Taken out of context, the lesson of Jesus’ parable, “The last shall be first, the first, last” (Mt 20:16a) reads like a Zen Buddhist koan. A Zen teacher demands a right-view answer from a novice to a paradoxical question like “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” The trainee must ponder this illogical question whose right answer is rational but beyond comprehension by merely human logic.
No logical mind will find rational the vineyard owner’s decision to pay some the same wage for one hour of work promised to workers for a whole day’s work. Common sense has easy proof to believe the owner’s thinking is fallacious and predicts a whole-day workers’ strike.
Through the Holy Spirit’s disciplinary instigation, we learn to practice awe at the illogical generosity of the Most Holy and Compassionate One whose ways are not our ways, whose sense of love and justice is supra-humanly ordered to benevolent excess.
But rather than pondering how the first become last, we could embark on the spiritual exercise of questioning how Christ is glorified in our fully alive bodies whose deaths are gain (Phil 1:20c-21). On our knees before this paradox, we should prepare for never placating the Holy Spirit’s demand for our right-view. We foresee waiting a lifetime without answers in our inadequacy to catch even a whiff of what God’s sense of justice smells like.
In a book Christians should imbibe, The Roots of Christian Mysticism by Olivier Clement, we find a light on the human folly of God’s love in Saint Gregory the Great’s Commentary on the Book of Job. “Those who humbly choose what is folly in the eyes of the world clearly contemplate the wisdom of God.” Pay a full day’s wage for one hour of work? “By virtue of this wise folly, one catches a glimpse of God’s wisdom, “not in all its completeness,” but in the searing light of its power to overturn the spurious stability of our ordinary minds.
Contemplatives of God’s Justice train to live with their ignorance. They never graduate from these exams in the school of the Lord’s service. They attempt generous acts beyond their own conceptions of law and justice without hoping to catch a whiff of what the inclusive justice of Love actually smells like. It is itself a gift of the Holy Spirit for contemplatives to imagine a Holy Justice that might never come. No exercise instigated by the Holy Spirit to know we must remain in ignorance “suspended by God’s mercy, content for anything to happen” (Thomas Merton) will never be in vain.
By Jonathan Montaldo