As someone who’s always been tuned into issues of fairness and justice, Jesus’s parable of the workers in the vineyard has always fascinated and frustrated me.
A landowner hires workers throughout the day to work in his vineyard. The result is that the workers hired at the end of the day end up making the same amount of money as those who worked the whole day. When they complain about this, the landowner gently rebukes them: “Didn’t you agree to work for this amount of pay? Or are you resentful because I’m generous?”
Jesus’s point is to again say to his disciples, “Those who are last will be first. And those who are first will be last.” What Jesus is getting at here is that the kingdom of God radically disrupts the relentless status games we seem unable to stop playing.
Disrupting our status games
Seeking status over others seems to be hard-wired into humanity. If a sibling’s present under the Christmas tree is bigger than ours, we feel jealous. We can’t rejoice with them because we can only think of what it means for our status.
If everyone gets the same pay at the end of the day, how will we know who actually worked the hardest and longest? If everyone goes to college and it’s free, it ceases to be useful as a status symbol, and people will look for other ways to establish status over others. We are constantly, it seems, on the hunt for ways to send signals to others that we are better than them in some way.
This is why the radical equality of the kingdom is so threatening and radical to us. In reality, it just means that we all stand on the same ground: broken sinners who have received forgiveness and healing out the abundance of God’s love and provision. But what it feels like is that “many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”
As has been said, when you’re accustomed to privilege and status, equality feels like oppression and persecution. And I suppose the opposite would be true as well: when you’re accustomed to actual oppression, equality feels like a promotion, or at least a breath of fresh air.
As the Virgin Mary proclaimed:
He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good thingsLuke 1:52-53
and sent the rich away empty-handed.
Racism as a status game
This seems to be the dynamic of racism in America. We have had such a strong caste system in place for so long that the status roles are embedded into our culture on a powerful, subconscious level. Racial trauma has been passed down from generation to generation, in both black and white bodies, and thus the status roles of the American caste system are literally baked into our DNA.
This is why white people who don’t think of themselves as racist can react so automatically negatively to basic statements and actions of black equality, like hearing someone say “Black lives matter,” or watching a black football player kneel during the national anthem. On a visceral level, white people are feeling their status being threatened, and their bodies are telling them that their very survival is at stake.
Lose your life to find it
This is why it’s so vital for us (especially as white people) to heed Jesus’s instruction to “lose your life” so you can find (true) life. In other words, when you feel your status being threatened, just notice what’s happening in your body. Don’t trust it, react to it, or try to stop feeling it. Just allow it to be, and then allow it to pass.
You’ll find a new kind of life on the other side: a life in God’s kingdom, where we all occupy the same standing: wounded and broken people who have received forgiveness and healing out the abundance of God’s love and generosity.
Then we’ll able to rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep, because we’ll know that nothing at all of value is being threatened when all that’s at stake is status. We’ll be able to drop our relentless status games and rest in love of God together.