Whether or not we are good at maths,
We live in a mathematical world.
Our lives are filled with things that deal with figures – from going to the shop to trying to balance bank accounts. Even in the little things we do every day we’re doing maths. Having dinner plus dessert equals girth, multiplied by guilt squared. This means that having dessert is bad maths. So, by the way is buying a lottery ticket.
Even moral and spiritual principles tend to be mathematical.
Good receives its reward and evil gets its justice. The wheat is separated from the chaff. The sheep are sent one way, the goats another. The great visions of God’s final judgement have mathematical integrity.
We like this.
This is the kind of fairness and justice we want to see everywhere.
So when we come to places in the Bible which confuse the issue, we are genuinely confused.
Like today’s gospel story. If this parable is about God’s kingdom, as Jesus says it is, then is God also bad at maths.
This is one of Jesus most outrageous stories.
Here are some workers, day labourers. Some work 8 hours, some work 3, some work only 1, but at the end of the day the master of the vineyard pays them all the same wage. No wonder there is grumbling. This is not fair. Jesus’ teachings were often impractical, but He didn’t mean for them to be taken seriously as any way to run a business.
A parable is a story making a single point.
One point, not many.
When Jesus told the story about the Good Samaritan, He wasn’t commenting on the social problem of highway robbers, but on what it means to love your neighbour as yourself. In this parable Jesus is describing the kind of thing that actually went on in Palestine. The grape harvest was very important to the whole culture. A bit like tulips to Bowral. In the Holy Land the grapes ripen about now towards the end of September. Then, almost immediately, the rains come. If the grapes are not harvested before the rainy season, the harvest can be lost. So it’s a race against time. In this situation, any worker is welcomed, even for an hour. The usual pay for a day’s work was a denarius. It was just a survival wage.
The workers in this story were not lazy or just loitering around the marketplace. The marketplace was the employment office. A worker would come there first thing in the morning and wait to be hired… sometimes they would wait all day. During the grape harvest, the landowner might go down to the marketplace several times a day for additional help. At the end of the day, if things were going well, and he was a thoughtful person, he might decide to give a day’s wage to each of the needy workers.
To us in modern Australia, the reaction of those who had worked all day would be totally understandable.
We tend to have the attitude that we’ve got it made because we deserve it. And we look at others who haven’t got it made and conclude that they don’t deserve it. And when things don’t work that way, as is the case for a lot of Australians today, a kind of meanness sets in.
Meanness, grumbling. It even happens in the Church.
It would be foolish for us to suggest that God is bad at maths.
God is the pure mathematician.
But the point of Jesus’ parable is that God is not a prisoner of mathematical justice, or logical fairness, or conventional morality.
God’s primary characteristic is love, which can’t be contained within or around any of our systems… however perfect or complete or beautiful they seem to be.