Winners, Losers, Zuccotti Park and Jesus (of Nazareth)

Tony Perkins’ recent column is a “Who Would Jesus Support?” look at the Occupy […]

Tony Perkins’ recent column is a “Who Would Jesus Support?” look at the Occupy movement.  (He’s not the first to this fight.) His title says it all: “Jesus was a free-marketer, not an Occupier.” As the piece has made the obligatory rounds on the Interweb lately, it has elicited the predictable outrage from the left and approval from the right. Perkins’ argument—that Jesus affirmed the free market and “rejected collectivism”—is not new or surprising. Just as it is not surprising that many have come to the opposite view (here for example) that Jesus would align with the Occupiers.  Everybody tries to get Jesus to ride shotgun on their ideology.

I don’t want to get into the “Who would Jesus vote for?” debate. Mockingbird is not your Uncle Brad. We don’t bring up politics at Thanksgiving. However, from a theological perspective, there is something we’re happy to take issue with. Perkins writes:

“Jesus rejected collectivism and the mentality that has occupied America for the last few decades: that everyone gets a trophy  equal outcomes for inequitable performance. There are winners and yes, there are losers. And wins and losses are determined by the diligence and determination of the individual.”

Wait just a cotton-pickin’ minute there, Tony. Actually, Jesus’ message was that everyone gets a trophy. Christianity says we are saved by grace. In other words, we get the Big Reward apart from what we do, apart from our performance, and only because of God’s gracious gift.

I’ll grant that Jesus told lots of parables in which there were winners and losers. But the funny thing is, the winners in his stories often looked a lot like losers. [Footnote for Bible-heads out there: the parable from Luke 19 which Perkins cites in his argument does have “winners and losers” in the traditional sense; but Jesus told the parable primarily to illustrate that he was not going to initiate his kingdom for a long time (see Luke 19:11), not to affirm one economic system over another. Indeed, the parable comes immediately after the story of Zaccheus the tax collector, a story which upends traditional winner/loser categories. Zaccheus was a secular winner but a religious loser. And Jesus gives this loser the big trophy of his divine favor, prior to Zaccheus’ do-gooderism. But I digress.].

Take the parable in the 20th chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew. A vineyard owner hires some guys to work in his vineyard at different points in the day. Some work all day in the hot sun. The ones who are hired last only work one hour. But at the end of the day, scandalously and unjustly, the owner pays them each the same wage. There is no pay for performance here! In fact, the slackers get rewarded! The trophy goes to the ones in last place. The owner declares: “So the last will be first and the first last” (Matt 20:16).  Perkins said that wins and losses are “determined by the diligence… of the individual.” Well, maybe in chess tournaments or stock car races or venture capital or the story of the Three Little Pigs. But not in Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard. And thankfully, not in matters of salvation. The only Winner the world has ever known died on the cross so that losers like me could get the trophy.


12 responses to “Winners, Losers, Zuccotti Park and Jesus (of Nazareth)”

  1. Mattie says:

    Excellent Post!

  2. MargaretE says:

    Great post, Aaron! But it does raise a question I’ve had for a while. How DO you square the parable of the talents (mentioned by Perkins) with the parable of the vineyard? To this layperson, they almost seem to be teaching opposite lessons. Your learned insight would be much appreciated!

  3. Zach says:

    I think a short addition is that Jesus couldn’t have cared less about economic theory, save for rebuking any theory–or, more importantly, practice–that stepped on the poor. The power-hunger and hermeneutical errors of people like Perkins who cite Jesus or the parables in support of discretionary ideological judgments—like the American pastor of considered it “a great relief” to find that Hitler’s Germany was “a country where salacious sex literature cannot be sold” and the theology professor who considers terrorism God’s punishment for American hubris—are nothing less than the devil’s work. To quote the eloquent words of Joseph Laconte: “Nearly everyone wants Jesus on his side of an argument. But the babe in the manger, the man worshipped as Deity by millions, goes his own way—and bids that we follow.” We should fiercely oppose this junk, be it from left or right.

  4. Thanks, Mattie & Zack. Margaret, I would say that the context matters: i.e., why was Jesus telling the parable. The one Perkins cites comes when Jesus is just about the enter Jerusalem, and people want him to take the throne and bash the Romans. So he’s trying to say “It’s going to take a while people. I have to go on a long trip first.” So he tells this parable to illustrate that. At least, that’s what the Bible says. The idea that there is a judgment day, which features largely in the parable, would not have been a new idea, nor was it Jesus’ main point there. He also seems to be implying that his Kingship is much less interested in Roman oppression (the other guy) and much more interested in you: How will you respond to God’s call in your life?
    Context again can help with the parable of the vineyard laborers. In the previous chapter, Jesus had conversations with people who wanted to put limits on God’s grace–the Pharisees, those who rebuked the children coming to Jesus, and the “rich young ruler” who wanted to know how to earn salvation. So Jesus tells a parable to blow their minds with the radical grace of God.
    So in these parables, I always ask, “What was Jesus trying to communicate and to whom?”

  5. Jennwith2ns says:

    Ah! This is all such great stuff! Thanks for this post, and thanks, other commenters. (I have nothing to add. Just basking in other people’s wise ideas. 🙂

  6. Tricia says:

    How about neither side is right since this whole argument is based upon who has earthly possessions currently and who believes they deserve some of them?
    “But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

  7. Matt H. says:

    “The only Winner the world has ever known died on the cross so that losers like me could get the trophy.” Love it, great stuff as usual.

  8. Ethan says:

    Wow. Awesome.

  9. Mich says:

    Typical CNN–it’s the wrong Parable–no one reads the Bible anymore.
    Occupy Wall St and Wall St is the Parable in Matthew 18:
    We the people–Occupy Wall St– forgave the Banksters THEIR debts!! Those lovable losers tanked the global economy and ran up huge toxic assests on their balance sheets, and we said, fear not. You are our neighbor and we will cancel your debt and give you interest free loans. Then, this gospel inspired action was repaid by the Banksters with the LAW. When we the people turned around and said, will you now forgive us OUR debts that you caused through fraud and speculation, they said NO! You worthless people repay us seven fold or we will charge you more fees and foreclose on you.

    Here endeth the lesson.

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