Tony Perkins’ recent CNN.com column is a “Who Would Jesus Support?” look at the Occupy movement. (He’s not the first to this fight.) His title says it all: “Jesus was a free-marketer, not an Occupier.” As the piece has made the obligatory rounds on the Interweb lately, it has elicited the predictable outrage from the left and approval from the right. Perkins’ argument—that Jesus affirmed the free market and “rejected collectivism”—is not new or surprising. Just as it is not surprising that many have come to the opposite view (here for example) that Jesus would align with the Occupiers. Everybody tries to get Jesus to ride shotgun on their ideology.
I don’t want to get into the “Who would Jesus vote for?” debate. Mockingbird is not your Uncle Brad. We don’t bring up politics at Thanksgiving. However, from a theological perspective, there is something we’re happy to take issue with. Perkins writes:
“Jesus rejected collectivism and the mentality that has occupied America for the last few decades: that everyone gets a trophy – equal outcomes for inequitable performance. There are winners and yes, there are losers. And wins and losses are determined by the diligence and determination of the individual.”
Wait just a cotton-pickin’ minute there, Tony. Actually, Jesus’ message was that everyone gets a trophy. Christianity says we are saved by grace. In other words, we get the Big Reward apart from what we do, apart from our performance, and only because of God’s gracious gift.
I’ll grant that Jesus told lots of parables in which there were winners and losers. But the funny thing is, the winners in his stories often looked a lot like losers. [Footnote for Bible-heads out there: the parable from Luke 19 which Perkins cites in his argument does have “winners and losers” in the traditional sense; but Jesus told the parable primarily to illustrate that he was not going to initiate his kingdom for a long time (see Luke 19:11), not to affirm one economic system over another. Indeed, the parable comes immediately after the story of Zaccheus the tax collector, a story which upends traditional winner/loser categories. Zaccheus was a secular winner but a religious loser. And Jesus gives this loser the big trophy of his divine favor, prior to Zaccheus’ do-gooderism. But I digress.].
Take the parable in the 20th chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew. A vineyard owner hires some guys to work in his vineyard at different points in the day. Some work all day in the hot sun. The ones who are hired last only work one hour. But at the end of the day, scandalously and unjustly, the owner pays them each the same wage. There is no pay for performance here! In fact, the slackers get rewarded! The trophy goes to the ones in last place. The owner declares: “So the last will be first and the first last” (Matt 20:16). Perkins said that wins and losses are “determined by the diligence… of the individual.” Well, maybe in chess tournaments or stock car races or venture capital or the story of the Three Little Pigs. But not in Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard. And thankfully, not in matters of salvation. The only Winner the world has ever known died on the cross so that losers like me could get the trophy.