Muslims: The 5:00 P.M. Workers by Esther Nelson

esther-nelsonRecently (September 2016), the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Catholic Studies Symposium took place in the university where I teach.  The main speaker (a Roman Catholic priest) addressed the topic, “How Pope Francis is Creating a Culture of Encounter.”  There were three other participants. One delivered “A Protestant Perspective;” another “A Jewish Perspective;” and the third “A Muslim Perspective.” All of them, including the moderator (chair of the Catholic Studies program), are white men.

The central theme from the men: “Let’s all get together and talk.”  The speakers bantered about phrases such as “engagement based on dialogue” and “we do not agree with modern-day relativism, but rather an encounter of commitments.”  It all sounded familiar. It then dawned on me.  This is language that Diana Eck (b. 1945), religious studies scholar and Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies at Harvard University, uses as she developed and continues to oversee the Pluralism Project.  See:

Diana Eck employs the word “pluralism” to encompass what many call “ecumenicalism” or more specifically “interfaith dialogue”—a reaching out to people from faith traditions different from one’s own.  Eck unpacks the term, giving us a glimpse into how she envisions pluralism unfolding in our daily lives. She begins with four major points:

  1. “Pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity.” Diversity does not equal pluralism. We need to know our neighbor who is different from us, not just acknowledge their existence.
  2. “Pluralism is not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference.” Tolerance does nothing to remove our ignorance of each other.
  3. “Pluralism is not relativism, but the encounter of commitments.”  We do not leave our identities and commitments behind when we encounter difference.  
  4. “Pluralism is based on dialogue.”  Dialogue means both speaking and listening. Pluralism doesn’t mean everyone will agree with one another, but it does involve “owning” one’s commitments while giving that same respect to others.

Absent from the speakers’ talks was “seeking understanding across lines of difference.” The Protestant speaker thanked the nuns for “straightening out my brother” who attended a Roman Catholic school. He acknowledged the difference in their respective theologies (Roman Catholic and Presbyterian), but offered no discussion about how to effectively bridge that difference.  

In addition, there was little enthusiasm from the speakers regarding possibilities for the future. No fleshing out of what “engagement based on dialogue” might look like when involving real people.  No differentiation was made between tolerance of the other and an active embracing of another’s humanity (including their faith tradition) while holding on to one’s own faith commitment. It was more of a “looking back.”  See how far we’ve come.  We’ve got all these documents to show as proof of our labors. (“Interfaith documents” are easily accessed on the web.)

The speakers agreed–let’s just keep talking. I heard nobody broach “difficult” topics. Nothing about Israel’s role as “occupier” in the Palestinian Territories. Do we ignore this sensitive subject when we come together to talk? I heard nothing about Christianity’s role in empire building (Inquisition, Crusades). Nothing about the Abrahamic traditions’ beliefs (in many places) that consider woman to be lesser than man—creating policies that marginalize and exclude women from full participation in their faith communities.  Is it possible to move forward without addressing (and attempting to reconcile) the hurt and destruction many have experienced at the hands of people who use their faith tradition to justify the inequitable status quo?  

One ray of light came from the Muslim speaker—a local imam and Islamic Studies scholar.  He referred to Jesus’ parable, “The Laborers in the Vineyard,” from Matthew 20 in the New Testament.

The parable tells about a landowner “who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” He and the workers agreed on the usual daily wage and off the workers went.  The landowner “went out” again around 9:00 a.m. and seeing others “standing idle in the market-place” hired them as well for the usual daily wage.  The landowner did the same around noon, 3:00 p.m., and 5:00 p.m. When evening came, the laborers received their wages.  All of them got paid the same amount of money.  The workers hired first (early in the day) grumbled, but were rebuked by the landowner.  He said, “I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.”  The parable ends with, “So the last will be first and the first will be last”—a common theme in the parables of Jesus where conventional “truth” is often turned on its head.  

