Reflection: Just deserts or just love?

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
20th of September 2020

Matthew 20:1-16

The trouble with being a regular attender at church, hearing the gospels read every Sunday, is that we get used to them. They become familiar and so, unlike Jesus’ first hearers, we are seldom shocked by what he says. That is not the case with today’s parable from the Gospel according to Matthew. No matter how often I hear it, it surprises and worries me. It seems unfair, and I am someone who very much wants the world to be fair.

In today’s Bible reading Jesus tells of a landowner who wanted to hire some workers. He first went out to hire at the break of day and ‘after agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them out into his vineyard’. The landowner then returned to the marketplace four more times as the day wore on: at nine, at noon, at three, and, finally, at five – just an hour before the end of the working day. When the day ended, the landowner lined up the workers and paid them, beginning with the last to be hired, who received for their hour of work an entire day’s pay. The first ones hired also received a full day’s wage – just as they had bargained for and just as they had been promised. But, not surprisingly, the first workers were upset. They argued that it was not fair that the last comers should be paid the same amount as them, who had ‘borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat’. It did not seem fair to them, and it does not seem fair to me. The saying that ends the parable, ‘So the last will be first and the first will be last’ doesn’t help, because unless Jesus is referring specifically to the order in which the workers are paid, the first aren’t last and the last aren’t first. Instead, everyone is the same – no matter how long they worked for, everyone receives that same day’s wage. What is going on?

This parable is only told by Matthew, and Bible translations often give it the title of ‘The Labourers in the Vineyard’. Maybe, just as the parable in Gospel according to Luke should really be called ‘The Prodigal Father’ rather than ‘The Prodigal Son,’ this parable should be called the ‘The Good Employer’ or ‘The Merciful Employer’. The parable we know as ‘The Prodigal Son’ is another ‘unfair’ one in which Jesus’ first hearers were more likely to identify with the well-behaved elder brother than the profligate younger one. In the same way, this may be a parable that Jesus was telling those who considered themselves to be the hard-working first-comers; the religiously observant, the scribes and Pharisees, who looked at the sinners and tax-collectors who gathered around Jesus and were welcomed to the kingdom of heaven and said, ‘It’s not fair’. We know that they complained about Jesus eating and drinking with sinners, and Jesus had to remind them that he came to call not the righteous but sinners. (Matthew 9:10-13) This parable might have originally been for them. When Matthew came to write it down, he did so in the context of a community made up of both those who had tended the vineyard from the early morning, Jews who had always kept the Torah and lived virtuous lives, and Gentile Christians, those who without doing any work were suddenly full members of the community, invited to go into the vineyard at the very end of the day. They probably needed to hear it, too.

Twice in the Gospel according to Matthew Jesus quotes from the Prophet Hosea, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’. (Matthew 9:13, 12;7) What we are seeing in this parable is God’s mercy. The landowner is not rewarding some workers more than others. The landowner is giving the first and the last the same. He is giving to everybody according to their needs, not according to their deserts. This is what the first workers complain of, ‘you have made them equal to us’. As the landowner explains to them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?’ This is justice – offering to the first-hired the daily wage that they have earned. But the landowner also shows mercy – offering the last-hired exactly the same daily wage, what they need to live.

As the landowner points out, he has every right to do what he wants with his own. ‘Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ In the Greek, that last phrase is literally, ‘Or is your eye evil because I am good?’ It takes us back to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus taught, ‘The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness’. To look on another with envious eyes is to fill ourselves with darkness. (Matthew 6:22-23) The landowner is telling the first workers the same thing we heard the Apostle Paul tell the Romans last week: ‘Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall.’ (Romans 14:4) Who are we to do decide what another should receive? That is up to the Lord, who gives everything.

Jesus tells us that this is what the kingdom of God is like. It is a world that is hugely different from ours. It is characterized by the landowner’s generosity and mercy, which parallels that of a father who runs to welcome his lost son, and a king who invites guests from the streets for his wedding banquet. The landowner claims the right to pay his workers based on compassion. In this parable Jesus tells us that God is not working with a rights and rewards scale, and then making exceptions. God is simply acting out of love, because compassion and mercy are at the heart of God’s being. If we persist in thinking of God in terms of rights and responsibilities, or our relationship with God in terms of what we have earned, we miss the point of the gospel. God’s love is offered to all with absolute generosity. As Jesus told the Pharisees, what God wants is mercy, not sacrifice.

One of the aspects of 21st century Christianity that troubles me most is the popularity of the prosperity gospel, the idea that God wants us to be rich. People who hold it see the prosperity of the rich as a sign of God’s favour, and the poverty of the poor as a sign of God’s rejection or punishment. Strangely enough, prosperity theology can be attractive for the world’s poor because it gives them a sense of control. If God is punishing them for their sins, then they simply need to stop sinning and they will no longer be punished. It reassures than that they are not the victim of random forces; their rescue is in their own hands. But here in Australia, of course, the prosperity gospel is more usually held by those who are rich in the world’s goods and want to justify their wealth. Today’s parable shows us that the kingdom of heaven is not a place where the deserving are rewarded and the undeserving punished. It is not a place in which some are wealthy, and some are poor. Instead, the kingdom of heaven is a place where all are made equal and all have enough. There is little that is ‘gospel’ about the prosperity gospel.

