Isaiah 2: 1-5
Chapter 2 of Isaiah begins with a word of promise, a word of hope. And so it is almost inevitable that it is one of the readings chosen for the start of the new liturgical year. But those who fail to pay attention to its context, who simply take at face value the words of hope and renewal that are presented in this reading, will only take away half the meaning and value of this passage. For it is in the context, as it were, that we find the full meaning that lies between the words that are written on the page.
The passage begins with a depiction of God’s house established on the highest of the world’s mountains. As with many other ancient cultures, the ancient Hebrews thought of mountains as holy places, realms where heaven and earth intersect and the presence of God could be located (Genesis 22, Exodus 19, Numbers 20: 23-29, Deuteronomy 9, etc). Not for nothing is the Transfiguration set on the top of a high mountain (Mark 9: 2-7, Matthew 17: 1-7). But the fact that God’s house shall be established on the highest of the earth’s mountains is a symbol, not only of the sovereignty of God, but of the fact that God shall be the focal point of all the peoples of the earth. In the restored, renewed creation that God promises, God shall be the point of reference to whom all people turn their faces.
And what shall be the basis of this focused attention? Learning, the getting of wisdom. But more than that: this learning shall itself be a manifestation of the re-orientation of human life toward covenant, toward faithful intentional life with God. Human beings shall orient their ways away from the assumptions and conceptions which previously prevailed, abandoning these in faith of the covenantal life with God that makes us fully human, which facilitates true human flourishing.
This re-orientation is symbolised in the beating of swords into ploughshares, and spears into pruning-hooks. Far from being an idealised vision of some beautific future, this is a radical depiction of how far God will change what it means to be human, how radically all our assumptions about what it means to live a meaningful existence will be overturned. The acts of power which humans – as individuals, communities, institutions, and nation states – imagine to be both legitimate expressions of human life and authentic reflections of God’s will are, in fact, shown to be both worthless and destructive. The only harvest they produce is the harvest of alienation and death. But the harvest produced by the reorientation of human life toward covenantal co-existence is true fruitfulness, true flourishing. Beyond the ephemeral riches to be gained by aggressive acts of power – and their underlying assumptions – comes the true abundance of life lived faithfully with God.
And so the word of hope is that human life is not abandoned to its cycles of destructive assumption and power-playing, which breed only alienation and despair. Rather, God will lift humanity out of its present darkness by unequivocally establishing God’s sovereignty over human life: a sovereignty that does not oppress or coerce, but which liberates and enriches. And it is precisely because of this liberation that humans will find themselves free, at last, to intentionally and faithfully turn toward God; they shall, at last, see where true human flourishing resides, in an intentional life with one another that reflects our covenantal life with God.
That such a passage should begin the new liturgical year is not surprising: it gives us something to look forward to, a place on the horizon upon which to focus our attention as well traverse the days that lie ahead. However, if we are to understand the fullest depths of this passage, we must pay attention to the broader context within which it occurs – because this context is alerting us to the reality, not of God’s promised future, but the here and now.
This reality is referenced in the final verse from today’s passage, in which God, through Isaiah, invites the Hebrew people to walk “in the light of God”. Again, this is no image of serene, angelic companioning in which we walk side-by-side with God in some heavenly, untroubled realm. Rather, it is a long, uncomfortable journey in which God acts as a tour guide through the landscape of our manifold failures and rejections of God’s invitation into covenant. The “light of God” is an unblinking search light that uncovers and reveals the extent to which our acts of power, our social, cultural, political, and economic assumptions have served only to alienate us from God and the true flourishing into which God invites us.
The command to walk in the “light of God” begins a long exposition in which the sins of Israel are fully explored and articulated. This follows a similar exposition in chapter one. In other words, this brief passage of hope and renewal is wedged between long, detailed accounts of the manifold ways in which the Hebrew people have abandoned covenant, turning their back on God in favour of an assumption of their own capacity to be sufficient ground on which to stand. This is the myth – the sin – of autonomy, whether individual or collective. And this is not the autonomy that is an expression of the dignity of the human person, in their free and uncoerced participation in the fullness of life. Rather, it is the assertion that human beings have no need of God, that we are our own divine power, and that our “right” to order and shape existence and the world around us as we see fit is unconstrained by any other considerations.
