In this day of breathless fund raising, biblical arithmetic just doesn’t add up.

I have always had a certain curiosity about religious mathematics. It seems we cannot help reducing the mysteries of the faith down to something more exact and, well, calculable.

In contrast, the mathematics I find in the Bible is shockingly suspect. Frederick Buechner goes so far as to call it “atrocious.” The more I look the more I understand what he means. I will give an example from each Gospel, just to be mathematically precise.

Matthew 20. This chapter opens with a parable that contradicts all known laws of fairness, human motivation, and just compensation. Briefly, Jesus tells of a farmer who hires people to work his fields. Some punch in at sunrise, some at morning coffee break, some at lunchtime, some at afternoon coffee break, and some an hour before quitting time. Everyone seems grateful for employment, until payroll time. Then those stalwarts who started early in the morning find in dismay that the sweatless upstarts who put in barely an hour get the exact same pay! Anyone who has worked manually for a full day can easily identify with their outrage. The boss’s decision defies economics.

I realize that Jesus told this parable not as a lesson on employee benefits, but on God’s attitude toward various groups of people. But the mathematics seem just as odd in the spiritual realm. The upstarts in this parable bring to mind the thief on the cross: a good-for-nothing who barely sneaked in under the wire and yet apparently got the same rewards as someone who had lived a lifetime of faithfulness and piety.

Tales of last-minute forgiveness have a certain winsome quality to them, admittedly, but such stories are certainly no way to motivate people ...

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