(Continuation from previous post)
Status – Matthew 20:1-16
Adherence to, and enforcement of, status differences was another frequent concern of the household codes. It was argued that failure to have proper respect for status differences would cause the social order to dissolve into chaos.
Jesus tells a parable at the beginning of Chapter 20: "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. …” Workers are promised a daily wage for their work but more workers are brought into the field at various points throughout the day. Then the master pays everyone the same daily wage. Those who worked longer become angry:
11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal [isos] to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' 13 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? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last." (20:11-16)
Concerning this parable Osiek and Balch write:
The parable of the householder that follows (20;1-16) raises the question of “what is right” (20:4, dikaion) and of not doing “wrong” (v. 13, adikos), the central ethical question raised as early as Plato and Aristotle with respect to household relationships. Much more surprising in Greco-Roman society is that workers are treated [in the parable] as “equal” (v. 12, isos) to each other. (134)
The word isos is used sparingly in the New Testament and to my knowledge it is used in only two other places to refer to equality in relational status:
John 5:18 – “For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God."
Philippians 2:6 – “…who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, …"
I think there has been a tendency to over spiritualize this parable (which is not to say it is without a spiritual component .) Note that the issue for the grumbling workers is not specifically the pay but that they those who have come later have been valued the same as those who were “more deserving.”
Slaves – Matthew 20:17-28
The three primary relationships in the household were husband/wife, father/children, and master/slave. Osiek and Balch claim that the discussion of children is sometimes dropped from these discussions but rarely is a discourse on the proper status and treatment of slaves omitted.
Jesus begins this last section noting his impending death by crucifixion (vv. 17-19). He is preparing to lay down his very life in service of the newly constituted household of God. Verses 20-28 give us the story of James and John seeking to occupy the seats on the right and left of Christ when he comes into his kingdom. As noted by Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “Drum Major Instinct” sermon (based on Mark’s version of this parable), it is astonishing that Jesus does not rebuke their request. Instead, he says the positions are not his to grant but if they really want these positions he can tell them how to get them: Become the servant of everyone else! The other ten disciples are miffed about the brothers’ request (probably because they did not think to ask first) and Jesus wraps up this parable, and his household code, with this statement:
25 But Jesus called them to him and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." (20:25-28)
A household code from Ephesians 5 and 6 has frequently been misinterpreted as instruction for husbands to rule over their wives. We actually see Jesus' household code echoed in Ephesians:
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,…" Ephesians 5:25
We will have more to say about this later, but for now it is important to note that Jesus has turned the whole question of slavery upside down. In a mind-bending upheaval of the Greco-Roman and Rabbinic model of the paterfamilias, with its obsession on status enforcement, Jesus transforms the paterfamilias into the slave of the household! It is hard to overstate how subversive and scandalous this teaching was.
Matthew has assembled Jesus’ teaching into a household code (Chapters 19-20) that addresses husbands and wives, children, wealth, status, and servitude. This immediately follows Jesus’ discourse on life in the kingdom, the fourth of the five Matthean discourses. Jesus' teaching brings utter consternation to his hearers:
“His disciples said to him, "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry." (19:10)
“Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; 14 but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’” (19:13-14)
“When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’" (19:25)
Status and Servitude
When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers.” (20:24)
Jesus did not launch a civil rights movement. Jesus launched a servitude movement. He did not call on the marginalized (women, children, slaves) to grasp for their rights from those with status (though Jesus makes clear what he understands their rights and status to be.) Jesus simply inverted the status scale. The slave became the one with the highest status. He then called upon those with status in the Household of Caesar and the Household of Israel (as articulated by the rabbis) to become “status seekers” in Jesus' new household. Jesus’ household is upside down and backwards.