I’ve been preoccupied with the Asian American racial issues lately. Soon enough, I’ll go back to blogging about chapters in my new book, Right Texts, Wrong Meanings. Meanwhile, my newest book Right Kingdom, Wrong Stories actually has something to say about some of the social issues. This brings us to the parable by Matthew in Matthew 20.1-16.
First of all, the parable does not directly relate to the issue of being the “other.” However, the story has an emphasis that implicates how we look at all those who are migrant workers or any “other” in our society. It can also speak to the current Occupy Central debate in Hong Kong. Since my work straddles both Hong Kong and North America, this blog is a bicultural exegesis on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 20.1-16.
Let me go through the simple meaning of this story before I point out Jesus’ emphasis. If you’re interested, go find the book and read it. The details are important, but let me point out some impossible meanings.
First, it is impossible to infer that the parable is an allegory about God’s sovereignty, at least not directly. We must note that Jesus said that the entire story is like the kingdom. He didn’t just say, “The kingdom of heaven is like the landowner” in Matthew 20.1.
Second, it is not an ideal on how to employ someone, whether they have alien status or otherwise.
Now that we’ve gotten this out of the way, let’s see how this is related to migrant workers and the “other” in the society.
The entire story is puzzling unless we look at the first word in Matthew 20.1. Jesus used “for” as part of the answer he had for Peter above in Matthew 19.27-30. Unfortunately, we divided the passage in the wrong place. Jesus wasn’t finished yet and we’ve already cut him off and changed his topic.
Clearly the story is related to Jesus’ answer to Peter. If we look at Matthew 19.30 and 20.16, we will note their similarities. The entire narrative in Matthew 20.1-17 is an illustrative conclusion as a moral lesson to Peter and Jesus’ disciples.
In Matthew 19.27, Peter proudly asserted, “Look what I’ve done for the kingdom. I left everything. What’s in it for me?” Jesus first told Peter and the disciples that God would indeed recognize the sacrifice, but then Jesus turned to the parable. The parable is about poverty and desperation. One repeated theme in Matthew 20.3-6 is “standing”. I believe Jesus wanted to emphasize “standing” by repeating that theme. Like many migrant workers here in the US, these people were standing around looking for work! Their poverty was the reason why they would accept work for any wage. Only after people got paid, discontent arose. The power was in the owner’s hand. Jesus wanted Peter to identify himself with the powerless to see his own powerlessness in the story.
In the US society, immigration problem is nothing new. Even many “white” groups (I prefer using nationality and not skin color as labels, but I’m just trying to make a point and raise awareness here) from different nations also experienced the problem of being illegal immigrants and being the “other” (e.g. Italians, Irish Germans, Russians). Even people of my own race (though my parents didn’t come over then), the Chinese who helped build the railroads were originally illegal immigrants. We may even venture to say that many of the building activities in the US were originally built on the muscles of illegal migrant workers. However we deal with the political part of the immigration issue, Jesus’ parable points to the importance of identifying with such migrant workers and the poor because any Christian person has to first understand powerlessness before receiving grace. Many Christians think that grace is something we receive when we “accepted Jesus in our hearts” but Peter was already a believer. Grace ought to master every part of our lives, and one practical way to do so is to identify with others who are powerless.
The debate in Hong Kong is heating up on Occupy Central. Many used Jesus’ cleansing of the temple as a model of civil disobedience. This analogy is problematic because it smacks of the logic of “IF Jesus did this, I must do this.” Be sure of one thing. Jesus never said, “Do this cleansing also in remembrance of me.” Neither did he say that the temple cleansing is a kind of model for civil disobedience. In fact, the main thrust of the event has something to do with the temple being his “father’s house.” In other words, the Gospel writers made the temple-cleansing story into a statement of Christology. I think we should not use this temple cleansing as primarily an ethical model.
My complaint about a lot of contemporary evangelical exegesis is always the same. We tend to pick and choose what we want out of biblical narratives and make those OUR applications. Our ethics are more by imitation rather than implication. Yet, due to the big ugly ditch between the ancient and modern context, ALL of our ethics should be by implication. I suggest that in a roundabout way, the ethical implication of this soteriological parable points the way for those who debate Occupy. It is not merely about whether we can woodenly apply Romans 13. Rather, it is about kingdom value. Do we identify with the powerless people or not? That is really the main issue.
Whatever part of the spectrum you stand on, Jesus first advocate a lifestyle of grace and this demands that we do not take our blessing for granted. Jesus also advocates that Peter and those like him identify with those who were merely standing around. This means that the kingdom value identifies with those who are powerless. It is in our powerlessness that God has offered the salvation. It is also our duty to identify the powerless and work for their welfare. Quite often, that takes humility which Peter temporarily lacked.
The reading of Matthew 20 in light of the “other” is not really a new exegesis or suggestion, but I want to remind my readers that such an exegesis is actually possible just looking at the “plain meaning of the text.”