This coming Sunday’s gospel, Matthew 20:1-16, seems at first hearing to support unequal and unjust compensation of workers by a rather unscrupulous landowner. He offers just wages for those who arrive early, but surprisingly continues to offer the same amount for any and all who come later in the day, even close to quitting time. However, before the auditors among us get their financial bustles out of kilter, it is important to listen carefully to Jesus. He is telling a parable [code phrase to look for: The kingdom of heaven is like…]. Jesus is NOT giving us a lesson in shady economic practices. Parables do not make sweeping statements and conclusions; they are told with a particular “stinger” in mind in order to hammer home a specific point. So, take a deep breath; Jesus is not encouraging the bilking of unsuspecting workers. His point is that God is far more generous and trustworthy than our miserly minds and hearts can fathom or even expect. After all, the world has made us that suspicious.
It is always necessary to consider the context of the scripture read. Matthew 19 is the context for this Sunday’s reading, and tells of the demanding day Jesus has been having. First, the Pharisees try to trip him up on the thorny topic of divorce. They delight and excel in legalities. They hope to stump this rabbi on the finer points of marriage, adultery, and other titillating topics simply because they can’t stand him. Upon listening to the discussion, Jesus’ disciples decide that not marrying at all is probably the safest choice, but Jesus counters them, suggesting that not all have been granted the gift of celibacy, so don’t push it. Then, some folks crowd in with their children wanting his blessing. Children in that culture were signs of absolute poverty and neediness. They owned nothing; they needed daily assistance, care, and compassion to survive. Jesus declares that children are exactly the sign of what it means to be a part of the Kingdom of Heaven. Right on the children’s heels, a wealthy young man asks Jesus a pointed question: “What must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus’ answer is for him to sell all of his possessions, give that to the needy, and discover that he now has heavenly treasure and is ready to follow Jesus. The young man finds Jesus’ answer too demanding, and so leaves with a heavy heart. The disciples themselves are flummoxed, but Jesus replies that eternal life is NOT secured by human achievement and possessions but by trusting in God who accomplishes the apparently impossible. Peter, now exasperated, finally asks Jesus, Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have? Peter, the rich young man, and likely we are left standing, bug-eyed, and shaking our heads. Firm believers in the adage attributed to financier Malcolm Forbes, we assume “…the one who dies with the most toys wins!” To quote Sportin’ Life from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, “It ain’t necessarily so…,” and Jesus would likely agree.
It is at this point that Jesus tells his parable about the odd payment of wages for workers who show up throughout the day, a retelling of the old tale of money being greener on the far side of your bank account. We’ll take what we can get until someone else gets a better deal; then we stew and fret. When discussing the shenanigans of the Pharisees Jesus calls them out by name, blatantly, in fact. When Jesus turns to parables, anyone including you and me, may well be his target. So, no fair trying to make the Pharisees convenient scapegoats. Cartoonist Walt Kelly’s parodied Commander Oliver Perry’s message to President Harrison after the defeat of the British on Lake Erie during the War of 1812. Kelly’s Pogo for the Earth Day 1971 poster captured human capacity for destruction, pollution, and shirking responsibility: “We have met the enemy and he is us!” Jesus’ parables remind us of this unsavory characteristic about ourselves time and time again.
The words of an old Spiritual note that “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus…” The song could have as easily stated, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve caused. Nobody knows but Jesus…” The enslaved folks who had no more status or possessions in life than the children who came to Jesus, who were often treated worse than farm animals, could sing that Spiritual with great credibility, but for us who excel at piling up treasures on earth, the original lyrics can stretch the truth quite a bit.
George and Ira Gershwin with Charlestonian Dubose Heyward created the decidedly American opera, Porgy and Bess which premiered in September 1935. Set in Charleston’s “Catfish Row” (based on “Cabbage Row,” 89-91 Church Street), it was an area of the city where poor black tenement housing was prevalent but is now thoroughly gentrified. Many have only vague notions about the opera. It certainly is the source of some good songs: “Summertime,” “I’ve Got Plenty of Nothing,” and “Bess, You Is My Woman” to name a few. However, Dr. Mark Clague, Associate Dean and Professor of Music at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, is a veritable encyclopedia about the plot and the opera’s social significance in American culture. He writes, “…the opera Porgy and Bess (1935) is about resilience, about a community’s hope for a better future despite the cruel evidence of experience. Catfish Row amplifies the struggle of American society with racial injustice, poverty, sexism, addiction, sexual violence, natural disaster, murder, and the divisions of society into north and south, sacred and secular, black and white. I wish that performing this very human drama—written and premiered [almost 100 years ago] —was simply an act of remembrance. I wish that it served only as a reminder of a past forgotten at our peril, of inequities and diseases vanquished, of civil rights heroes who, responding to injustice across the nation, bravely confronted and solved these very American problems. If this were true, Porgy and Bess would celebrate a transcendent human spirit while serving as a warning about an era that should never return. Unfortunately, Porgy and Bess is not simply a memory, but a living document. The injustices it confronts remain…” [https://smtd.umich.edu/ confronting-porgy-and-bess/].
Porgy’s theme song, heard now and then throughout the opera, sings of Porgy’s delight that he is not burdened by treasures on earth [Matthew 6:19-21]. “Oh, I got plenty o’ nuttin’ / An’ nuttin’s plenty fo’ me / I got no car, got no mule, I got no misery / De folks wid plenty o’ plenty / Got a lock an dey door / ‘Fraid somebody’s a-goin’ to rob ’em / While dey’s out a-makin’ more / What for?” Bereft of “misery,” Porgy has discovered the joys of life around him, the stars of heaven and heaven itself, his girl, and a song in his heart. Even though his girl Bess has been lured to the Big City by Sportin’ Life, Porky holds to a profound hope that love and goodness will conquer.
Although Porgy and Bess is not a re-telling of Sunday’s parable, it is a nudge in the right direction. Porgy and Bess paints the big picture of life’s challenges and deceits. Parables help clear out the individual vexations which blind and deafen us to God’s blessed work and the cries of human suffering and need. Trying to keep track of our “stuff” works us into such a frenzy that it is difficult to hear Jesus at his most pointed. Jaded by petty jealousies or fearing that someone is out to get us or slight us, we miss the goodness of God’s kingdom unfolding right under our noses. Because we’re preoccupied with our grudges du jour, Jesus keeps chipping away at the hard shells of our disgruntled lives, parable by parable, because those stories of his shed the necessary light on the things bothering us, blinding us, angering us, misleading us, and sickening us. That’s good news worth singing about, perhaps even Porgy’s closing song: “Oh, Lawd, I’m on my way, I’m on my way to a Heavenly Land… Oh, Lawd. It’s a long, long way, but You’ll be there to take my hand.”