In other words, this passage of hope exists only because things at present are so hopeless. The renewal promised in this reading exists only because life at present is without promise. God promises to reshape the reality of human life precisely because we have made such a terrible, destructive mess of what it means to be human. In our pride and presumption, we have mistaken autonomy for sovereignty, in the process alienating ourselves from God, from one another, from the natural world, and, ultimately, from ourselves. The renewal God promises is necessary precisely because, without it, destruction is our only possible end – and God’s promise is a strident declaration that this shall not be the case.
So the hope promised in today’s reading is not a declaration that we should just “keep on keeping on”. It is not an endorsement of the status quo, or the idea that we should just conduct “business as usual”. Rather, it is a ringing declaration that we need to change and change radically. The here and now is profoundly broken and in need of repair; and God’s promise to effect that repair also draws our attention to the fact that we need to be open to the process of repair, to the turning back to God that lies at the heart of repentance, and, ultimately, the re-orientation of human life.
When we view the world of work and economy through the prism of this reading, we are confronted with the reality that all is not well with that world – that it is, indeed, profoundly broken and dehumanising. For all the good things associated with work, and which come to us through the economy, there are many aspects of both that are deeply alienating, cutting us off from our own humanity, the humanity of others, and the natural world on which we depend.
Slavery and human trafficking, the exploitation of foreign and seasonal workers, the oppression of those who seek to build mechanisms for workplace justice, the impacts of gender discrimination and sexual violence at work, the inequitable distribution of the fruits of labour – all these are manifestations of the brokenness of our construction of work and economy. But so too is the opprobrium and marginalisation to which the unemployed, the underemployed, and those unable to work are subject; likewise, the under-valuing of the work performed by those engaged in unpaid labour. Similarly, the structural injustices that direct tax credits and concessions toward the wealthy, and which are paid for by simultaneously cutting social services and shifting the tax burden onto lower income earners. In the same vein is the corporatisation of the “social safety net”, in which the private sector provides – for profit and for the benefit of those who can pay – those services which previously government agencies supplied to the whole community.
All these realities are manifestations of the extent to which humanity has turned its back on God’s call to covenantal life, to an intentional shared co-existence that reflects God’s faithfulness to life with humankind. It reflects the extent to which we have forgotten the meaning of the word “economy”, and the deeply theological roots of that meaning. Economy, afterall, comes from the Greek word oikos, meaning “a household”. This in turn reflects the fact that “an economy” is not an abstract collection of competing interests seeking to get the better of one another through the mechanisms of trade, finance, capital flows and market share. Rather, an “economy” is a network of intermeshed human relationships, in which the attitudes and conduct of each participant impacts on the well-being and dignity of everyone else.
In other words, an “economy” is a context in which we are not only bound into an interrelated life together, it is also a context in which we are profoundly vulnerable to one another. And the “solution” to this vulnerability is not to manoeuvrer ourselves into a position of power relative to others; it is to embrace the inter-relational dignity that is written into this vulnerability – when we see that we are all of us vulnerable, and that there is no safety in power, we see each other in a wholly different light. We are no longer rivals or threats; we are intensely human, in which we need and depend on one another for our mutual flourishing.
This relational understanding of economy is bound up in Christian theology’s understand of God as Trinity, a unity of love whose Persons are bound to one another through a mutual indwelling. Jesus’ long “farewell discourse” recorded in the Gospel According to John (John 14-17) repeatedly references the shared life of the Father and Son, and of the Spirit whom the Father will send so that the Christian community might likewise dwell in God and God in them. This indwelling is not some naïve, pacifist co-existence, but a vigorous, dynamic interchange in which the encounter between God and humanity changes and re-forms humanity’s understanding of its relations with itself. The “economy” or “household” of God, whose Persons dwell within one another, and who both invite humanity to participate in that indwelling as well as seek to dwell in us, reflects a structure, not of power imbalances and oppressive oversight, but of shared dignity and mutual flourishing. And the vulnerability implicit in any relational context is exemplified in Christ, through whom God made Godself vulnerable to human violence and injustice.
