In the Hebrew prophetic tradition (see Luke 4:18-19), there are ever-present, ever-strong, social and economic justice themes:
Isaiah 1:17— Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.
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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
Jeremiah 5:28— And have grown fat and sleek.
Their evil deeds have no limit;
they do not seek justice.
They do not promote the case of the fatherless;
they do not defend the just cause of the poor.
Amos 2:7— They trample on the heads of the poor
as on the dust of the ground
and deny justice to the oppressed.
Amos 5:24— But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
Micah 3:1— Then I said,
“Listen, you leaders of Jacob,
you rulers of Israel.
Should you not embrace justice?
(See also Isaiah 10:2; 56:1; 59:4,8; Ezekiel 34:16; Hosea 12:6; Habakkuk 1:4; Zechariah 7:9; Malachi 3:5)
This is just a quick cursory overview of the prophets. If we read Jesus in this prophetic tradition, we begin to see that this parable has precious little to do with getting to heaven and a lot to do with shaping our present world into a just, compassionate safe home for everyone.
Three themes surface, three values that have the power to inform how we shape the present world we are all sharing.
First, there is a desire for equality. As the grumbling workers from earliest in the day rightly say of the one who hired them, “you have made them equal to us.” For the first to be last and the last to be first doesn’t mean that they simply trade places. Trading places would only flip the hegemony upside down, replacing the present hierarchy with a new one. But in this parable “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” means all are treated equally, with no distinction between those who showed up first and those who showed up last.
This equality is a theme, not only in the Jesus story, but also in the economic teachings of the Torah and the Christian scriptures.
“This is what the LORD has commanded: ‘Everyone is to gather as much as they need. Take an omer for each person you have in your tent.’” The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed.” (Exodus 16:16-18)
“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality.” (2 Corinthians 8:13)
“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had . . . And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them.” (Acts 4:32-34)
The second theme in this parable is generosity, we’ll unpack that and our third theme, next.
(Read Part 3)