We do need to be careful when reading today’s parable not to use it to justify inertia here on earth. One of the commentators I read this week writes that there is the potential for abuse when teaching this parable, using it ‘to uphold an unjust status quo in which oppressed persons are admonished to wait patiently for their reward, while those in power maintain their “first” status’.[1] While I dislike the prosperity gospel, I dislike even more the theology demonstrated in the original words of the hymn ‘All things bright and beautiful’:

The rich man in his castle,
the poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
and ordered their estate.

This parable should not be used to justify unfairness in contemporary labour practices!

But today’s parable does remind us that when our only measure is fairness, when our preoccupation is our just deserts, we can lose touch with God’s grace and graciousness. We forget the God who has extended generosity and forgiveness to us, the landowner who came to hire us when we were simply standing around. Through this parable, Jesus invites those who were called first, the scribes, the Pharisees, to comprehend the world into which they have been welcomed and so to join him in welcoming the last ones – the sick, the poor, the women, the latecomers, the unimportant – instead of comparing and complaining.

In these last months of the liturgical year, as we hear from Jesus’ final teachings in the Gospel according to Matthew, we are approaching a series of parables about the last judgement, in which there will be much ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’. Fortunately for us, God is not just the righteous judge, the one who gives us what we deserve. God is, even more, the compassionate friend, the one who offers us love. Why would we want fairness when instead we are blessed with God’s generosity? Today’s parable tells us that God is not primarily fair. God is primarily compassionate. God is love. Thank God for that! Amen.

[1] Kathryn D. Blanchard in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, p. 96.

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Reflection: To argue or not to argue?

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
of September 2020

Romans 14:1-12

Today is my first Sunday with you as your minister, and it happens to be the last Sunday on which the lectionary gives us a reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Since Trinity Sunday we have had fourteen straight weeks of extracts from this wonderful letter, and I hope to be able to explain in full just why I think that it is so wonderful in 2023. For now, let us look at this final passage that the lectionary offers us.

In it, Paul may be addressing issues that he knows are already of concern to the church in Rome, or he might be trying to pre-empt problems that have caused division in other Christian communities. Whichever is the case, after sharing the gospel with the Romans, Paul tells them to live their life in a manner worthy of that gospel. Such a life is based on love, because ‘the one who loves another has fulfilled the law … Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law’. (Romans 13:8-10). It is not love, today’s passage reminds the Romans and us, to quarrel over opinions or to pass judgement on one another. Continue reading

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Covid19 Diary 11

Samuel Pepys: August 8, 1665
… The streets mighty empty all the way now, even in London, which is a sad sight. And to Westminster hall, where talking, hearing very sad stories from Mrs Mumford among others, of Mrs. Mitchell’s son’s family. And poor Will that used to sell us ale at the Hall door – his wife and three children dead, all I think in a day. So home through the City again, wishing I may have taken no ill in going; but I will go, I think, no more thither.

August 9, 2020

Melbourne is in Stage Four lockdown; the rest of the state has returned to Stage Three. The virus escaped hotel quarantine, and then got into other workplaces, probably in both cases because casual staff were not properly trained in personal protection, or did not have access to appropriate PPE, and were working across multiple sites.

Most unhappily, it got into aged care homes. That was always one of my fears, knowing from my visiting experience how incredibly hard it is to stop an infection running rampant through an aged care facility once it gets in. We see it every winter with flu, which is why as a minister I always get a flu shot, and we see it whenever there is gastro. I have been checking the UnitingAgeWell website every day to see how they are coping. Staff members have tested positive, but so far it doesn’t look as though there has been any onsite transmission, and none of the residents have it. I’d like to think this is because UnitingAgeWell is a not-for-profit with all government grants used for the benefits of the residents rather than to fund the lavish lifestyles of its owners (which I guess would be all of us – members of the Uniting Church) but I’m aware how much luck has played a part in community transmission so I can’t make that claim.

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Reflection: At sea in a storm

Reflection for Western Heights Uniting Church
August 9, 2020

Matthew 14:22-33

The church has from its very beginning been considered metaphorically to be a boat. This is unsurprising when we consider that Jesus’ first followers were fishermen and that the gospels often tell us of Jesus himself getting into a boat, including once when ‘such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach’ (Matthew 13:2). It is no accident that the part of the church that the congregation sits in is called the nave, and that the word comes from the same root word as ‘navy’ and ‘navigate’ (Latin navis meaning ship). Anytime you sit in a church’s nave you are sitting in a ship, and if you look at the ceiling of old churches, you’ll notice that many of them do look like the upside-down hull of a boat. The image of the church as a ship is one that is used in the logos of the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches in Australia, and in our own Uniting Church logo. All of them have elements that look like tall ships.