Today’s reading from Isaiah carries a message of hope: the harm and suffering experienced through modernity’s construction of work and economy will not be allowed to stand, precisely because God in Christ has claimed the whole of human life and will not suffer our life to be alienated from the life of God. However, this does not mean we can just sit back and relax and wait for it to happen. God’s decisive action is Christ is motivated by the reality of human sin, by our corruption of work and economy so that they serve our conceits and assumptions, rather than the call to covenantal life which is reflected in the theological understanding of what an “economy” is. The searing judgements that fall on either side of today’s reading from Isaiah contextualise the message of hope: hope resides in the ultimate sovereignty of God; but it demands our responsive participation, our openness to God that in turn facilitates a recalibration of our understanding of the meaning of work and economy in human life. We cannot simply sit on our hands and remain blind to the profound brokenness of our present constructions of work and economy – we need to acknowledge their essential sinfulness, and strive to re-orient them by re-orienting ourselves, trusting that God in God’s own sovereignty will effect the final redemption of our being.
This Psalm again reflects the imagery used in the reading from Isaiah, in which the people readily turn toward, and focus their being upon, God and God’s dwelling place. In this Psalm, however, it is Jerusalem that is emblematic of God’s dwelling place, rather than a high mountain. This shift in imagery reflects the changes that took place in Hebrew society, when the Israelites transitioned from nomadic pastoralism to living in settled agrarian communities, with Jerusalem as the centre of a unified state. The establishment of the Temple in Jerusalem as the focus of the Israelites’ worship of YHWH transferred the locus of God’s presence in the world away from nature and natural forces and toward human-built structures – albeit structures ordained under the aegis of covenant and promise.
But this move from natural to human-made images also reflects humanity’s tendency to self-identify with God, to confuse being made in the likeness and image of God with being God-like. This is reflected in the association of God’s throne of judgement with the setting up of the thrones of the house of David. Kingly power is divine power; the word of the king is the word of God. This association shifts the emphasis of kingship away from the responsibility of stewardship enacted under God’s sovereignty – and the risky political implications attached to this subordination of royal power; just ask Saul! – toward the absolutisation of political power and the institution of the monarchy. Kings are not appointed by God to facilitate God’s covenant, with the concomitant implication of being accountable for their conduct; rather, they rule by unquestionable “divine right”. Already, and even in the midst of the celebratory tone struck by the Psalm, we see the precursors of the corruption against which the prophets will later rail; the confusion of means and ends that will see royal power distorted from a means serving the ends of God’s covenantal purpose, to becoming an end in itself.
Nonetheless, the Psalm is reflective of an attitude in which the corruption of confusion is not yet present. The joy-filled orientation of humanity toward God governs the very basis of human life, so that it becomes one of intentional, shared co-existence. The prayer for peace, prosperity, and security extends, not just to the inhabitants of Jerusalem (and, by extension, the people of Israel) but to friends and relatives and to a more generalised “you”. Moreover, this service is performed, not for the elevation of those by whom it is enacted, but for the glorification of God’s name; it is service recognising that it is in the sovereignty of the “house of the Lord our God” that human flourishing – “your good” – is located.
Work exists to serve several purposes. Firstly, it becomes a means by which human beings are able to sustain their physical existence. Secondly, work enables human beings to facilitate mutual, intentional, and covenantal inter-relationship with each other – and with the non-human ecology of which they are a part. Thirdly, work enables humans to give expression to their creativity, to participate in the generative fruitfulness of creation itself. Fourthly, work becomes a mechanism through which the dignity of the human person, and of the non-human ecology, is upheld and sustained. Fifthly, work is a means toward facilitating the full, participatory flourishing of both human beings and the wider natural world in accordance with God’s redemptive, covenantal purpose.
So the reality of work in human life serves an affirmatory purpose: it is a means to the end of the dignified, mutual co-existence into which all human life is called. However, just as Psalm 122 strikes an ominous note, hinting at the corruption that is to come, so we see also how work as a means to an end can be corrupted by being made an end in and of itself.
