The denarius of salvation
We talked about the previous day’s flooded streets after a six-hour downpour. When he heard the early morning news of deluged manholes and waterlogged thoroughfares, he decided to forgo driving and to just stay home. He returned to the streets only today.
He railed at the government’s failure to fix the drainage — a problem that goes back, it seems, to the very first day that the rains fell. The local leaders’ perennial incapacity to solve it has acquired a metaphysical dimension, in that it now goes beyond the mere installation of adequate conduits, and penetrates into their character, their status, and marks them out as government people.
Uh-huh, I said — nothing more. Taxi drivers have a way of summing things up that leaves their passengers speechlessly in agreement.
And, as we arrived at my destination, he asked a rhetorical question, “Is it Friday?” And again summing up — “How fast is the day, and how slow is money.”
Where did I hear that before?
In fact, I had just read a variant of it — a passage from Matthew, in particular the parable about the laborers in the vineyard, which Jesus gave to explain the kingdom of heaven.
At vintage time, when grapes ripen fast and would suffer from any delay in the picking, the owner of the vineyard had urgently to hire workers. In this parable, the owner agreed with the workers on a wage of one denarius a day. Under the same terms, he engaged laborers at different hours — at daybreak, and at the third, sixth and ninth, and even at the eleventh hour. Accordingly, in the evening he had them paid a denarius each, no matter the hours worked, which brought protests from those who had worked all day, and received the same wage as those who had worked at the eleventh hour. But the vineyard owner told one of them, “My friend, I am not being unjust to you, did we not agree on one denarius? Take your earnings and go. I choose to pay the last comer as much as I pay you. Have I no right to do what I like with my own? Why be envious because I am generous?”
Jesus concluded the parable with these words, “Thus the last will be first, and the first, last.”
Rembrandt, who loved to paint biblical scenes, which he called his diary, rendered this parable in oil. He chose the moment in the evening when the vineyard owner spoke to one of the workers who had complained about his “unfairness.”
The drama between light and shadow in the painting conveys the magnitude of the themes at play in the parable — justice and grace, the former having the nature of obligation, and the latter, of gift.
The vineyard owner holds his right hand on his breast and his left towards the laborer. Rembrandt could not have chosen a better gesture — the right hand signifying the unmerited favor of grace, and the other hand, the fair treatment of justice. In his art, Rembrandt sought the greatest and most natural movement, and here he found it.
Obviously, the taxi driver belonged to the first class of workers — those who went to the vineyard at dawn. Taxi driving often goes on for twenty-four hours, and on a bad day could fetch earnings much below a living wage.
But in the driver’s voice I did not sense a tinge of envy for those who had hit the streets later in the day and earned more — he must have realized that luck played a big part in his livelihood, luck — or grace.
Envy would put him in the class of people who, Joseph Ratzinger said, see only their own burden and forget “that other people also have burdens, even if we know nothing of them.” These, he added, “no longer find Christian service worthwhile if the denarius of salvation may be obtained even without it.” They want to be rewarded, he said, not just with their own salvation, but especially with other people’s damnation — just like the workers hired in the first hour.
Which reminds me of Gore Vidal’s statement, “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”
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