Sermons

Sun, Sep 24, 2017

Generosity and equality

Series:Sermons

The chief executive officer of Qantas--

Alan Joyce--

received a total remuneration of just over twenty-four and a half million dollars for the last financial year.

A large portion of that came from Qantas shares...

which he was offered as an incentive three years ago...

if he could turn the business around.

Qantas returned a one point four billion dollar profit this year--

it's second largest ever.

Personally, I find such salary figures absolutely mind-boggling.

And, frankly, I find them somewhat obscene.

How can any person deserve to earn that much?

Surely the company's earnings aren't just the result of one man's efforts?

What about the efforts of all of the employees?

Do they, too, get big bonuses?

Sadly, I doubt it.

And, whilst I can't fathom the extent of that payment... 

I can at least appreciate the fact that it's linked to performance.

I must admit to getting quite irate...

when I hear of massive remunerations to chief executives...

when their company makes a loss...

or they have been haggling over small wage rises for their workers.

In our modern world, so much energy and effort is expended...

in trying to secure a just remuneration.

There are whole structures devoted to it:

tribunals and mediation…

unions and management...

enterprise bargaining agreements.

And industrial relations issues have swayed more than one federal election.

We expect to be paid fairly for the work that we do.

Otherwise, there's a sense that we--

personally--

are being devalued.

 

All of which brings us to this morning's story from Matthew's Gospel...

which...

on the surface...

appears to be a story of an industrial relations dispute.

It begins with a wealthy landowner.

We know that he's wealthy because he owns a sizeable vineyard;

and, given the capital investment needed to establish a vineyard--

and the fact that it's a non-staple product--

it's something that only a very wealthy pastoralist would have produced.

This wealthy landowner goes to the marketplace and hires day labourers--

which was an entirely normal activity...

especially at harvest time.

In the first century world, day labourers were always in plentiful supply.

They were, usually, peasants who had lost their own small plots of land--

due to debt foreclosure--

and who were forced to seek whatever work and income that they could get.

By definition, they were among the most marginal in ancient society.

Their life was, indeed, precarious:

marked by long periods of under-employment...

and hence, malnutrition, disease, and poverty...

and everything that went with that.

In the story, however, this wealthy landowner goes several times during the day to hire more workers.

Clearly, it's a narrative plot device--

any astute landowner as wealthy and successful as this man...

would have known that he needed more workers than he initially hired.

Only in the case of the first group...

however...

is an agreed-upon wage mentioned--

one denarius.

Within the context of the ancient economy that was, in fact, a quite generous payment.

It was enough to support a family of four for two or three days.

The usual rate was about half of that.

With the second group hired--

and it's implied in the case of the third group--

the owner simply offers to pay them "whatever is right".

The natural assumption would be a proportion of what the first group received--

relative to the time that they had actually worked.

But, in the case of the last group hired, there's no mention of remuneration at all.

The assumption--

based on conventional wisdom--

is that they would get paid very little because they would only have done a little work.

At the end of the day, then...

when the workers come to collect their pay...

the last hired are paid first...

and receive one denarius.

Given that they had probably worked only about an hour...

it was extraordinarily generous.

We're not told what the second and third groups received--

but the implication is that they, too, received a denarius.

But the author conveniently skips them...

and focuses upon the first group.

Having toiled through the heat of the day--

the full day--

and having seen or heard that those who had worked only an hour received a denarius...

you can almost taste their excited anticipation.

Surely, they assumed, they stood to receive a windfall.

But they didn't.

They, too, received one denarius.

It was, of course, the sum that they had agreed upon.

But, given what had transpired, they thought that they should get more...

and they were bitterly disappointed that they hadn't.

In one sense, by so doing, the landowner was slighting and dishonouring them...

and demeaning the value of their labour.

Except, of course, the sum that they had agreed upon was already generous.

Which is why--

despite the landowner's retort-- 

the point of the story is not about generosity and grace.

If it were, then we would...

indeed...

expect the landowner to pay the last group more than they had agreed upon.

The story is not about generosity.

What's happening is far more subversive.

In a sense, the landowner's actions undermine the whole reward system...

which underpins the economy and society as a whole.

The landowner's actions are, effectively, dismantling structural inequality.

In one sense, all of the labourers waiting in the marketplace had equality of opportunity.

But they weren't all equal.

Surely those who were hired first represented the best of those available--

the strongest and fittest... 

the most able and the most skilled.

With each subsequent batch, surely, we have a diminution.

And yet...

are the later workers weaker and less fit because they are more malnourished?

Are they less healthy because they have more restricted access to health care?

Are they less skilled because of life circumstances beyond their control?

Equal opportunity is not the same as equality.

 

Of course, we could have a lengthy discussion about structural inequality in our world today;

how the accident of birth--

in terms of family and country...

socio-economic status and education...

colour and gender--

influences the opportunities that we have...

or the lack of them.

But, in a sense, that's not the point of this story either.

After all, it's a parable... 

which begins, "the Kingdom of heaven is like...".

In the end, this parable is trying to teach us about what the kingdom of God--

and, by implication, God--

is like.

And the point is that grace is far more radical than we suppose...

or, perhaps, even want.

There's something inherent in our natures--

whether it's innate...

or the result of social conditioning--

that we expect to be justly rewarded for our labours.

And, tacitly, that expectation seeps into our faith as well.

Although we wouldn't label it or describe it so crassly...

somehow, we expect God to reward us for what we do for God.

We expect God's acceptance and approval--

God's mercy and love--

to be conditional and proportional.

But the point of this parable is that it's not.

We are all equal.

No matter what we do.

No matter how hard we have worked.

No matter how long we have been at it.

We are all the same in God's eyes--

loved and valued.

But until we see ourselves--

and each other--

that way...

we fail to understand God...

and what it means to be part of God's kingdom.

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