Modernity has so constructed work that one particular form of work – waged labour – has become the predominant paradigm through which human worth and legitimacy are defined. The opprobrium that is directed at the un- and under-employed or those unable to work gives an indication of the premium which is placed on waged labour: those without, or unable to perform, paid work are variously labelled as “unproductive”, “lazy”, “parasitic”, “non-contributing”, “a drain on the economy”, “leeching off society”, and so forth. Even the words “employed” and “unemployed” are indicative of a mindset which regards waged labour as the primary – or even the only – legitimate activity in which human beings should be engaged. But this opprobrium also reflects a moral judgement that is cast upon the un- and under-employed, and those unable to work: their circumstances are reflective of their moral worth as human beings. This judgement then easily transfers into other attitudes directed at the poor and other marginalised sectors of society.
It is a judgementalism that is also reflected in the “prestige” that attaches itself to different types of waged labour – the widely-held desire to have a “good” job and the social cachet attached to such employment. Thus, white-collar jobs are viewed as preferable to blue-collar jobs; being in a “profession” is viewed as preferable to being in a “trade”; being a manager is viewed as preferable to being a rank-and-file employee. Even those whose primary work is conducted in the creative arts – actors, artists, authors – are often asked about their “day job” or “real work”, as though their creative work was an ancillary activity, rather like a hobby. Nor does this judgementalism take any account of utility: we never stop to ask, would industrial civilisation collapse sooner if there were no brain surgeons, or if there were no garbage collectors? This is not to disparage brain surgeons; it is simply to make the point that, in considering brain surgery over against garbage collection, we often assume that brain surgeons are smarter, wiser, more moral people than garbage collectors because they are brain surgeons, and that the disparity of incomes between the two is reflective of this fact. Indeed, we are often “outraged” when we discover “tradespeople” earning more than “professionals” precisely because of these underlying assumptions about the “moral worth” of different jobs.
A further indicator of how we have corrupted work into an end in itself resides in the way in which concepts like “productivity” and “making a contribution” are utilised to extract the maximum amount of labour for the lowest possible cost. Intense pressure is often experienced by employees to work longer hours, or work through scheduled breaks, in order to raise profitability, increase market share, or meet budgetary expectations and deadlines. Many employers are even importing into the workplace those features normally associated with our exterior lives – child-minding, laundry and dry cleaning, eateries and shopping – in an effort to “encourage” their employees to spend longer in the workplace. And alongside these more sophisticated strategies are the cultural norms which judge us on whether we are “pulling our weight” or being a “team player”, as well as the battery of “performance management” and “coaching” strategies deployed by HR departments to get employees to “lift their game”.
Thus, in modernity, work has become a mechanism through which injustice and discrimination flourish, depending on whether or not you can access paid work, or how much paid work you can access, or the “prestige” that is attached to the paid work which you perform. Likewise, the experience of paid employment can be profoundly harmful through workplace cultures that encourage excessive hours of work, or which deploy punitive expectations and measures in order to enforce compliance with prevailing norms. When our construction of work so hijacks our lives that we spend more time at work than with our families and friends, and are too exhausted or pre-occupied to meaningfully engage with them when not at work, then work – paid labour especially – has ceased becoming a means to an end and has become an end in itself. It might sustain our physical existence – even at the cost of profoundly adverse physical and mental health outcomes – but it does nothing except detract from our dignity as human beings, and from our calling to a shared life together.
Small wonder that the modern workplace is awash with high levels of stress, mental illness, and extreme behaviours such as workaholism. But this is not what work is meant to be. Psalm 122, with its dual notes of celebration and the ominous, alerts us to the fact that work is meant to be a means to an end, and not an end in itself. The corruption which the Israelite kings practiced by confusing their own desire for power with God’s sovereignty runs counter to the joyous re-orientation of human life that desires peace, prosperity and security for all as an outworking of our covenantal relationship with God. Work is meant to be a means to the end of humanity’s full flourishing, its participation in the unfolding creation of God and the redemptive purpose hard-wired into that creation. But when we associate the prerogatives of power with the prerogatives of God’s sovereignty, we lose sight of the end toward which the means of work is directed; and under our influence, the experience of work becomes nothing less than demonic.
