…the last shall be first and the first shall be last. (Matthew 20:16)
Have you ever met a fundamentalist? I mean the letter-of-the-law people who interpret Scripture literally and, in general, who hold a belief system characterized by rigid certainty. Rules, for example. Fundamentalists give all rules equal value and are happiest when they know there is a rule to cover every eventuality. This gives them the security of feeling they are following God’s will in every situation. Today, the behaviors of fundamentalists have given rise to a proliferation of books, articles, and jokes about them.
Most of us see laws as more or less serious. We take them with a “grain of salt”; if applicable, fine; if not, we are not likely to lose sleep over them. Still others feel hemmed in or circumscribed by too many rules and some even welcome rules as challenges to “get around.” Certainly we have no desire to undermine legitimate authority or anything it authorizes. On the other hand, the extremism advocated by some fundamentalists is hardly desirable either. In fact, it can even violate God’s supreme law of love. As St. Thomas Aquinas said long ago, “Virtue is in the middle.” The truth is, the law of God, written in our hearts, sometimes obliges us to go against human regulations and expectations. The Word of God is a two-edged sword, and it often exacts a price. When Jesus followed it, the letter-of-the-law people took His life. The same might happen to us, at least psychologically.
Some of the stories Jesus told seem to indicate that things are not always so clear cut and simple as we would like them to be. The story in Scripture of the workers who showed up at the last minute is a case in point. How could God be so unfair as to have the first (those who followed the agreement as given) be the last and the late ones (the rugged individualists who did the unstipulated thing), be first? It is enough to shake a strict fundamentalist and even those who are not so strict! And, truth to tell, doesn’t that story make us wonder a little bit too? Could there be a little fundamentalism in our own bones?
Jesus, rid us of our tendencies to be self-righteous!
Sister Mary E. Penrose, OSB
Sister Mary E. Penrose is a Sister of St. Scholastica Monastery in Duluth, Minnesota. She edits readings for the liturgical Hours and writes reflections for the Community. And she is a tutor for the African Sisters attending The College of St. Scholastica. She was editor of a journal, Spirit & Life, for 18 years.