I did something this past week that I am not proud of: I ate lunch in the hospital cafeteria. Actually I’m quite proud of that because the strange truth is that really like hospital cafeterias. It’s what happened while I was there that I am not proud of. I gravitated toward the hot bar where they were serving fried chicken and a whole bunch of sides. The chicken was in the first section; the sides in the second. There was a stack of plates in both sections seeming to indicate two separate lines and a man standing waiting for a plate of chicken.
Assuming these were two separate lines, I bypassed him and went straight for the sides since that’s all I wanted. After the server had given me my plate, however, she then turned to the man who had been waiting by the chicken and dished up his plate.
Suddenly, I realized: I had cut in line.
I certainly didn’t mean to, but that’s what I had one. I apologized to the man, but he seemed not to hear me. I apologized again and then it became apparent that he had noticed, but had chosen not to respond. He did not look me in the eye, but gave me a gruff, “That’s fine,” after which I walked away. But it was clear that it was not fine.
This man in front of whom I cut in line in the hospital cafeteria was African-American. While I certainly had no intention of going in front of him, I wondered what was going his mind: “Here’s another white person who doesn’t see me” or, “Here’s just one more experience of disrespect,” or “When will this world ever change?” When I stepped on the elevator a few moments later with another African-American man, I felt compelled to let him off first.
There’s a lot of talk these days–and rightfully so–about privilege, specifically white privilege, though it extends far beyond race. We’ve all heard, for example, the statistic that woman on average earn only $.80 to every $1 men earn. Gender, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, education–all of these are factors that contribute to privilege–the kind of privilege that could make you cut in front of someone in line, or that could result in being paid the same for doing less work, which is essentially being paid better. This is what happens in the story Jesus tells today about the laborers in the vineyard. Some of the laborers work all day in the hot sun, while others of them work a lot less, but are paid the same (which is essentially being paid better).
I admit that reading this parable from the perspective of privilege might be a little different from what you’re used to. Interpretation of this parable has trained us to read it from the perspective of those who have been working all day and who resent those who are hired last but paid equally. I think it reflects what we grew up learning the hard way: that life’s not fair; deal with it. But the parable flipped on me this week in the hospital cafeteria. I am not the one who has been working all day in the hot sun or waiting in line for food. I am often the one who can show up at the last minute, cut in line, and get the same results. The reality is that there are a lot of people out there who have to work much harder than I do for the same benefits.
When you’re in a place of privilege, it’s easy to think that the privileges you have in life are a sign that God has blessed you. You might even reach that conclusion by reading this parable. There’s nothing wrong with being paid more for less work, right? It’s right there in the story Jesus tells and it’s a sign of God’s mercy–God’s mercy toward you. I don’t need to tell you that this is dangerous thinking and that we run into all sorts of trouble if we go down this path.
Once, when visiting a large American megachurch that shall remain unnamed, I heard the pastor tell everyone there–thousands of people–that God wanted each one of us to have a new car. What does that say, though, to people who can’t afford a new car, or to those who work in the brutal sun every day for their minimum wage paycheck or who patiently wait in the hospital cafeteria line while others cut in line? If God’s saying anything in this parable today, it’s that what we do or how we experience or do not experience privilege doesn’t have much to do with what God thinks of us, how God treats us, or the distribution of God’s mercy. Instead, Jesus says, “the last will be first and the first will be last.”
It sounds like bad news to those of us who would like to maintain our positions of privilege, doesn’t it? Because, ultimately, it means that we’ll lose some of that privilege? In fact, when we talk about justice, which is essentially what we’re talking about when we talk about the distribution of God’s mercy, I often hear people say things that make them sound like they’re afraid. They might not understand it that way, but I think it’s the underlying emotion. They’re scared because they think they might either: 1) have to the work harder and longer for the same benefits, believing that there is a limited supply of wealth, or 2) they will work the same and receive less (again, a limited supply of wealth).
But if the last are first and the first are last, then we’re constantly flipping back and forth from being first to last and last to first and God’s mercy is like a pendulum that is always swinging between the two. If I’m first in the cafeteria then I’ll be last off the elevator, though being last off the elevator sounds extremely trivial compared to the “lastness” of what others have experienced in this life.
You see? There is not a limited supply of mercy. Instead it exists in abundance, meeting people in their deepest needs. And, even if the pendulum were to swing far to the other side of where we find ourselves now and we were to find ourselves in deep need of mercy, we don’t worry about it, because God promises it will be there. What this does, this flip-flopping from last to first and first to last, this constant swinging of the pendulum of mercy, is free us from depending on our own privilege in order that we might, ultimately, depend on God’s grace. And it’s so much more dependable.
This week marked the anniversary of the police shooting of Keith Lamott Scott here in Charlotte. No matter what you think happened or whether you think the outcome was fair or just or not, that event highlighted the racial tensions that still exist in our culture as whole and in our own community. African-Americans in our community have a history of generations of being denied rights that they still find themselves up against.
Though I can’t speak for them, my guess is that they still feel like they’ve been working for days on end in the hot sun for very little pay, while others of us can swoop in, work very little, and receive the same pay. That’s one reason it’s important to keep in our vocabulary the fact that their lives–black lives–matter. This is not political; it’s theological. And it’s gospel; it’s good news. It doesn’t mean that all lives don’t matter; of course they do. It’s simply acknowledging that God’s pendulum of mercy swings back and forth, back and forth, from last to first and first to last, ultimately blessing those who need it the most.
We don’t have to be scared of that movement, or of losing privilege in whatever ways we experience it, for God’s mercy really does exist in abundance. It is trustworthy and dependable, and more so than anything else in this world.