Romans 13: 11-14
The urgency evident in today’s passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans is, in part, a product of Paul’s own expectation: he is anticipating, within a very short period of time, the fulfilment of Christ’s promise to return again and complete the work which his life and ministry started. But even with the retrospective knowledge of history, and the fact that 2,000 years have passed since the time Paul’s correspondence was composed, this urgency still rings true; for, beyond Paul’s expectation, his urgency is also a product of our need to start paying attention, to start realising in the here and now that change needs to happen. The “eschatological horizon” to which Paul looks remains in place; but that horizon is not divorced from our present reality. However and whenever the final consummation of all things into the life of God occurs, it is in the present that we must begin preparations, that we must start making real a foretaste of the fully reconciled and redeemed humanity that is to come.
Paul uses the metaphor of light and dark to illustrate his point. Darkness encapsulates our present state of being. And for the ancients, the night was a space of terrifying possibilities. In our present industrialised societies, lit up as they are by the artificial light sources that make our cities visible from space, we have little appreciation for just how dark the night was for the ancients, how the lack of lighting was powerfully suggestive of lurking danger and hidden terrors. Paul writing that we now live in darkness is not just a suggestion that we are lost in a state of spiritual blindness; it is to powerfully argue that we are captive to forces of profound evil, forces that cut us off from God.
But that does not mean we are helpless captives. Even if the final overthrow of darkness by light belongs to the prerogative of God, nonetheless, humans can resist the darkness. Just as countries overrun by the Nazis in World War II were the captives of a terrifying authoritarian power, nonetheless, in each of those nations resistance movements emerged to challenge and undermine the power of the occupiers until final liberation occurred. Thus, in just the same way, even though humanity might be captive to its own brokenness, that captivity does not make resistance impossible – we can don the armour of light, even if we are not the Light itself. The urgency of Paul’s letter is a call to arms, a call to resist the powers of darkness in the present in preparation for the victory of Light that is to come.
There is an urgent need today to resist the powers of darkness that capture humanity and alienate us from ourselves, from one another, and from God. In the realm of work and economy, this darkness resides in all those aspects which we experience as dehumanising and harmful. Whether it’s exploitation and oppression, harassment and victimisation, or the ennui that arises from a sense of powerlessness to direct the course of our working lives or meaningfully challenge the forces to whose whims we seem utterly captive, modernity’s construction of work and economy contains many aspects which represent the forces of darkness in daily life.
Part of the powerlessness by which we are assailed arises from the fact that, while many of these forces seem overwhelming and all-pervasive, they also appear infuriatingly amorphous, escaping easy definition and therefore concrete response. How, afterall, do you define “market forces”, or “globalisation”, or “competitiveness”, or “productivity” or other meta-narratives in the modern world? And how does an “ordinary” working person grapple with such concepts in a way that doesn’t induce a sense of profound helplessness?
How, afterall, does a blue-collar worker in an economy transitioning from manufacturing to “information and services” derive a sense of security and meaning in life, when the very basis of their existence is threatened by plant closures and the “offshoring” of manufacturing work to cheaper, less regulated (ie: more exploitative) labour markets?
How does a white-collar worker in an office or call centre environment find dignity and a sense of purpose when they endure a daily round of monotonous administrative work while simultaneously subject to constant electronic surveillance of their “efficiency” and sophisticated, punitive “performance management” regimes that daily threaten their job security?
How do the unemployed, the under-employed, and those unable to work locate a positive self-understanding when the cultural context by which they are surrounded both allocates legitimacy to paid labour and blames them for not being able to access, or access sufficient, paid work?
How does someone who has spent a lifetime raising a family, caring for spouse and children and tending to the many needs of the household, hold on to the value of their labour when so much of our cultural experience is that only those who achieve “success” in their “working” careers are deemed to have lived a worthwhile existence or made a “positive contribution” to society?
All these realities speak to a construction of work and economy in which multiple forces of darkness are present, in pervasive but intangible ways, crippling human life and destroying our sense of ourselves. Paul’s response is that we need to do two things: we need to be aware of, and identify, these forces; and we need to live in an intentional way that resists their dehumanising and alienating potential.
