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This Sunday afternoon, I will be officiating the wedding of a young woman in my congregation. Given that she is a philosopher and a linguist, studying for her PhD at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, I wasn’t surprised that she didn’t choose a predictable wedding text for me to meditate on. She, along with her fiancé, chose Matthew 20:1-16, The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.
In this story, a landowner goes out to the marketplace five different times to hire workers, and at the end of the day, pays them all the same wage– the wage that he had promised to the first crew. All the workers get the same worm, and the early birds are upset. The landowner responds to their grumbling: “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” And Jesus concludes: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
When she gave the text to me, it felt a little like she had thrown me a curve ball with a twinkle in her eye. Of course, I’d love to knock it out of the park for her all on my own homiletical batting skills, but I was concerned about hitting a foul ball on her big day. So although it felt a little like bunting, I texted her: “What is it about this parable that intersects, for you, with marriage?”
She texted me back: “I like that the parable is telling how the Kingdom of God, i.e., the state of perfected and long-fought for love, is not an economy of love based in fair wages. It’s not an economy at all. Because the love is freely on offer with no clauses or contracts.”
Love is not an economy.
These words sent me back to Kate Bowler’s book, Everything Happens For a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved.
There is so much to commend in this book, but the greatest takeaway for me is that life is not a tight geometric proof or a beautiful equation. Or, as this week’s bride put it, Love is not an economy.
As much as we would like there to be a hidden logic to all that happens to us and to others, or a global balance sheet that evens everything out in the end, this just does not seem to be so. Kate writes, “I can’t reconcile the way that the world is jolted by events that are wonderful and terrible, the gorgeous and the tragic. Except I am beginning to believe that these opposites do not cancel each other out” (123).
Life does not always (ever?) cancel out or even out or balance out or reason out. There are remainders. There are leftovers.
There are leftovers of suffering — leftovers that go beyond explanation or reason. Leftovers that I am not convinced God will have (or needs to have) an explanation for on the other side of the veil.
One of the most comforting words offered to me in the wake of my becoming a widow at the age of 23 came second hand. A fellow seminary student told me that our professor, in reflecting on Layton’s death with his class, said something like this: “Even if you put all the good things that come after Layton’s death (or because of Layton’s death!) on one side of the scale, it will not equal the value of Layton’s life on the other side of the scale. The good that comes will not justify or explain or balance out his death.” His words honoured Layton’s life and my grief.
There are leftovers of suffering. It doesn’t all reason out.
But, praise be, there are also leftovers of love. Unexplainable love. Gratuitous, unearned, undeserved love. Uneconomic love. A full day’s wage for an hour’s worth of work. Love on offer without clauses or contracts. Love that keeps no record of wrongs. The love of one person for another that is not 50/50 or tit-for-tat, but miraculously and immeasurably selfless.
And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” Ephesians 3:17-21, emphasis mine.