So the last will be first, and the first last. - St. Matthew 20: 16
This is one of the enigmatic affirmations of Jesus. It kept me puzzled and wondering for long. It is good that there are puzzling truths. They serve, at the very least, to keep ourselves brain-alive.
For long it has occurred to me that the essence of Jesus’ statement here is momentum, as against stagnation. Years ago, when I read Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution (1907) I realized that nearly all of human thinking is based on a static mode of knowing. As a result, we feel out of our depth when we confront dynamic realities. Life is dynamic. But, our mode of knowing is static. Spirituality involves a re-orientation of understanding from the static to the dynamic.
Bergson argues that the only way dynamic realities can be understood is by abiding in them. What is static can be studied from the outside. ‘Abiding in’ is basic to understanding what is dynamic. So Jesus says, ‘Abide in me, and I in you’ (Jn. 15:4). It is obvious that this is the only way human beings can be understood at all.
There is a funny side to history. It is a spectacle of power centres trying hard to perpetuate their grip on the wheel of authority and their sinking under the rolling waters of time. History is a clash between the craving for permanence and the imperative of change. The privileged elite –in politics and in religion- prioritize stability and permanence. Their victims crave for change. Those who are in solidarity with them are at risk of being criminalized and crucified.
We don’t have to look far for illustrations. Not long ago, an 84-year old Jesuit priest, Fr. Stan Swamy, died in prison in India as an accused. He was arrested, accused of de-stabilising the State. What was his subversive activity? He dared to be in solidarity with the tribals of Jharkhand in their struggle to exercise the rights enshrined in the 5th schedule of the Indian Constitution for them. The frail old man, crippled by Parkinson’s disease, was labelled as a threat to India.
Jesus came to set the captives free (Lk. 4:18). It doesn’t have to be argued that ‘liberation’ entails change. How can the victims be liberated without subjecting the system –religious or political- that holds them hostage to the imperative of change? Jesus would not have been crucified, if had not challenged the religious status quo. But, he could not have set its captives free, had he not done so.
Every new system of thought, every new vision, emerges in opposition to the fundamentals of the status quo prevailing at the relevant time. No new thought, insight or possibility can emerge without undermining the scheme of things in force. To their custodians, this seems rebellious or impious. Jesus had a profound, even if subtly-stated, awareness of the logic of history. He knew that the static model of reality is what the custodians of the status quo prefer. The two essential attributes of this model are: conformist orthodoxy, presided over by a hierarchy, in respect of religion and the monopoly of thought categories in the secular world controlled by the socio-economic elite. He knew, further, that human liberation –especially the good news to the poor- was impossible without challenging this state of affairs. Challenging entrenched religious and social stereotypes is central to Jesus’ teachings. He taught to bring about changes.
Against this sketchy background, consider the enigmatic words of Jesus quoted at the outset, which conclude the parable of the hired workers (Mtt.20:1-16). The purpose of this parable is to de-stabilize the reigning stereotype correlating reward with quantum of work. If this weren’t fanciful, equality would have prevailed in the world. What prevails everywhere is not equality of reward, but the disjunction, as Karl Marx pointed out, between work and reward. The worker, he said, creates the ‘surplus value’, which is pocketed by the capitalist. There is, if anything, an arbitrary correlation between work and recompense. A supervisor, whose work is only to others work, earns much more than a worker who slaves and slogs throughout the day. This is justified on the alibi of ‘expertise’ or skill. The supervisor is part of a chain of structured superiority that goes all the way up to the capitalist. The only merit of the capitalist, as Marx points out, is that he has capital. His personal merits and industry do not determine his entitlements. Jesus’ point is that so long as this system is not questioned, the good news to the exploited worker will remain aborted. Even today it seems to us unthinkable and unfair to do so. But two millennia ago, it occurred to Jesus as necessary.
This explains why Jesus issues a shocker of a statement! ‘The last will be first, and the first last’! Such a prospect defies comprehension and befuddles our brains centuries after it was posited. It is not as if what Jesus said is totally out of this world. No, it is the truth of history. How? Let us see.
At this stage a glance at the Old Testament is warranted. ‘Why do the wicked succeed?’ asks Jeremiah (Jer.12:1). ‘Behold the wicked,’ protests King David, ‘they are always at ease and they increase their riches.’ (Ps.73:12-14) There is another side to this state of affairs. The wicked prosper, but their gains are transitory. They are like the grass which today is, and is no more tomorrow. Impermanence stalks human beings on the face of the earth. All efforts and achievements are like lines drawn on water. ‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher, ‘all is vanity’. (Eccl. 12:8)
Seen in this light, Jesus’ words can be understood to mean that ‘being the first and being the last’ all amount to the same in the end. There are no enduring achievements or gains in this world. All sense of superiority, merit or achievement based on material acquisitions add up, in the ultimate analysis, to nothing. The last and the first, in the estimation of the world, are mirror images of each other.