Paul locates the identity of sin in personal morality. In modernity, sin is often identified through the societal structures and systemic injustices that attend our construction of work and economy. Afterall, both Adam Smith and Karl Marx, the two “founding fathers” of modern economic theory, regarded alienation as an inevitable by-product of the industrialisation of human labour. And alienation is the ultimate characteristic of sin: it cuts us off from ourselves, from one another, and from God. We need, therefore, to identify sin within the way our economic systems organise and impact upon human life, cutting us off from our own humanity, and from our need for relational co-existence. We need to fearlessly call out those aspects of our construction of work and economy that are sinful, embedding injustice and normalising alienation.
And once we do that identification, we need to respond. For Smith, the only solution to this problem was to become sufficiently wealthy in order to escape the need to work; for Marx, it came about through workers taking control of the means of production. But for Paul, the only appropriate response is an intentional form of life, one that, as it were, wears the armour of light in order to both embody the light of God’s love in human realities, and to foreshadow the greater Light that is to come. In modernity, this intentional form of life can only come about through embracing an understanding of work and economy that restores the humanity to both, and which enables both to fulfil the various functions for which they exist in human life. This necessarily involves embracing those forms of work and economic activity which challenge the assumptions of modern economic and workplace theory and practice, and which seeks as their goals, not greater profitability or efficiency or market share, but the genuine flourishing of human lives.
This will not be easy. Just as the early Christian communities were vilified and even persecuted because their way of life and relating to one another and the world challenged the cultural assumptions of their time, and the imperial powers which rested upon those assumptions, so any attempt to re-configure modernity’s understanding of work and economy will be resisted by those vested interests who benefit from the status quo. Even those who are most captive to present understandings of work and economy may not welcome the potential for liberation, given their vulnerability and exposure to the present system’s web of indebtedness and cultural appropriation. But it was only by courageously embodying an alternative vision of human life that the early Christian communities were able to spread the Gospel of God’s unqualified love for humanity; and it will only be by doing likewise in modernity that we can break the apparent stranglehold on our imaginations which present constructions of work and economy exercise, and which leave us feeling unfulfilled, alienated, and in despair.
Matthew 24: 36-44
The society of Jesus’ time was swept by rumours and speculation concerning the coming of the long-foretold Messiah, the One who would restore the kingdom of David and liberate the people of Israel from foreign rule. This cultural phenomenon had been gathering momentum ever since the restoration of Jerusalem and the Temple following the return from the Babylonian Exile: after the initial expectations of the people had been disappointed, Israel had experienced centuries of foreign occupation under the Persians, the Hellenistic successors of Alexander the Great, and finally, the Romans. Even in that brief period before the emergence of Rome, after the Jews had managed to throw off the Hellenistic yoke, the Hasmonean kings of Israel had proved corrupt and oppressive. They were eventually overthrown by the foreigner, Herod of Idumea; and he and his sons ruled with the connivance of Rome and the priestly leadership of the Temple.
The atmosphere was thus ripe for messianic and apocalyptic speculation, reflecting as it did the yearning of the people for freedom and release. But beyond this angst, many people cynically utilised this widespread longing for their own benefit: charlatans and supposed holy men were to be found a-plenty, each one claiming to know the mind of God, each one supposedly possessing the inside running on when and how the Messiah was coming. The fact that each invariably disappointed their followers only sharpened the common appetite for answers; and the more this appetite grew, the more charlatans emerged to feed the addiction.
Jesus of Nazareth must undoubtedly have seemed to many to be just another such charlatan, a parasite feeding off the people’s longing for freedom. No doubt this suspicion informed at least some of the opposition to his ministry. But in today’s reading from The Gospel According to Matthew, we see an example of just what set him apart from others. No-one knows the hour, he declares. Not the angels of heaven, nor even the Son – who Jesus claims to be! Only the Father knows, for the fulfilment of covenant is the prerogative of the Father – and only the Father.
