God While God Is Near (Is. 55:6-9; Phil.1:1-5, 19-27; Mt. 20:1-16)

by Luke Timothy Johnson

Luke Timothy Johnson teaches New Testament at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, September 19-26, 1990, p. 828, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Paul shows what the prophet Isaiah has in mind about “seeking the Lord while he is near.” The interests of my neighbor are always near: But like the prophet and parable, he also reveals how far these thoughts are from being ours.

I don’t need a great deal of convincing any more (a by-product of middle age) to admit the truth of Isaiah 55: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord." Indeed, one of my few remaining certainties is that whatever God’s thoughts are, I seldom find them on the same page I am reading. Nor do I seriously question the prophet’s priority: "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts." No problem. Despite my confusion about other things, I do believe a finer intelligence than any in my neighborhood created this world and that the best my mind will ever do is catch a fleeting glimpse of the beauty I do more to mar than to enhance.

Harder for me to deal with is the prophet’s directive, "Seek the Lord while the Lord may be found, call upon God while God is near.’’ This diminishes the distance. But how? He continues: "Let the wicked forsake their way and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, who will have mercy on them." The prophet disconcertingly shifts the problematic distance between the Lord’s mind and mine. The issue is not ideas but moral activity, not ignorance of God’s master plan, but "forsaking my unrighteous thoughts and ways."

Jesus’ parable of the laborers hired for work in the vineyard precisely captures the prophet’s intention. The householder who gives the same payment to all his workers no matter when they were hired has different thoughts from those hired early in the day who now grumble at the master’s largesse and call him unfair. He answers, "Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you.

I always secretly identify with those grumblers, as I always do with the elder son in Luke’s parable (Luke 15:11-32) Like them, I think of my life as I would my work. And I have worked hard for my wage. I do a lot of measuring and comparing. Like Joseph Heller’s Colonel Cathcart in Catch-22, I line up in separate columns "feathers in my cap" and "black eyes." I exult that "I am for my age far advanced in my field." And at the next moment I moan that "there are others even younger than I who are even further advanced."

What is God up to anyway? I work so hard and they seem to work so little. Why should they get as much or more than I? Ah, envy. Life lived under the curse of peripheral vision, a grudging heart, a small spirit. Socrates called envy "the ulcer of the soul" and I have heard it gnawing within me.

The householder’s corrective perspective is addressed to me. He says first, "Am I not allowed to do what I chose with what belongs to me?" This is Isaiah’s "My thoughts are not your thoughts." The field is not mine, the wages are not mine, the world is not mine, but the Lord’s. I am a player, not the referee. Second, he says, "I choose to give to this last as I gave to you." The Lord enters into relationship with each person. There is no "general contract," only covenants entered into with each person. I do not know nor need to know the conditions or the motivations affecting anyone’s deal but mine. And let’s be completely honest: I need not have been hired at all.

But to the householder’s third statement, "Or do you begrudge me my generosity?" I always answer, Yes, I do. I begrudge anyone getting more than I when by my measure he has done less. No, I do not think in terms of the Lord’s generosity. I’m not even sure I. know what it means to think that way.

Perhaps I begin to learn in Paul’s words to the Philippians. Later in the letter he will exhort them to "have the mind of Christ" and show them how Jesus measured in terms not of equality but of self-emptying service. Paul also shows them an example of such thinking in the way he counted all his privileges as a Jew as rubbish in order to "be found in Christ" (3:9)

In the lectionary passage we find not a paradigm for such thinking but the process itself. Paul addresses a community divided by envy and rivalry, the antithesis of "looking to the interest of others," (2:4) ,) for envy looks only to "my own interests," my own wage, my own "equality."

How does Paul think about his own situation? He could -- as I would -- resent his confinement and neglect and other people’s success in advancing the gospel. But he does not. He rejoices in it. Paul -- like me -- is ignorant of what is best for himself. He thinks it would be to "depart and be with Christ" (1:23) rather than to labor further with life. But he transcends that narrow self-preoccupation. However much he needs discernment for himself, his prayer is that their love be filled with knowledge and discernment. For himself, he wants only that "Christ will be honored in my body, whether by. life or by death" (1:20) ,) and that "Christ be proclaimed" (1:1.8) Having "the mind of Christ" he is able to relativize his own keen desire: "to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account" (1:24) So he remains in their service, for the sake of their "progress and joy in the Lord."

Paul shows me, I think, what the prophet has in mind about "seeking the Lord while he is near," for the interests of my neighbor are always near: But like the prophet and parable, he also reveals how far these thoughts are from being mine.