Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Last Will be First and the First Will be Last

For the last several days, I've seen many experts and authorities contribute their sainted opinion, usually predicated in worst-case scenario and doom-laden fear. Even people I usually agree with have pushed the panic button multiple times. Have no fear, America, we are not returning to some Third Reconstruction, or some Second Jim Crow. What you are hearing is mostly self-interest and the fear of relinquishing power for its own sake, even if stepping away from the arena could do much for progress. Power never belonged to them in the first place. It was given to them, originally, as a gift from God. Though they may retain the memory, they may not retain the mandate of a different age today.

I have long felt that any activist group ought to work first from the premise that they are in business to make themselves obsolete. This is not to say that all the dreaded -isms have been set aside forever. We know that racism still exists, but the past week has brought to mind a particularly cringe-inducing realization. Many who fought on the front lines of variety of causes have become obsessed with preserving memory of the triumphs that put them where they are today.

Little do they know that the American public has a notoriously short term memory, even with incendiary race-tinged court trials. Here's my bet. In two years, we'll be stirred up again, for a short period of time, on something that is both brand new and more of the same. In a well-regarded speech five years ago, President Obama likened this phenomenon himself to a series of shallow distractions substituted for honest dialogue. He posed a hypothetical situation of how the United States was likely to deal with racial controversy.

"If we do [take that course], I can tell you that in the next election, we'll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change."

Five years ago, Reverend Jeremiah Wright's incendiary remarks made in front of his Chicago congregation raised such a fuss that they threatened to derail Barack Obama's first run for the Presidency. Now, in 2013, racial indignation has been raised and dissected in a slightly different venue, but have no fear. It will eventually melt away into the background. Candlelight vigils will subside in a few weeks. The realities call for very difficult work, even as we pause for remembrance.

This work requires the willing to work as a servant, not with the possibility of promotion, exposure, and great heft placed behind words written and spoken aloud. At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 19, Jesus utters one of the most eminently quotable lines of the entire New Testament.

"But many who are the greatest now will be least important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then.'

Those who entirely miss this message do so because of their own pride. "Look at all I've done, God! I risked my life! Why can't people recognize my sacrifice! I put all I had into working for_______and we still haven't fixed the problem!"

Consider the most powerful or well-known people in our world. How many of them got where they are by being mild-mannered, self-effacing, and kind? Not many! Even the minor players with their minor parts fight with themselves over what the world calls greatest and most important.

The self-professed experts and soothsayers may have, metaphorically speaking, been working for years longer in the vineyard, but God's grace extends to all who will follow him. Race doesn't matter. Gender doesn't matter. Socio-economic status doesn't matter. Seniority and historical record mean nothing to him whatsoever. Our earthly values are turned upside in the eyes of the Almighty.
For the Kingdom of Heaven is like the landowner who went out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay the normal daily wage and sent them out to work. "At nine o'clock in the morning he was passing through the marketplace and saw some people standing around doing nothing. So he hired them, telling them he would pay them whatever was right at the end of the day.
 So they went to work in the vineyard. At noon and again at three o'clock he did the same thing. "At five o'clock that afternoon he was in town again and saw some more people standing around. He asked them, 'Why haven't you been working today?' "They replied, 'Because no one hired us.' "The landowner told them, 'Then go out and join the others in my vineyard.'
 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ When those hired at five o'clock were paid, each received a full day's wage. When those hired first came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too, were paid a day's wage.
 When they received their pay, they protested to the owner, Those people worked only one hour, and yet you've paid them just as much as you paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat.' "He answered one of them, 'Friend, I haven't been unfair! Didn't you agree to work all day for the usual wage? Take your money and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you.
 Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?' "So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last."

Jesus clarified the membership rules of the Kingdom of Heaven--entrance is by God's grace alone. We cannot work our way into heaven, nor will works alone provide eternal Divine assistance and agreement with our cause of the moment. The world tells us to build a legacy, but God and Jesus disagree strongly with that assessment. The Kingdom of Heaven cares little for your resume and admits entry-level workers all the time. Does it make you defensive when someone half your age is as insightful and intelligent as you are?

In this parable, God is the estate owner and the believers are those who work for him. This parable was for those who felt superior because of heritage or favored position, to those who felt superior because they had spent so much time with Christ, and to new believers as reassurance of God's grace. It's dangerous to say that God favors anyone's side or faction, because there is no way to prove it beyond rationalizations and subjective argument.

Do you resent God's gracious acceptance of the despised, the outcast, and the sinners who have turned to him for forgiveness? Are you ever jealous of what God has given to another person? Instead, focus on God's gracious benefits to you, and be thankful for what you have. Having insight and power comes with great responsibility.

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