Pride, Prejudice, and Politics

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.


The first reading is from the Christian scriptures, the book of Matthew. In the opinion of scholars in the Jesus Seminar, this passage represents an accurate oral tradition of words originally spoken by Jesus of Nazareth.

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, [Greek: a denarius] he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. [Greek: a denarius] Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. [Greek: a denarius] And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? [Greek: a denarius] Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ [Greek: Is your eye evil because I am good?] …”

[NRSV, Matthew 20.1-15]

The second reading comes from the book The Parables of Jesus by Richard Q. Ford. Ford is a psychotherapist who also holds a Master of Divinity degree, and he has contributed scholarly articles to publications by the Jesus Seminar. This second reading is a commentary on the first.

“Earlier in the day the landowner volunteers to some of the day laborers an ambiguous message: he intends to pay them ‘whatever is right.’ Does he mean, in the Hellenistic sense, ‘what is right according to custom’ or does he mean, in the Hebraic sense, ‘what is just in the eyes of God’?

“By the end of the day, however, the landowner has moved away from his earlier ambiguity. By evening, when the work is done, he claims to be limiting himself merely to what is lawful. He says, ‘Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?’ The Greek ouk exestin moi means, more literally, ‘Is it not lawful for me…?’ or ‘It is not permitted to me…?’ He is no longer appealing, albeit ambiguously, to what might be understood as God’s just ways; he has now limited himself to customary legal obligations. Under cover of generously enhancing the expected daily wage, the landowner may have shifted the terms of his publicly declared honor.

“Yet the owner cannot seem to free himself from his ambivalent desire to fit into the Hebraic norm. Using a double negative, he returns a second time to his ambiguous claim to be just. He describes his actions to a complaining day laborer with these words: ‘I am doing you no wrong.’ The Greek is ouk adiko so. The verb here, adikeo, is from the same stem as the earlier dikaios. The landowner’s phrase literally means, ‘I am not doing to you what is not right,’ or, in the Hebrew, biblical sense, ‘I am doing you no injustice.’ Strip away the double negative and there remains the echo of his earlier seeming promise to be just….”

[Richard Q. Ford, The Parables of Jesus: Recovering the Art of Listening, p. 116]


You may well have forgotten to plan your celebration for this year, but October 24 is United Nations Day. Let me tell you a story that has to do with the United Nations.

In the spring of 2002, I was serving as the Director of Religious Education for First Parish in Lexington, Massachusetts. It’s a classic white New England church sitting right on the Battle Green in Lexington center, so naturally a fair number of tourists stop by wanting to see the church. As the educator on staff, I often wound up showing visitors around. One day, three or four people wanted to see the sanctuary, so I cheerfully took them in. They looked around, listened to my little spiel about how the interior had been much modified and almost nothing remained of the original 1847 interior. Then one of them, a youngish woman, cast a baleful glance on the United Nations flag that stood in a prominent place in the sanctuary, directly across from the United States flag.

“You’ve got the wrong flag flying, that’s for sure,” she said calmly and spitefully. I ended the tour without telling them how First Parish Lexington had been the church of the Minutemen, who fought for freedom and justice for all, back on April 19, 1775. I couldn’t get rid of those tourists fast enough.

As you probably notice, we here in New Bedford also have a United Nations flag in our sanctuary. We do so for religious reasons. The principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association specifically state that our congregations have covenanted to affirm and support “the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all,” and we Unitarian Universalists have long supported the United Nations as a solid first step towards world community.

Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, it became acceptable and even fashionable to belittle the goal of world community. I often feel that most of our United States politicians, of both parties, continue to downplay the goal of a world community. Our politicians seem intent on proving that we know what is best for the world. I would put this in moral terms: here in the United States, we are full of pride. We pride ourselves in being the best country in the world; we pride ourselves on being the democracy that every other country should model themselves after; we pride ourselves on our honesty, on our forthrightness, on our high moral character.

And some of that pride is justified. I do think this is the best country in the world — yes, the United States has some real imperfections, but it’s basically a good place to live. I do feel that we in the United States hold high ideals for honesty, forthrightness, and high moral character, even if we don’t live up to our high ideals. I am less certain about our democracy — lobbyists have far too much power in Washington right now, and we face many problems in our democratic institutions — but at least we seem to be facing up to our problems, if not in Washington, then at the state and local levels.

