Part 1: A Story:
This is a story about power and grace, and male ignorance and pride told by Bob Fulghum.
“Jumper cables? You got jumper cables, buddy?” “Yeah, sure. I got jumper cables.”
English teacher and his nice sweet wife, from Nampa, Idaho (as it turned out). In their funny little foreign car. Drove around town with their lights on in the morning fog and left the lights on, and so forth and so on. Dead meat now. Need jumper cables. Need battery. Need Good Samaritan. Need a friendly hand from someone who looks like he knows what to do with jumper cables. And the Good Fairy of Fate placed them in my hands.
Men are supposed to know about jumper cables. It’s supposed to be in the genetic code, right? But some of us men are mental mutants, and if it’s under the hood of a car, well its voodoo, Jack, and that’s the end of it.
Besides, this guy only asked me if I had jumper cables. He didn’t ask me if I knew how to use them. I thought by the way he asked that he knew what he was doing. After all, he had an Idaho license plate and was wearing a baseball cap and cowboy boots. All those kind of people know about jumper cables when they’re born, don’t they? Guess he thought a white-bearded old man wearing hiking boots and driving a twenty-year-old VW van was bound to use jumper cables a lot. So I get out my jumper cables, and we swagger around being all macho and cool and talking automobile talk. We look under the hood of his rig, and there’s no battery.
“Hell,” I said, “there’s your problem right there. Somebody stole your battery.”
“Dang”, he said.
“The battery is under the backseat,” said his nice sweet wife.
So we took all the luggage out of the backseat and hauled the seat out into the parking lot and, sure enough, there it was. A battery. Right there. Just asking for jumper cables to be laid on it. I began to get worried when the guy smirked at his wife and said under his breath that he took auto mechanics and sex education at the same time in high school and they had been confused in this mind ever since, when it came to where things were and what you did to get anything going. We laughed. His wife didn’t laugh at all. She just pulled out a manual and started thumbing through it.
Anyway, the sum of our knowledge was that positive poles and negative poles were involved, and either one or both cars needed to be running, and six-volt and twelve-volt and other-volt batteries did or did not work out. I thought he knew what he was doing, and kind of went along with it. Guess he did the same. And we hooked it all up real tight and turned the ignition key in both cars at the same time. And there was this electrical arc between the cars that not only fried his ignition system, it welded the jumper cables to my battery and knocked the baseball cap off his head. The sound was like that of the world’s largest fly hitting one of those electric killer screens. ZISH. Accompanied by an awesome blue flash and some smoke. Power is an amazing thing.
We just sat down in the backseat of his car, which was still sitting out there in the parking lot. Awed by what we had accomplished. And his wife went off with the manual to find some semi-intelligent help. We talked as coolly and wisely as we could in the face of circumstances. He said, “Ignorance and power and pride are a deadly mixture, you know.”
“Sure are,” I said. “Like matches in the hands of three-year-old. Or automobiles in the hands of a 16-year-old. Or a nuclear arsenal in the hands of a narcissist. Or even jumper cables and batteries in the hands of fools. (We were trying to get something cosmic and serious out of our invocation of power, you see. Humbled as we were.)
Some time later I got a present in the mail from Nampa, Idaho. From the guy’s nice sweet wife. As a gesture of grace – forgiveness combined with instruction and admonition to go and sin no more. What she sent was a set of electronic true-start, foolproof, tangle-free jumper cables. Complete with instructions that tell you everything and more than you ever wanted to know about jumper cables, in English and Spanish. The set is designed so that when you get everything all hooked up, a little solid-state switch control box tells you if you’ve done it right, before any juice flows. Gives you time to think if you really want to go ahead with jumping the juice. We could all use a device like that between us and power, I guess. It’s nice to know that progress in such things is possible – in the face of ignorance and pride. Progress is possible.’
“Jumper cables? You got jumper cables, buddy?” “Yeah, sure. I got jumper cables.”
Power, its potency, and how to exercise it (or not). Often the folly of men (and its good to see ourselves in stories and to laugh at and with us). And then, if we survive, a little grace and a little knowledge and a little wisdom might come our way. Often women are the channels of grace. Not that I want to be too gender-specific about who the foolish and wise might turn out to be.
Part 2: Atrocious Mathematics, Surprising Grace
The gospel stories exhibit some atrocious mathematics.
Consider Luke 15:1-7 where a shepherd who left his flock of ninety-nine and ventured out to search for one lost sheep. It was a noble deed, to be sure. Brendan Boughen and I even created a cartoon about it – though the noble one in the cartoon was the lost sheep who decided he didn’t want to become a “works burger” like the ninety-nine!
