late into the night and finally, around midnight, make a decision on a beautiful walled garden, shaped by canals, with a low gathering space in the middle. The chairman calls for the envelope containing the information on submission number 4879. He opens it and feels his jaw tighten. The designer’s name is Mohammad Khan.
The rest of the gut-wrenching novel is about the implications of that decision, and what that says about who we are. Politicians run for cover, stoking fear as they retreat. Khan’s apparent lack of religious commitments make no difference, and talk radio hosts, family members, friends and neighbors are caught up in fury. We saw some of this intensity in real life last year around the Mosque and Community Center a group wanted to build a few blocks from the Trade Center site. But two years post-9/11, with the US still freshly engaged in two wars, the grief is so raw. The architect, while clearly not a terrorist, is also a deeply flawed person. The story comes to a climax at a public hearing at City Hall. Extra metal detectors were put up; bomb-sniffing dogs were out in force around the perimeter. Khan spoke for a moment, overwhelmed as the cameras clicked, and then the activists lined up. A few folks spoke in favor, but most were vehemently opposed, some of them caught up in their confusion and grief over people they loved that died, but many of them saying vile things about any Muslim being a terrorist, about the garden Khan had planned being a monument to the attackers, talking points all. The narrative was all headed one direction, the scene coming to a tragic conclusion, when the moderator asks if there was anyone left. After some whispering, a woman in the back raises her hand. Asma, who had come to New York from Bangladesh on her honeymoon and decided to stay. Her husband Inam swept floors and cleaned toilets in the towers. She came to the mic and told his story, about his faithfulness to his religion of peace, about her support for the garden, and her anger at the racism against her. She speaks, stumbling, through a translator, about the monument that would memorialize her husband, too. "We have tried to give back to America," she said. "But also, I want to know, my son [he is seven] – he is Muslim, but he is also an American. Or isn’t he? You tell me," she said to the rabid crowd, now getting quiet. "What should I tell my son?"1
This is a text about our capacity for a new kind of vision. For a few chapters, Jesus has been talking about community. If one member of the church sins against you, he says to the disciples, you have to do something about it, you have to reconcile.2 He pushes us towards the difficult work of forgiveness. Jesus yearned for them, the disciples, the church, to be a laboratory of sorts where important virtues were tried out, practiced, here, so we might be equipped to live them more fully out in the world. He teaches about marriage, welcomes children, tells a rich young man that he needs sell everything he has, give it to the poor, and then come and follow.
He then tells a story about a landowner who goes out to hire a few day laborers. He pulls up to the parking lot outside of a strip mall, and a bunch of men are waiting. He hires some early, then at 9. The scene repeats at noon, 3, and 5. At payment time, the owner doesn’t tell the manager what to pay, simply the order in which to pay them. Matthew builds the drama carefully as we see those who worked one hour get paid for the whole day. By the time the manager has worked his way down the line, I would imagine the folks who have been there all day are getting a little excited. Dreams of maybe two whole days pay for one day’s work run through their heads, along with the things they could do, debts they could pay off. Until that lone denarius is placed put in their hand. ‘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.’ The manager calmly points back to their agreement, to his own freedom as the employer. And then he steps back, questions for the workers and for us. "Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?" he asks. Then he lowers his voice and says to the hushed crowd: "So the last will be first, and the first will be last."
This is a text in which it is easy to get caught up in the details. We had a great conversation this past Wednesday about it in Ways and Means, the Commission of the session that works to be good stewards of our overall financial health. A lot of the conversation was about how this was a pretty bad way to run a business. Why would you keep hiring that many people? Why would you pay in that order? This might be okay, one said, if you were only going to do this once. Otherwise it sets a bad precedent, incentivizes working less, coming late. Especially for folks like us who to tend to show up early, who work really hard and earn what we get, it feels unjust.
Until you realize that the owner had to have done this on purpose. If he just wanted to give the latecomers a little extra, he could have paid those who came first, first. They would have been on their way home, coin in their pocket.3 But he specifically tells the manager to pay those who had worked just one hour first. He wanted to make a point. This parable’s goal isn’t to comment on business at all, say anything about the market. Tom Long writes, "the aim of this parable is to be monumentally impractical, to fracture so thoroughly our expectations, our customary patterns of practicality, that we are forced to think new thoughts – new thoughts about ourselves, about other people, and about God."4
‘For the kingdom of heaven is like…’ the parable begins. Not to tell us this parable is about things in another world, somewhere else, things we can’t do here. It is first to point us, I believe, back to the gross inequalities in the world. Remember, it follows right on the heels of Jesus telling the rich man to sell everything he has and give it to the poor. It too ends with ‘many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’5 Our world is built on differences – we sort and classify, sizing up the people around us, as naturally as we do anything. Where we went to school, where we live, the connections we do or don’t have. Race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation loom large. I heard a report this week noting that the average white family has 20 times the wealth of the typical black family, according to the Pew Research Foundation, the largest gap in 25 years.6 This parable confronts us with how grossly distorted our vision is, the assumptions we make about those late-day workers, others different from us.
But Jesus is careful not to leave us there, calling us toward new possibilities. The landowner’s generosity may make for a bad business model. And if you are used to being there early and working hard, it might feel unjust. But Matthew is calling us into a new way of seeing. If the God of the landowner reigns, then people have value not because of when they showed up or how hard they worked, but because they and children created and cherished by God. If the God of the landowner reigns, then the market no longer determines worth, and we are freed to see differently, regardless of our assumptions, regardless of our fears. What if we saw each other not as people who came to work later than us, but people to whom God will be gracious, even as God has been gracious to me? How would that impact the way we conduct ourselves in traffic, at the office, as war and jobs and marriage are debated in Raleigh and DC? How would that shift in vision challenge us be a more generous people, more generous church?
I was heading home Thursday evening, the sun a bright orange as it set, the clouds rolling in. The line to turn down the hill onto Garrett was backed up, and it turned red right before I got to the light. And I was stuck. Even worse, I had rolled the window down, so I had no choice but to stop right beside the man there asking for money. I couldn’t roll the window up right in front of him, I couldn’t ignore him, so I turned and looked him in the eye. His face was worn with the sun, his long grey hair pulled back into a ponytail. His eyes were tired. I nodded, as he stared back, just for a moment. And I had been swimming in this parable for much of the day, and it hit me like a brick: Do I really believe that God loves that man as much as God loves me? It is easy to agree in theory, of course we think that. But if I really believed it, deep in my core, I wondered why I wasn’t living any differently from the way I am living. I wondered what else would need to change about me and my life, about what I do with what I have; about the systems I work to build to honor ALL people. I wondered if I had the courage to really see with the landowner’s eyes. I wondered, if I really believed it, how it would change things…
So, friends, how are you seeing? How is your vision? What might it be like, if we could glimpse the other with the generous eyes of God?
All praise be to God. Amen.
- From Amy Waldman’s extraordinary novel, The Submission, (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011). The scene I mention is on pages 214-231.
- Some of this summary comes from Roger Lovette’s "Reflections on A Scottish Church," in William H. Willimon’s Pulpit Resource, Vol 36, No 3, Year A, July, August, September 2008, p 47.
- I am grateful to the Rev. Pen Peery, at First Presbyterian Church, Shreveport, Louisiana, for this thought. It comes from his class notes on a parables course taught by Stan Saunders at Columbia Seminary, July 2011.
- Tom Long, WBC: Matthew (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), 224.
- Matthew 19:30.