It’s our pride that is a moral problem. Many citizens of the United States think we are God’s gift to the world — and I mean that literally. There are many residents of United States who think God is on our side, that God treats us specially, that God has designated us a “city on a hill,” a beacon of light to serve as an example to the rest of the world. Such an attitude constitutes immoral pride; for if you believe in God, you shouldn’t presume to know what God is thinking; and if you don’t believe in God, you shouldn’t presume to say what God believes. Such pride is immoral or sinful, because it damages human relationships. And the best way I can explain how it does damage is by way of the story we heard in the first reading.

Let me retell the story. It’s harvest time, autumn, time to harvest the grapes to make wine. A certain landowner, the owner of a large vineyard, faces a labor shortage. So he goes down to the village center where he finds a bunch of day laborers hanging out. He points to a bunch of them, and says, So how come you guys are all standing around doing nothing? They tell him that they have no work that day. OK, he says, You want work, you come work in my vineyard, and at the end of the day I’ll pay you whatever is fair. Why don’t the day laborers ask the landowner how much the wages will be? Perhaps they feel that if they bargain the landowner will just pick someone less troublesome.

The day laborers start working, and the landowner realizes that he needs even more workers to meet his deadline. He goes back a couple more times to pick up some more day laborers. He goes and gets the last batch of day laborers just a couple of hours before quitting time. At the end of the day, when it comes time to pay off the day laborers, he pays them all exactly the same. Even the guys who only worked a couple of hours get a full day’s wages. Not surprisingly, the day laborers who worked the longest grumble at this. But the landowner says to them, “Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

Traditionally, conventional Christians have interpreted this parable in the following conventional manner: no matter when you convert to Christianity, you get to go to heaven when you die. You convert when you’re twelve years old, and you live to be ninety-seven, you get to go to heaven. You convert when you’re minutes from death, you get to go to heaven. Doesn’t matter how long you’re a converted Christian down here on earth, you get the same reward — you get the same wages — you get to go to heaven when you’re dead.

In the 18th C., lots of reasonable, rational New Englanders figured out that it’s best to wait until the last possible minute to convert to Christianity. Good old New England common sense. If you think about it, probably the worst thing you could do would be to become a Christian and then do something bad that might keep you from getting into heaven. A much better policy was to hold off on being a church member, hold off on becoming an official Christian, until you only had a few minutes to live. That way, there’s less chance for messing things up. And no matter when you become an official Christian, according to this conventional interpretation, you still get to go to heaven.

I believe the conventional Christian interpretation of that parable is completely wrong. Instead, here’s what I think that parable is trying to tell us.

In Jesus’s day, the big landowners had accumulated their land by buying up land from smaller landowners. When the Romans took over Judea, Jesus’s homeland, they gradually began raising taxes on land. As the taxes went up, a few landowners found they could not pay their taxes, and so they lost their land. As the taxes kept going up, more and more landowners lost their land — and a few rich people bought up all the smaller parcels of land, assembling them into large farms and vineyards.

This practice, however, was completely contrary to traditional Hebrew law and practice. In the book of Leviticus, God tells the Hebrew people that “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land. If anyone of your kin falls into difficulty and sells a piece of property, then the next-of-kin shall come and redeem what the relative has sold.” [Lev. 25.23-25] In other words, according to traditional Hebraic law, no one was supposed to accumulate large parcels of land. In other words, the landowner in the parable was holding the land illegally!

But there’s more on this topic in the book of Leviticus: “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the unpruned vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces.” [Lev. 25.10-12] This passage is of great interest to us today because it clearly demonstrates that the old Hebraic law was found on principles of eco-justice; that is, that ecological justice and economic justice went hand-in-hand. In Leviticus, God tells the people that they must let the land lie fallow, in order to give it a rest. And in practically the same breath (as it were, assuming that God breathes), God tells the Hebrew people that they must forgive each other’s debts.

The old Hebraic law held that no human being should exploit or take advantage of another human being. The principle is even broader than that: no human being is supposed to take advantage of or exploit the earth. Jesus tells us in the parable that non-exploitation is the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is not something that we are supposed to wait for after death; if we follow some basic principles of liberty, justice, and equity, we can establish the kingdom of heaven here on earth.