The imam, using a tradition other than his own, creatively interpreted this parable. To some degree, he modeled Diana Eck’s “encounter of commitments.” He attempted to forge a relationship with Christians by “crossing lines of difference” and “engaging with diversity.”  He invited us to consider his viewpoint, offering it as one possible way to move forward.

The imam said, “We Muslims are the 5:00 o’clock workers.” (Islam developed in the Arabian Peninsula around 500 C.E.—much later, chronologically speaking, than Judaism and Christianity.)  Both Christians and Muslims, he noted, have identical goals—working in the vineyard, hoping to reap a bountiful harvest.  The harvest comes about through joint effort.

So taken was I with his interpretation, I posted it on Facebook. A conservative, evangelical friend responded:

“Jesus was talking about those who labor for Him.  Muslims…are NOT followers of Christ as they do not believe He was the Son of God who came to earth to die for the sins of all men then rose the third day defeating death….He…is coming again to claim those who…have accepted His GIFT of eternal life.  Muslims do not accept this and therefore have no part in Gods reward.”

A good way to get to know the “other” is by working alongside them.  Many of us can attest to forming rich and long-lasting relationships with our co-workers. My friend isn’t interested in being in relationship with those whose background and stories are unlike his.

I think it’s way past time to energetically team up with vineyard workers whose traditions differ from our own, ever mindful of our mutual goal—a harvest of peace through justice. This requires us to be present in relationship with people different from ourselves.  It’s not enough to just be present with our talk.


Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va.  She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam.  She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE  REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.

Categories: Activism, Faith, Friendship, General, Relationships, religion

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11 replies

  1. Appreciate the reminder from the Muslim speaker and from you about how radical Jesus was, how he liked to turn everything and everyone upside down and inside out.


  2. It seems to me that you attended a symposium of white men who are not truly interested in heart-to-heart meetings with anyone else. Was this symposium worth the time you spent there?


  3. Why do I want to run around the block, screaming? Is it the white clergy men who use a women’s idea, leave out what doesn’t suit them, and “forget” to give reference for credit, or respect? Is it the “Christians” who think they are the only ones in relationship with the One we call “god”? Have they never read the gospels? I despair sometimes.

    Thank you for introducing me to Diana Eck and her processes. It is so badly needed these days. And I, while not in possession of an entrance certificate to “Christian Heaven”, always need to open my ears and heart to those who differ from my understandings of things important to me.


  4. Great post, Esther. It’s disappointing — as Barbara points out — that there were only white men on the panel, that they appropriated Diana Eck’s concepts without giving her credit (SIGH!), but at least they were talking to each other. That’s progress when you look over the past few decades (and compare to certain political candidates). Diana Eck has taught me a lot, too. A wonderful scholar on Hinduism (as well as her Pluralism work).


    • Thank you, Nancy. You’re right. For years, I was in a community that thought it wrong to “mix” (however that was defined) with “pagans” (defined as people who did not believe like “us”). Roman Catholics and Protestants could never team up–so to speak. There were/are too many things that are irreconcilable. These guys at the symposium were talking to each other, but nonetheless, I couldn’t help but note that they were also posturing and looking to “top” each other. That alone was a turn off!


  5. On pluralism. We can also work with or love someone who walks a very different path than we are walking and yet enjoy that difference, for its own sake. The idea that we have to convert people to our path is way out of sink with how nature does things. All of nature is flush with diversity and yet somehow it all works together. At FAR, there can be so many different viewpoints, but even if they are conflicting, still they are interesting. What do the colors yellow-green and magenta have to do with each other — nothing and yet everything — because they are both part of a spectrum, and so are our ideas.


    • Yes, great analogy, Sarah. Diana Eck was the first person I ever heard who said when we “engage” with another person whose faith tradition is different from ours, we don’t leave our commitments at the door. We engage with another fully committed to who we are. Fits nicely with all the colors engaging together in nature fully committed to their magenta, green, or yellow.


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