In his book, “Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God,” Jack Miles offers an imaginative scene revealing the subversive, revolutionary politic of Jesus.
A preacher begins the sermon with the well-known proclamation, “the last will be first and the first will be last.”
Suddenly, there is commotion in the back pew as a worshipper begins shouting. The ushers act quickly, dragging the outraged worshipper out the door.
But before they are able to remove him, he yells: “The last first! Why should the first not be first? Do they not deserve it? What have the last done that they should replace the first? Leave the losers at the bottom where they belong!”
Were this to happen in our churches, most would think poorly of this man. But Miles notes that the only person who takes the quotation seriously is this disruptor of the peace.
He then offers an unsettling suggestion: “The ushers who struggle to subdue the madman must struggle as well, if they are sincere Christians, with their human, all too human, tendency to agree with him.”
The statement that elicited the visceral reaction in Miles’ story occurs in the context of a parable about farm laborers (see Matthew 20.1-16).
A landowner hires workers throughout the day, and at sundown everyone receives the same pay no matter how long they worked. The laborers who worked all day are understandably upset.
In response, the landowner replies: “Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
If I read this story in a newspaper, my feelings would mirror the “madman” of Miles’ narrative.
When Jesus tells the story, I convince myself that it must be a metaphor about everyone receiving grace from God no matter when we repent.
While true, I know this interpretation is due to my discomfort with the socioeconomic system Jesus describes. This begs the question, what is the basis for my uneasiness?
Capitalism likely has something to do with it.
In “The Wealth of Nations,” Adam Smith stated: “Public services are never better performed than when their reward comes in consequence of their being performed, and is proportioned to the diligence employed in performing them.”
Later, he added, “If [a person’s profits] are to be precisely the same, whether he does, or does not perform some very laborious duty, it is certainly his interest … either to neglect it altogether, or … to perform it in [a] careless and slovenly a manner.”
I am uncomfortable with Jesus’ parable because I live and move and have my being in a socioeconomic system based on Smith’s ideas.
By contrast, Jesus offers an economy where the playing field is leveled. Everyone contributes what they can (some more, some less), and everyone receives what they need (no more, no less).
In other words, first, last and everything in between are no longer relevant concepts because cooperation, collaboration and the common good, not competition, are what drive God’s socioeconomic system.
Those who wish to be first, Jesus says, will be the humble servants of all (see Matthew 20.25-28).
Jesus continues to use the language of competition – first and last, greatest and least – but he subverts our understanding and usage of these terms.
As we choose to embrace Jesus’ socioeconomic vision by putting the common good ahead of self-interested action, we come to believe that concepts such as below and above, least and greatest, last and first are foreign to God’s economy in which the goal is the well-being of all through sharing the world’s abundant resources.
As my wife put it, Jesus is trying to help us see that what we perceived to be a straight line (with people in front of and behind us with whom we compete) is actually a curved, circular line (with people next to us with whom we collaborate). Like the skyline, we just need a wider view to see the arc.
For many who live in capitalist economies, talk of enacting Jesus’ socioeconomic system incites fear of communism and socialism.
This is legitimate, as the compelled sharing of goods and coerced equality of pay have resulted in the masses being equally poor and equally oppressed by the few.
So, let’s set aside the idea of a nation enacting Jesus’ vision and discuss local churches voluntarily doing so. Or would that be any less controversial?
While Acts 2:42 presents an idyllic community embracing Jesus’ socioeconomic model, Paul’s letters reveal that this is the exception not the rule.
It has so rarely been attempted, much less sustained, that one can only imagine the impact of churches fully and faithfully embracing Jesus’ dream by creating communities in which trust replaces fear, cooperation replaces competition, and sharing replaces hoarding.
My internal reaction to the financial implications of this suggestion reminds me that I agree with the “madman” of Miles’ story more than Jesus. I’m just better at hiding my emotions.
But I imagine were I to become a member of this type of community, I would be able to say, with sincerity, “the reign of God is in our midst.”