Knowing this, the parable begins to make much more sense. Those day laborers? Some of them were the original owners of the land on which they now have to work for day laborer’s wages. They know that the landowner holds their land unjustly under the terms of Hebraic law; he’s the legal owner under Roman law, but not under Hebraic law. Thus, no wage that he can pay them will ever be fair. And according to Leviticus he should return their land to them anyway, on the next jubilee year.

But the landowner cannot see this because his judgment is clouded with pride, and with prejudice. He feels prejudice against the day laborers; he does not see them as people who are equal to him, as Hebraic law would have it; instead, he is prejudiced against them simply because they had the misfortune to lose their land to the Roman invaders. He is full of pride; just because he was lucky enough to amass or to inherit a large landholding, he feels in his pride that he can do whatever he wants to everyone else.

Let’s see if we can apply this parable of pride, prejudice, and politics to the United Nations. Please note: I’m not claiming that Jesus had the United Nations in mind when he told this story two thousand years ago. Nor am I claiming that I have the one, true, final interpretation of Jesus’s parable, because I believe that there is no one, true, final interpretation; Jesus meant his parables to allow multiple interpretations to get us to think hard about big issues. So it is this parable helps us to think hard about pride, prejudice, and international politics.

In the second reading this morning, we heard from Richard Ford’s book The Parables of Jesus: Recovering the Art of Listening. Ford asks us to set aside the old, conventional interpretations of the parable, and to extend our sympathies beyond the big landowner to include the day laborers. He asks us to listen to this parable from a new perspective, the perspective of the Hebrew listeners who first heard Jesus tell it; the Hebrew listeners who would have known that the big landowner got his land holdings contrary to Hebrew law.

Richard Ford points out that the big landowner in the parable is unable to listen carefully to the grumbling of the day laborers. When the day laborers grumble about their pay, the landowner says, Hey stop grumbling! so what if I paid some of you more than you deserve! The landowner, says Ford, is torn between a desire to appear entirely fair and just, and his inability to understand the perspective of the day laborers because of his inability to listen carefully and deeply to them.

People like the landowner, who have a lot of power over others, don’t have to listen to the people in their power. Because they have so much power, they don’t even have to try to listen deeply, carefully, and honestly to others. The parable shows that even when such powerful people mean to be just and honest, they can appear unjust and dishonest to others. Thus it is even more important that those with power listen carefully and deeply to those without much power.

At the moment, there is not much careful and honest listening going on in the United States political arena. Our political discourse, both here at home and abroad, is dominated by outrage. Subsequent to the attacks of September 11, 2001, we had a right to be outraged, and it is perhaps understandable that our political discourse was then dominated by outrage. But politics in the United States is still dominated by outrage, although today much of it is mock outrage. Republicans are outraged — just outraged! — that Democrats would dare to question the way the generals in Iraq are conducting the war. Democrats are outraged — just outraged! — that Republicans are using so much force to combat terrorism. I am outraged! says one politician. The other politician responds, No, I am outraged! With all the outrage going back and forth, there is little or no chance for any deep and careful listening to go on.

All this outrage — outrage on the part of the Democrats, and outrage on the part of the Republicans — is nothing more than pride and prejudice. We can hear echoes of the landowner in the parable — I don’t have to listen to you, because I know I’m right! Prejudice grows out of that pride, a prejudice that prevents real listening. Pride and that prejudice prevent us from listening to each other — and prevent us in the United States from listening to the rest of the world.

We Unitarian Universalists value the goal of world community, with peace, liberty, and justice for all persons, everywhere in the world. In order to reach that goal, we need to put aside our outrage, whether it is real outrage or mock outrage, and listen deeply to those around us. Those of us who are Democrats must listen carefully to Republicans, and we might just find that Republicans are correct in saying that some threats to international peace and liberty require the use of military force. Those of us who are Republicans must listen carefully to Democrats, and we might just find that Democrats have recognized some real threats to international justice and liberty in the way force is being used.

And we residents of the United States, we must listen carefully to the rest of the world. We are the ones in power — you and me and everyone who lives in the United States. We have to make a serious effort to understand how less powerful countries see things. True democracy only works when people truly listen to one another. It is up to us to make sure that we have healthy, working international forums where true dialogue can take place.

Perhaps we can all think about this on Wednesday, October 24, which is United Nations Day. As we celebrate United Nations Day, we can ask: How can we — you and I — further the goal of world community, with peace, liberty, and justice for all persons? Can we — you and I — learn to leave our outrage behind, so that we might listen deeply to all persons?