Why is it important to recognize this? All man-made systems will be riddled with inequality. Inequality, not equality, is the natural inclination of fallen human nature, which is oriented to power, not love. This presents God with two options. The first is to play the Cosmic Cop and ensure that inequalities do not develop. This can be done only at the expense of human freedom. The second possibility is to ensure that the dynamism –the energy of change- which human beings reject in favour of stability is encoded in the larger rhythm of history as instability of acquisitions and achievements.
How is this to be done? God’s commitment to human freedom rules out direct in-person intervention in order to ensure equality and justice. The only way open, then, for maintaining the balance between fortune and misfortune in history is to ensure the impermanence of gain and loss long term. Civilizations have come and gone. Empires have vanished. Who was the foremost, and who was the least among them? Who cares?
In the short term, the first will stay first. The security, superiority and euphoria derived from being the first are mocked by the long-term reality of ‘the last’ of today becoming the first of tomorrow or the day after.
This, however, should not be misunderstood and wrong inferences drawn from it. A closer look at the parable makes it clear that this is not envisaged as a mechanical or automatic swopping of situations. There is no guarantee that you who are the last today will be the first tomorrow, just because you are the last today. Laziness is not a virtue, and it merits no reward. In the parable, the worker, who was engaged in the eleventh hour, works without expectation of any reward. He is not promised any wage. He was free from the mercenary outlook. To him work was a privilege; in itself a reward. He would have expressed himself at his best through the work he did. That would have caught the eye of the master! His handicap would have worked to his advantage.
So, this parable need not be as enigmatic as it seems, if read with a bit of historical hindsight. It is structured on the contrast between fixity and freedom. The fixity is in the minds of the workers who grumble. The master is free from the stereotype they entertain. The parable also flags two contrasting attitudes to work and personal predicament. Graded inequality is the pattern of the world. One can either allow that to be hindrance. One can also transcend it, and work as though it need not determine one’s attitude to life and work. It is not too hard to believe that, given the un-mercenary outlook of the workers hired at the eleventh hour, they will be the first tomorrow, if not today.
This is indeed good news. To see it in perspective, consider the opposite scenario. The workers hired last go through the motion of working, harbouring the resentment that they would be paid a pittance. Even if they don’t compare themselves resentfully with their more fortunate fellow workers, they could still be dispirited by the insignificance of what they would be paid at the end of the day. Why be enthusiastic about something so trivial? Such an outlook will ensure that the last will stay last.
This parable is central to the good news for the poor. The best we can do for the poor is not extending arms of charity to relieve their distress for the time being, though that is a necessary thing to do. The spiritual goal is not to maintain them in their present plight. It is to free them from it. Freedom becomes real to those who are ‘the last’ today, when they become ‘the first’; because, in the grim reality of this world freedom and dignity are the entitlement of ‘the first’.
‘It shall not be so with you,’ said Jesus. But, it is so with the world, and it is going to stay so till the end of history. What needs to be done, therefore, is to imbue ‘the last’ of today with the hope of becoming ‘the first’ of tomorrow, not in a magical or escapist way, but in sync with the genius of history which is pegged on the instability of earthly acquisitions (Mtt.6:19-21)
The last becoming the first is realizable, even in the present, in relation to the ‘treasures in heaven’, provided we do not misunderstand this as rewards in afterlife. Treasures in heaven point to the worth of human beings in the Kingdom of God that is come upon the earth through Christ Jesus. The dynamism that Jesus emphasizes through this parable is the insignia of the Kingdom of God, realizable also within the kingdoms of man, provided there is the mustard seed of faith in us.
The matter does not end there. What about ‘the last’, which is now become ‘first’? The pattern of the-first-becoming-last still applies to him. The prospect of his becoming the last is real. So, what is he to do? That is where meekness comes in. The meek, said Jesus, inherit the earth. This meekness is the insurance against the heartbreak that the vicissitudes of life induce. Meekness means that the ‘last-become-the-first’ maintains the discipline of living as though he is the last, though he is now the first. Jesus’ washing the feet of his disciples, as well as his explicit teaching that those who wish to be the first must be the servant of all (Mk.10: 44), are pertinent here.
What if the present ‘first’ also behaves as though he is the last? Well, it doesn’t hinder the prospect of the last also to move into the zone of the first. Unlike in the worldly scheme of things, there is plenty of room at the top in the Kingdom of God. Meekness is a builder of many mansions. It is arrogance, which inflates the ego to astronomical proportions, that creates ‘accommodation’ problems at the top. The meek are not even aware of being the first; for meekness issues from a sense of universal kinship rooted in love. Love does not build walls against others. Instead, love rejoices in being with. In the alchemy of this love-nourished expansiveness, the last and the first become one; not materially, but spiritually. Such constitute the body of Christ, capable of incarnating the personality of Jesus.
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. –Philippians 2:9-11
Prof. Dr. Valson Thampu is the former principal of St. Stephens College, Delhi, and an ordained priest. His recent book Beyond religion published by Pippa Rann Books, UK is available now.email email@example.com