No doubt, this distinction between his own claimed identity as the Son and the prerogatives of the Father wrong-footed many of Jesus’ critics. Afterall, many of those who claimed to be the “Son of God” – or, at least, who claimed to be God’s particular messenger – claimed also to know the mind of God, to be speaking on God’s behalf. So how then could one who claimed to be the Son not know what the Father had in mind regarding the final fulfilment of all things? Perhaps Jesus’ critics suspected he was engaged in some form of semantic trickery; perhaps they wondered whether or not it was a clever tactic to avoid being held accountable for incorrect predictions and false promises. Part of Jesus’ reputation as a rabbi rested on his demonstrated capacity to upstage the religious authorities and highlight their own ignorance; was this an instance of Jesus trying to cover over gaps in his own knowledge?
But there is no rhetorical sleight of hand involved here. Rather, Jesus is making a point; one which he buttresses by reference to the scriptural tradition. The doom that fell upon those who mocked Noah came, as it were, “out of the blue”. They were busy going about their ordinary affairs when what had been foretold came to pass. None knew ahead of time, even though they were secure in their presumed knowledge of what the future held. Their very assumption of knowledge blinded them to the reality of God’s sovereignty and authority; and so they were unprepared when the rains which they had been warned were coming in fact arrived.
It is the sheer ordinariness of the imagery which Jesus uses that is so compelling, imagery that is drawn directly from the lived experience of the people to whom he was speaking. This is not to suggest that Jesus was speaking literally, that he was making a statement about how things would be. Rather, the metaphor of ordinariness which Jesus utilises underscores his central claim: none know except the Father. Thus, the image of two people working in a field, with one being taken while one remains, is not a prediction about how the “end times” will operate: rather, it is a revelation that the ultimate unfolding of God’s purpose in creation will occur in the midst of time, in the very operation of the universe itself as it moves along its creative trajectory. This is not to say there will not be an ultimate consummation; rather, that this consummation is occurring in the here and now as well as some projected point on the eschatological horizon. It is part of our present reality as human beings, not some predictable event in the distant (or not so distant) future.
In other words, had Jesus’ ministry occurred in the 21st century, he might very well have said something like: “Two will be working in a call centre; one will be taken and one will remain.” Or again: “Two will be at a board meeting; one will be taken and one will remain”. The point here is not that one apparently faithful person gets taken up to heaven in some kind of “rapture” while another, unfaithful person, gets left behind; to make such a claim is to not only claim to know how the final consummation will occur, it is to ascribe such knowledge to Jesus himself – knowledge which, in this passage, he explicitly denies. Rather, the point is that God’s messianic promise is woven into the very fabric of our lives, the very reality of what it means to be human: including the operation of work and economy.
Thus, the owner of the house cannot know at what hour the thief will break into the house; only by living in such a way which assumes that the thief is not only coming, but has in fact already arrived, can we be alert to the movement of God’s purpose in the world. In this passage, Jesus is perhaps equating himself with the thief: he is the One who will upset and overthrow assumptions of security, power, knowledge, and legitimacy. But even he, Jesus, does not know when this final, ultimate breaking in will occur: that is the sole prerogative of the Father. But in a sense, it has also already happened: God’s breaking into historical reality in the person of Jesus represents a preliminary breaching of the defences of conventional wisdom and culturally-based assumptions of legitimacy and authority. Even prior to the final event, what it means to be human is irrevocably changed by the presence of the thief among us.
Our culture is saturated by “messiahs” and “gurus”, all of whom proclaim the path to personal liberation and ultimate freedom. The cults of self-helpism and New Ageism spruik their “revelations” for personal success and happiness, each one declaring itself the keeper of secrets known only to its particular adherents, secrets that will grant us everything we think is missing from our lives and which we believe will make us more contented, more fulfilled. Like the self-declared “sons of God” and false prophets of Jesus’ time, the results more often than not lead to disappointment and disillusion; but instead of opening our eyes to the reality of falsehood that underpins each set of glittering promises, it only feeds our addiction for short-cuts, for secret formulae or hidden pathways to our seemingly unattainable goals.
But even beyond the realm of narcissism and personal insecurity that feeds these cults, our culture inculcates us into the view that “happiness” and “legitimacy” take very specific forms: forms that are undergirt by having a job, by being able to “pay your way” and make a “contribution” to society. The rewards for being “gainfully employed” are material – house, holiday, possessions – and the social cachet and personal legitimacy that come with these.