But, returning to Luke’s account, think for a moment about the underlying arithmetic. The text says the shepherd left the ninety-nine “in the wilderness”, which presumably means vulnerable to rustlers, predators, or a feral desire to bolt free. How would the shepherd feel if he returned with the one lost lamb slung across his shoulder to find half his flock now missing? Surely the crazy maths of leaving the many to find the one needs to be questioned.
And what about the rights of the 99 to be protected? And what about the economic cost that the owner of the flock might have to bear? (Remember shepherds in 1st century Palestine were not owners of stock, indeed not owners of much at all.)
Wealth/stock, then and now, was power. Why risk the loss of power?
Then consider the scene recounted in John 12:1-8, where a woman called Mary [Martha’s and Lazarus’ sister] took 500 grams of exotic perfume and poured it on Jesus’ feet. And Jesus commended her for it.
Now, 500 grams of perfume is a lot of perfume. It was worth a year’s wages! Would not 10 grams of perfume have accomplished the same purpose? Plenty of smell? Plenty to massage with? No, it was 490 grams of excessive waste. Even Judas could see the absurdity: liquid money now running in fragrant rivulets across the dirt floor could have been sold to help the poor, or keep the itinerant disciples and Jesus in food for a little bit longer.
Wealth/perfume, then and now, was power. Why encourage the pouring of power down the drain?
Then consider Mark 12:41-44. After watching a widow drop two puny coins (leptons) – the smallest coins in circulation - in the Temple collection plate, Jesus belittled more substantial contributions. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus remarked, “this poor widow has put more into the collection than all the others.”
‘Huh? No she hasn’t. Just count the coins.’
Jesus went on: “They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything she had.”
Well, it’s nice to encourage her Mr Jesus, but c’mon is a few cents going to repair the Temple roof? And how do you really know what’s in her heart, and what’s in the heart of a rich person putting in a large amount? Aren’t you being a little judgmental?
Regardless of motivation though, when it comes to the Temple accounts no amount of poor widows and their mites is going to get that roof replaced. Jesus’ approach is not a good one if the point of giving is to pay the bills.
Wealth/money, then and now, was power. Why discourage the powerful if you want your movement to have punch?
The fourth example of crazy mathematics is from today’s reading, Matthew 20:1-15. The story goes that a wealthy landowner hired people to work his vineyards. Some were hired at sunrise, some at morning teatime, some at lunchtime, some at afternoon teatime, and some an hour before finishing time. Everybody seemed content until the wages were given out. The stalwarts who had worked twelve hours under a blazing sun learned that the sweat-less upstarts who had put in barely an hour would receive exactly the same pay. The landowner’s action contradicted everything known about employee motivation, fair compensation, and the economics of the Empire. It was not just!
Wealth/wages, then and now, was power. Why share it evenly when it had not been earnt?
The Vineyard Labourers is a frequently misunderstood parable. It usually has been interpreted as the landowner is God, and God dispenses grace not based on our labour but on divine generosity.
Progressive scholars[i] though point out firstly that it is a mistake to equate the wealthy male landowner with G/god, just as it is always a mistake to equate divinity with unequal power. It is the outcome, reflecting a very different economy than that which was normative in Rome’s empire, that the story says points to the economy of G/god’s empire. Indeed G/god’s is a subversive economy undermining the patron-client hierarchical order where wealth, power, gender, and class are all important.
Secondly, they point out the social situation of the labourers. They were a readily available pool of cheap labour who had been uprooted from their peasant farms by wealthy landowners after foreclosing on debt, or forced from family plots because they could not support the household. They sought work day by day, and at minimal rates. Their situation was more precarious than slaves since an employer had no long-term investment in them. So when v.6 uses the word ‘idle’ the implication is not laziness. They were available for work but there was none.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the payment was recognition of equal need, recognition of the poverty the labourers found themselves in. So it was an egalitarian gesture, reflecting G/god’s economy which offends the normative economy of competition and recompense. Grace then, rather than something the wealthy landowner dispensed, was the currency of G/god’s economy: gift, gratitude, worth of everyone, need of the least, solidarity between all.
All these Bible stories – the 99 sheep, the perfume for the feet, the widow’s mite, & the wages slight – seem to make little economic sense, in the world of power and right. Yet these are stories not about cents, but about grace. Grace is not about finishing last or first; it is not about counting or being counted. We receive grace as a divine gift, not as something we toil to earn. It is unconditionally given. A counter economy.
And grace upsets the power of ‘the way the world works’. Generosity upsets those who don’t think the beneficiaries deserve what they are unconditionally given. Grace upsets those who benefit from the economy that shifts more to those who have more, and less to those who have less. Grace upsets our common sense, it is destabilizing, de-constructive, subversive of good order. Grace is the currency of god, sense for our souls, and the language of lasting resplendent relationships.
[i] Warren Carter, Brandon Scott.