The mariner may have mentioned, he truly doesn’t recall, that he is writing a lesson plan for twenty-first century Christians. The lessons are in an early stage; he has asked seven friends to review what has been written so far. The friends are from many stripes of Christian belief and activity. The mariner has received all manner of response. All the reviews were helpful and improved the quality of the work. One issue stood out across the board: Every reader had some degree of difficulty managing the difference between spiritual truth and empirical truth.
This post is, in fact, a way for the mariner to clarify the issue in his own mind before he starts a major rewrite because of this issue. He will use the parable of the laborers in the field (Matthew 20:1-16).
Briefly, it is an allegory describing the Kingdom of Heaven. A farmer hires day laborers to work in the vineyards. He begins hiring them at the beginning of the day and every hour or two throughout the day, all the way to the last hour.
At the end of the day, the laborers return to receive their pay. To everyone’s surprise, every laborer is paid the same amount whether they worked from early morning or for just the last hour. The laborers who worked the full day claim this is unfair. The farmer replies that everyone received their agreed wage. The farmer further says “Am I not allowed to do what I choose to do with what belongs to me or are you envious because I am generous?”
Jesus ends the parable saying, “The first will be last and the last will be first.”
To translate this just a bit, Jesus deliberately uses an empirical value, money, to make a spiritual point. The parable actually is a definition of the Kingdom of Heaven – a spiritual truth – not an empirical truth. The laborers are engrossed in the empirical reality that everyone was paid the same – a seemingly unfair empirical truth.
Yet, it is the Kingdom of Heaven that is the subject of this parable. Jesus ends the parable saying the first will be last and the last will be first. This means that, in the Kingdom of Heaven at least, everyone is equally accepted by God; no soul is judged – a spiritual truth that has nothing to do with the empirical truth money represents. Nevertheless, we learn from an empirical situation a new spiritual truth that no one is treated differently by God.
The mariner selected a relatively simple parable to dissect into spiritual truth and empirical truth – though many never get beyond the money issue and miss the spiritual point of a fair and just God.
The ability to see spiritual truth in empirical circumstances is the required skill if one is to read the Gospels in a rewarding way. Readers of the New Testament tend to lean one way or the other when spiritual truth and empirical truth are within the same words. To be overly simplistic, one reader says a given passage is a “metaphor” (an editor’s most discomforting word). Another may say the NT is promoting socialism or equal pay for unequal work. Read properly, inevitably there is spiritual truth and empirical truth woven together in that strange but poetic prose written 2,000 years ago.
This parallelism of truth is most conflicted when a miracle is involved. There is nothing wrong with accepting the miracle (empirical truth) as long as the reader can discern what the spiritual truth is, too.