In Christian circles, this infection into the life of faith is expressed through phenomena such as so-called “prosperity theology”: God not only wants you to have more money, but will ensure that, as an outward manifestation of your sanctity, will ensure you have more money – provided you stick to the rules (which are usually set by the church or charismatic individual by whom the “prosperity theology” is being articulated). This usually involves you becoming a consumer of all manner of books, music, and audio/video “aids” that will instruct you in how to live a “biblical” or “godly” life – in other words, instructions, secrets, formulae for how you can be “successful” or “happy” or “saved”, all of these “resources” provided by the aforementioned church and/or charismatic individual.
Another manifestation of this phenomenon occurs in those theologies of work that equate the spirit of Christianity with the spirit of any particular economic orthodoxy or system of organisation. By doing so, these theologies attempt to appropriate Christianity for the purposes of a particular economic ideology, legitimising that ideology by associating its claims and assumptions with the redemptive promise of Christian faith. In other words, that “redemption” in the salvific, eschatological sense can be located within the outcomes which the ideology in question identifies as “legitimate” or “authoritatively” representative of human “flourishing”.
But, as this passage from Matthew makes clear, these claims and assertions are not only spurious, they are, in fact, deeply pernicious – precisely because they feed the kind of addiction to “knowledge” that drives humanity into great acts of sin. The Tower of Babel is the representative metaphor for this kind of sin: the attempt by humans to assume the knowledge and prerogatives of God. In the same way, the attempt to “know” the time and manner of the final consummation of all things is also the same kind of sin: one that leads, not only to charlatanism and exploitation, but the distortion of the relationship between God and humankind that ultimately distorts human life. For salvation and redemption are not a matter of knowledge – as the Gnostics claimed – but of relationship: whether we exist in the kind of relationship with one another that reflects the covenantal co-existence with God into which we are all called.
This is what makes modernity’s construction of work and economy so frequently harmful: because it locates “salvation” in power and knowledge, in the capacity to enact autonomous ego-fulfilment and acquire the artefacts of wealth – and the social legitimacy and standing that come with these artefacts. But as the promises of the self-help and New Age “gurus” and “messiahs” leave us feeling empty and unfulfilled, so ever-deeper immersion into the culture of power and knowledge leaves us feeling ever more helpless, ever more constrained and frustrated. We have forgotten that both work and economy are fundamental to who we are as human beings, and how we express our humanity; that neither are about the kinds of power and knowledge we think will make us happy, but about whether we stand in the kind of relationship with other people and the non-human ecology that will ultimately facilitate genuine flourishing.
In the same way that the claims of those who presume to “know the hour” proved false in Jesus’ time, so the claims of those in our own time who argue that our economic ideologies will likewise set us free also prove empty and unrewarding. All the things promised by the ideologies of modernity – more wealth, more possessions, higher standards of living – represent a distortion of the true relationship between these outcomes and what genuine human flourishing actually looks like. Of themselves, none of these things are necessarily bad – especially where they serve human dignity. But they can only ever be a means to an end, and not an end in themselves. But by making them – and by making work, especially waged labour – an end in itself, we have stripped them of their human content, and blinded ourselves to the greater realities to which they point. Because if work is to serve human dignity rather than become a vehicle for exploitation; and if economy is to reflect our relationships as individuals and community, rather than become the ideological framework for injustice; we must always remember that the claims which matter most are not those made by our ideologies and cultural assumptions, but are those which emerge from the claims which God makes on us through the calling into covenant.
Today’s reading from Matthew is a cautionary tale against the claims made by our economic ideologies, and by modernity’s construction of work and economy. It is also a warning against subsuming our lives – and our churches – to those claims, For the thief in the night who has already upset the authority of imperial powers and religious hierarchies has also already breached the defences of economic orthodoxy and materialist self-deception. Our task is to re-configure our understanding of work and economy so that both serve the end of covenantal co-existence with God, with one another, and with the whole of creation; and to do so in preparation for the One who comes and who is already at hand.