Lectionary: Matthew 20:1-16
The story of day labourers, some who worked all day, and some only the last hour of the day. The landowner paid them all the full day's pay, to the disgust of those who had worked all day.
Preached at the end of a week of atrocities in East Timor, as Australia prepared to send in peace keepers.
Life in the time of Jesus, and before, was like now. It was often hard. Justice, peace, safety and security seemed to be arbitrary and dependent on chance for everyone but the rich and powerful.
There was a hope and dream in Israel that a time would come when God, or at least God's direct representative, would be on the throne. This time, or vision, was called the Kingdom of Heaven. At that time, things would be proper and just.
Often, people would wonder, what will it be like when the Romans are not in charge of us. What will it be like when we don't have John Howard or Kim Beasley*, but when we have God's ruler "on the throne." Rarely was the question asked from the considerable comfort of Australia. It was more like, "What will happen when it is not Indonesia ruling us, but God is the ruler?"
It was a very earthly vision. "The kingdom of God has come near," or "is at hand" it says in the New Testament. It is near you here on earth. It is NOT about pie in the sky when we die. It is beginning now!
Even in the book of Revelation, where things were so bad that the writer could only see that God would have to destroy everything and start over again- it is a new earth where people will live.
So let us come to our own time. We have just seen in Indonesia a planned evil. It was planned to wipe out East Timor if it should vote for independence. And so people there cry, and we cry, will there be a time when God is in control? And we long for a time of peace and justice when it will be clear that God is in charge, and it looks like it! That is: when life is lived according to the standards of Jesus, with justice, love, and compassion the environment of all the people.
If we think more deeply we ask, what would such a time be like? And we find a startlingly radical vision in the New Testament. It talks of forgiveness. It talks of reconciliation. Children have rights (19:13) They will be the most important, when in New Testament times they were without rights and seen as the least. It is a vision of radical goodness.
God's rule was to be for the poor, which was most people! It's success was measured by the status of the poor. (This is antithetical to the constant pressure to cut back on social services like health, education, and social security, which we see today.) "How hard it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven?" said Jesus. It was basically impossible, except by some miracle of God.
What God's rule will be like is the subject of the chapters leading up to today's reading. Today's reading is a story of day labourers. It would have seemed highly unlikely in its time.
If you were not a landowner i.e. rich, or a tradesperson, you went to the market place early in the morning and the rich hired you by the day. Day labourers were the ordinary workers of the day. They were today's workers in the factory, or the mine, or in the data entry room, as opposed to the white collar staff. They were to be paid on the day. Without that pay they would have no food for the next day.
They were the poorly paid of today. If they were not hired for the day, then they had no money, and their family had no food. They had no other options for work. So if they were not hired early in the morning they would stay in the market place, in the hope that someone would want more workers and hire them during the day.
And for a day's work they got a day's pay.
For half a day they were paid half a day. Just like now.
Jesus is telling the story to say that God's rule (the "kingdom of heaven") is quite the reverse. When things are done God's way, it will not be like this. The land, the country, the system, will have enough generosity and enough compassion that everyone will have enough to eat, even if there is no work, or just an hour a day. We will not make some people obscenely rich, and leave others poor.
Those who are rich will have with their riches a responsibility. They will have their riches, and we have our riches now, for the good of the society, not for their own comfort. A truly rich person lives no more affluently than the rest of us, but their money supports and works for many others and give them food and dignity. We who are rich, have a responsibility to ensure the common good of society. God's rule is first of all simply sheer humanity.
This is alien to us. "Many who are first will be last," he said. Money, power, privilege, family, race, status will be of no consequence. Just sheer humanity will be what counts.
I am told that it is asked, "Why do the ministers waste their time on these "no-hopers" who come to the parish mission?"
(Is their underlying this is the thought that the ministers should spend their on us-we pay them?)
When we are tempted by questions like this, maybe we could ask ourselves, "Are we seeking to be part of God's economy, or part of the ungodly cash-is-the-most-important-thing economy of this world?"
We are rich. We have food, and houses. We receive the sacraments of the church, and the 'benefits of Christ'. We are able to attend worship.
What about those with far less, or nothing? The angry dispossessed who frighten us in the street or on the train. The shamed and frightened ones who come into the parish mission, unable to pay for food, or fleeing from a violent husband who has smashed everything they have.
We are fond of quoting what Jesus said. "Where two or three are gathered in my name there I am also." Are we simply claiming to meet "in the name," or are we really meeting "in the name" as is demonstrated by our "kingdom attitude" of compassion and generosity. "By their fruits you will know them," he said.
Today's reading is a profound challenge to all that our society holds dear. It asks us if we will really be in the kingdom of God or not. Will we take offence at Christ, in what he says to us here?
If we are to live for the kingdom, then things like the parish mission, how we live, what we do with our time and our money, and how we are generous or judging of others, are important. These things are the test of whether we really believe... or whether we really are the privileged people who had work all day, and yet still complained at the compassion and generosity of God the landowner.
When 2 or three of us are gathered together, will Jesus be among us, or will we be a sham? Amen.
Andrew Prior September 2008
*The Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition in Australia
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