A few years ago, after much soul-searching and number crunching, and with significant help from my parents, I decided to buy a new car. Buying the car was a no-brainer. My old vehicle was on its last legs and had developed a tendency to spring leaks in the petrol tank from time to time. It needed to go. The struggle was in deciding what car to buy to replace it. My first instinct was to get a cheapy that would just about get me around, but do little else. However, my work was taking me out on the road more frequently, and with two teenage sons, who both wanted to be able to bring friends along on outings and vacations, it seemed like it might be wise to consider a better vehicle that would cost more, but last longer. My thinking was that I would make an investment that would keep me driving the same vehicle safely for ten years or more. In the end, this is what I chose to do, and the investment paid off – now eight years later, I am still driving this car. It has done a lot of mileage, been inexpensive to run, and has often been used to move furniture, musical equipment and people over long distances. It was a stretch for us financially, and may even have raised a few eyebrows (how can a minister drive a car like that!?), but it was the right decision for us as a family.
The strange thing, though, when I first showed my new car to my friends, was their reaction. Almost unanimously the response was, “Enjoy it. You deserve it.” I remember, at the time, enjoying their support and willingness to celebrate with me, but I also felt uncomfortable at the sentiment. I couldn’t understand quite what it meant that I might “deserve” a new car. I couldn’t specify anything I had done to earn” it, and I knew that it had taken a lot of help to make it possible. I also wondered why it could be that I should “deserve” a new car, but so many other hard working people in our country clearly didn’t, since they couldn’t get one. I also wondered about how my “deserving” the car might relate to my need for a safe and trustworthy vehicle. Fundamentally I knew then, as I know now, that I did not “deserve” the car any more or less than anyone else. The idea of deservedness was, in the end, completely irrelevant to the situation.
The Flawed Philosophy of Merit
The idea of deservedness is actually irrelevant to much that goes on our world, yet it is a persistent and pervasive one. I have heard Christians state with confidence that the poor don’t deserve wealth because of their “laziness” and “lack of motivation”. I have heard people of faith proclaim that certain nations deserve to be wealthy and powerful because of their creativity, their work ethic or their “go-getter” attitude. In South Africa there is much debate around affirmative action and black economic empowerment because, in the opinion of some, people are given positions and opportunity that they do not deserve. Even the quest for transformation in our national sports teams is plagued by arguments over whether player selection should be “on merit” or on “previous disadvantage” (in the apartheid era). The idea of merit or deservedness runs through our whole society.
Yet, merit is a deceptive value that raises more questions than it answers and that creates challenges that we often prefer not to face. At its heart, our meritocratic practices are inconsistent and we all too frequently ignore or dismiss the realities that contradict our value of worthiness. Our world is filled with people who work really hard and long, yet earn very little reward – financial or otherwise – in return. Teachers, police officers, nurses and social workers come to mind here. On the other hand, in some circles the height of achievement is to amass great reward – wealth, status and power – with very little effort or work. The teachings of some internet marketers, so-called “dotcom” billionaires and motivational writers comes to mind here.
So, let’s get honest, shall we? We don’t really live in a meritocracy at all. The wealthy do not always “deserve” their wealth and the poor do not always “deserve” their poverty. The healthy have not always earned their well-being and the sick are not always responsible for their own suffering. Sometimes we may get what we “deserve”, but in many cases we don’t get what we deserve and/or we get what we don’t deserve – for better or worse. Merit is a far more complex idea than we may like to admit, and a system that is built on the illusion of meritocracy is inevitably flawed.
An Undeserving Parable
Which is where Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard is so compelling. It comes to us, both in Matthew’s Gospel and in the flow of the Lectionary for this season, as part of a significant movement – marking a journey into deeper conflict between Jesus and his message of God’s reign and the religious elite who believed that the world was based on a divine meritocracy. For the religious leaders, “goodness” and obedience to the law ensured “blessing” – wealth, power, status, health and peace. They believed that they deserved their positions and they were ready to defend them against all comers. Jesus, on the other hand, told stories that undermined this view of the world. Health, wealth and power are not signs of God’s blessings, his stories said. Rather, God stands with the poor, the outcast, the sick and the marginalised. God does not give people what they deserve, because if God did, even the religious leaders would be unable to stand. Rather God deals with us from a foundation of grace, of that which cannot be earned or deserved, of saving us from what we do deserve, and giving us a welcome, an abundance and a blessedness that we could never earn.
This particular parable is offensive to those who build their lives on a meritocratic system. The circumstance Jesus describes is a common one here in Africa – workers standing on busy street corners hoping that some wealthy person will come past and give them a job for the day. There seems to be some uncertainty about whether this was a real scenario in Jesus time and place – William Barclay is certain that it was, while N.T. Wright has doubts. Mt sense is that it probably did happen, simply because I’ve seen it happen in most places where unemployment is a societal problem. I have walked or driven past men and women in exactly this situation in my own home town, and I have wept for them, knowing that if they come away empty handed, their families could well go hungry that night. When I have been able to, I have even tried to find work for some – my heart breaking for those I had to turn away as the “lucky” one climbed into my car. This was what Jesus was describing, and it is a very real experience of life for far too many people. In Jesus’ day, these workers were the most insignificant and insecure people in society. Slaves and servants, while they had their struggles, were, to some extent always part of the family unit. They were assured of some sort of shelter, some sort of clothing and at least a basic meal every day. For these hopeful workers, there was no such support network. It was subsistence at its most raw. If they found work, they and their family ate that day. If they did not, they went hungry.