WCCNCCAUniting Church Logo

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Reflection: Wrestling with God

Reflection for Western Heights Uniting Church
2nd of August, 2020

Genesis 32:22-31

I am writing this reflection on the day when the Victorian government announced that more than 723 Victorians had tested positive for Covid19, the highest daily count since the virus began. There are 9998 cumulative cases in Victoria. One hundred and five Victorians have died. It is hard to know what to say in the face of this. I cannot offer promises that things will get better, that all the sick will survive, that a vaccine will rapidly be found, that this pandemic will soon be over. Like so many Christians throughout history we are living through a time of danger and death.

The German theologian Jurgen Moltmann writes of his questioning when he lived through the bombing of Hamburg in July 1943, in which 80,000 people died. Moltmann says that his question wasn’t ‘why has God let this happen?’ Instead it was: ‘my God, where are you? Where is God? Is he far away from us, an absentee God in his own heaven? Or is he a sufferer among the sufferers? Does he share in our suffering? Do our sufferings cut him to the heart too?’[1] And of course in Jesus we know that the answer to these questions is ‘yes’. This is why the Apostle Paul is able to write to the church in Rome that affirmation that I have repeated again and again through this lockdown: ‘I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’. (Romans 8:38-39) When we suffer, the God who loves us suffers with us. We are never alone. Continue reading

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The pandemic is making Australian media racism even more dangerous

Please, read this. And then be careful about which media you consume.

Ketan Joshi

Racism manifests in Australia’s media outlets in very specific ways. These are not immediately obvious to many, which means you have to carefully and patiently spell out exactly how and why waves of xenophobia rise in the industry. I’ve written about a few of these, before.

Pauline Hanson, a racist Queensland politician was elevated back into power through paid slots on morning TV. The flood of support for her was attributed to economic anxiety and employment related dissatisfaction, rather than racism. It made me frustrated. But the role of media in her rise was barely discussed. 

For just over one year, engineer and author Yassmin Abdel-Magied was targeted by News Corporation outlets (she’s Muslim, which played a big part) for suggesting Australia’s yearly war commemoration address other issues too, in a seven word Facebook post. The duration and scale of this was incredible, and I quantified in thesethree

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Reflection: Comfort during Covid19

Reflection for Western Heights Uniting Church
26th of July 2020

Romans 8:26-39

‘We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.’

Recently I found out that the Haitian Creole Bible translates Matthew 19:26, ‘for God all things are possible,’ as ‘with God we can make do’. Haitian history would not allow them to say that all things are possible with God. But it did allow them to say that with God they were able to endure.[1] I wish I knew how they translated Romans 8:28, because I think this verse would be just as difficult. Can we honestly say that all things work together for good for those who love God?

Victoria is in the midst of a second wave of Covid19 infections; most of them seem to be acquired in workplaces; and we know that some people have gone to work even when sick because they are in casual employment and don’t have sick leave. People are now dying because over the past few decades we have allowed the casualisation of the Australian workforce, with so many people in insecure work that commentators now refer to them as the ‘precariat’. And this is in Australia, one of the richest countries in the world. We are seeing how much worse the situation is in countries without our resources. Over 15 million people have been infected with Covid19 worldwide, and over 600 thousand have died. Which elements of this situation can work together for good?


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Covid19 Diary 10: Signs of the Times

Samuel Pepys: July 20, 1665
… walked to Redriffe, where I hear the sickness is, and endeed is scattered almost everywhere – there dying 1089 of the plague this week … But Lord, to see how the plague spreads; it being now all over Kings street, at the Axe and the next door to it, and in other places.

July 21, 2020
Walking through Queenscliff yesterday.

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Reflection: The children of God

Reflection for Western Heights Uniting Church
19th of July 2020

Romans 8:12-25

This week we are again hearing from the Apostle Paul as he shares the gospel with the Christians in Rome. There are two reasons that I have us spending so much time listening to Paul. The first is that the language of this letter can be quite difficult and it’s easy for us to misinterpret it. I talked about that last week, when I said that it was important for us not to confuse ‘flesh,’ which Paul describes as negative, with our bodies. When Paul says that ‘those who are in the flesh cannot please God’ he is definitely not saying that God wants us to ignore, punish, or reject the bodies that God created, for instance. So understanding Paul demands a bit of interpretation. But the other reason that I am spending so many weeks talking about Paul’s Letter to the Romans is that I think Paul is brilliant. Despite his moments of cultural blindness to the full ministry of women, Paul’s explanations of the good news of Jesus are quite often completely wonderful. There are three such awesome elements in today’s reading. Continue reading

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Covid19 Diary 9

Samuel Pepys: July 13, 1665
… Above 700 dead of the plague this week.

July 13, 2020

Last time I wrote about covid19 I said that we seemed to be emerging from it in Australia. That was a silly thing to say, because down here in Victoria the number of infections have risen again and greater Melbourne is back in Stage 3 lockdown. It’s all gone a bit haywire, so much so that I looked up the origin of the word ‘haywire’. (Apparently it comes from logging camps in the USA at the beginning of the twentieth century, when ‘haywire outfits‘ repaired their tools by tying them up with wire.) Continue reading

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