No one “deserves” such a life. This is why the wealthy vineyard owner in Jesus’ parable makes the shocking decision to bring in workers throughout the day – including even those who, for whatever reason, had found nothing by the eleventh hour – and then to pay them all the same wage. This is not a meritocratic system. It is a grace-ocratic one.
But, what does this say about the way society is structured? Is Jesus calling for some form of communism or socialism. I must confess that I doubt this, simply because I don’t see Jesus really buying into any “isms” at all. I’m not even sure that Jesus is calling for a change to the system of reward and incentive that drives our world. My hunch is that Jesus is seeking to reveal the system for what it is – the lowest requirement in human motivation and provision for our need.
A meritocracy does not call out the glory of human creativity, productivity or compassion. It drives us into a competitive mode in which we think there are winners and losers, but in which we all, actually, lose in the end. The system can be played and manipulated if you have the connections, the power or the money, and it frequently is. To succeed in the system often requires that we shut down our hearts, and close our eyes to the humanity of those against whom we think we must compete. This is, perhaps, all that we can expect of a system. Systems tend to operate like machines, and it’s unrealistic to expect a machine to have a heart.
Which is why Jesus invites us into a new way of being – a way that goes beyond the requirements of the system, beyond meritocracy, and embraces the requirements of our true humanity and of God’s reign. In Jesus’ framework, we do not compete. We are not winners and losers. Unless we can find a way for all of us to win, we all lose. And we cannot win if we base our dealings with one another on a system of merit. Rather, we need to go beyond merit to the way of generous justice. Our responses to one another can be about more that what we are capable of “earning”. They can be about our common humanity, about compassion and rejecting the inherent wrongness of families going hungry simply because no opportunity to make a living came along that day. our dealings with one another can be about dignity instead of deservedness, about life instead of working the system.
Let’s Get Real
In practical terms, there are a number of ways this parable can challenge us this week. The easy applications are the more “spiritual” ones that most commentators explore. For the original Jewish believers reading Matthew’s Gospel, there was the warning not to see their “Jewishness” as an advantage – a greater worthiness – over their Gentile sisters and brothers. For church members, there is the warning not to see longevity of membership as some of merit that “earns” us privilege over our more recently arriving companions. This parable is a call for us to reject all forms of exceptionalism, in favour of God’s all-inclusive love and grace. It’s a call to celebrate our common humanity, and join hands in running this human race together, not as a competition, but as a shared adventure.
In more “physical” or “social” terms, this parable speaks some tough words, too. No longer can we make meritocracy or “deservedness” the basis for our interactions with one another. We are challenged to relinquish the checklists of worthiness that influence how we interact with others, how we give to those in need and how we use and share our resources. Rather, we are called to shift our actions and interactions to those that bring about justice, that preserve the dignity of others and that foster life and wholeness in our fellow human beings.
And finally, it’s difficult to read this parable and not hear the call to relinquish our own sense of victimhood and competitiveness. The workers who had started early and got paid the agreed amount, were upset because the vineyard owner did not change their agreement to give them more than they “deserved”. They got their hopes up when they saw what happened with the latecomers, but in doing so, they made all sorts of competitive assumptions that they shouldn’t have. In the end, it was their own competitiveness and lack of gratitude that got them upset, not the owner’s generosity. What a difference it would make in our world if we could learn to celebrate the good fortune of others, to appreciate what we have, and to stop casting ourselves as victims who have been “cheated” by “undeserving” others. If we can make this shift in our hearts and minds, we may just discover that the generosity of God, and of those who follow Christ’s teaching, spurs us on the greater creativity and “achievement” as we seek to become more generous ourselves. Ultimately, we may just learn to see opportunities where before we might have missed them, and we may discover that in sharing those opportunities we “win” more than we would have alone.
If there is anything we have learned in the last few decades, it’s that freedom is not found in a meritocratic system. Nor is ti found, really, in seeking to destroy that system or replace it with a different system. Ultimately we will probably need to let the system do what it does well – which may be generating incentives and offering hope for some – and then challenge what it does badly – honouring humanity and respecting dignity. Then, we will need to move beyond the system into a whole new way of being. We can’t escape the system entirely, but we can live differently within it. We do not have to let the system be our law, we do not have to abide by the low requirements that the system gives us. We can rise above it, we can go beyond it, and we can choose to live a life of generous justice.
If we insist on claiming and clinging to our position as “first” in whatever way we think we can, if we insist on making ourselves winners and others losers, if we insist that others must always be last, we will end up discovering that we have lost more than we could have imagined. We, who thought we were first, will discover that we are, in fact, the last to know true, abundant life. However, if we have the courage and audacity to reject the win/lose game, and work so that we all can win together, if we can release our need to “deserve”, to “earn” our way, we may just discover that, while we may be told that we are losing, we have in fact won our humanity and the life that Jesus promised. And that, ultimately, may be all that’s really “worth it”.