Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 14 2014

Jonah 3.10-4.11
Philippians 1.21-30
Matthew 20.1-16

Jesus today tells his disciples another parable. Parables are not straightforward stories. We can’t simply decode them into, say, a moral lesson. Jesus often spoke in parables, instead of directly saying what his point was, for a reason. Parables speak to us from a different perspective than the one we are used to. At first glance they look like the world we live in, but look again, and there is always something not quite how we know it. The perspective is different.
For instance, today’s story, where people do different amounts of work but are paid the same, is not the world we are used to. When we read parables it can seem as though we are looking at the world through a distorting mirror. The parable seems strange, but actually it is probing our consciousness. The parable is telling the truth; if it seems odd to us it’s because our perspective on the world is wrong.
How we read parables tells us about ourselves and the assumptions we bring to our reading. Parables read us as much as we read parables.
Many parables begin, like today’s, “the Kingdom of heaven is like this…” and then describe something happening, a story, something in process, not a still picture. The Kingdom is something happening, growing, moving on, so it is not something that we can pin down and say this is it, here, we’ve got it. And if the Kingdom is something happening then we need to take part in it to find out what it is.
Today’s parable is about generosity and envy. The labourers come with the world’s usual expectation of labour and reward. I do X, you therefore owe me Y. But the landowner instead subverts this. His economy is based only on his generosity, not on labour or reward. Not on labour, because he carries on hiring people he no longer needs, up to the eleventh hour. And not on reward because he rewards all equally.
This is new and strange. But his generosity is also a judgement on the labourers’ way of thinking. The order in which he pays them exposes their envy. Those who laboured longest are paid last, so they have seen that those who worked only one hour got the same as them, and this makes them envious.
Note that the action of the landowner is perceived completely differently by different groups of the labourers. The labourers of the eleventh hour presumably are happy with what they got, at any rate they go away content and not grumbling. The labourers of the first hour are envious and grumble. Although they have been rewarded as agreed, they are unhappy.
If the kingdom of heaven is like this then it means our attitude determines how we experience it. The kingdom offers a new way of being, based on generosity not debt. It is also, as we saw from last week’s parable, based on forgiveness not revenge. But to enter the kingdom we have to choose the new life it offers. If we stay in the old life of debt and revenge then the Kingdom will not be liberation for us but torment. In this week’s parable we see that it is not the landowner who makes the labourers unhappy. It is entirely their own attitude that does that to them. Their rejection of the landowner’s generosity makes them miserable.
How can the Kingdom offer this new life of generosity? Jesus tells us, the first will be last and the last first. In the parable this applies to the labourers. But Jesus himself is above all the “first” who became “last”, he is the only Son of God, the Lord of all, who entered this world, taking on our human nature and the form of a servant. In the end he was rejected, cast out of the city and killed. But in the resurrection he who was last became the first born from the dead, the first fruits of the new creation.
The resurrection is the Kingdom becoming real. The resurrection is God’s generosity without limit, flooding into the world, bringing to birth the new creation, restoring what was lost. The resurrection is God’s forgiveness without limit meeting humanity in the worst we can be and do. God’s economy, which knows nothing about debt and does not count cost, is revealed as the economy of the Kingdom, which we are called to enter.
This may have had a particular meaning for the community of Christians in which Matthew’s Gospel was written. This was a very Jewish Christian community, which is why Matthew’s Gospel emphasises the law and the prophets as pointing to Jesus. But this gospel would have been written at around the time that Gentile believers, non-Jews, were becoming Christians too.
The Jews for a thousand years or more had kept the covenant and the law, including the observance of circumcision and the laws about diet and ritual cleanliness, sometimes having to be faithful to these things in the face of persecution. So there may have been some resentment when Gentiles, who had done none of these things, were welcomed into the church too. So this teaching of Jesus, not to be envious because God is generous, would have been important for them to remember.
But this parable also has a meaning for us today, particularly at this time of political change. The Scottish referendum has opened many expectations about the future direction of politics in this country, with all the main parties already promising major changes.
Now we might think, that’s politics, what we do in church is about faith, and the two shouldn’t mix. But the Bible knows no such distinction. The gospel is addressed to the world, it is the summons to all to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And the Church is humanity beginning to live according to the Kingdom.
According to Jesus, the Church is the little bit of salt that will season the world, the little bit of yeast in the dough that leavens the whole loaf. The Church is meant to be a creative minority transforming society from within. God’s economy of the Kingdom should flow out into our political life, that is our life in the polis, the state and society we live in.
A distinctively Christian political life is not allied to any particular party. But it is a life which brings to the wider society the values of God’s Kingdom. So, beware, in the next few years, of the politics of envy and scapegoating, whether it be of benefits claimants or city bankers or of people in different regions. Many headlines and manifesto promises will subtly assume the old economy of envy and seek to co-opt us into it. We will be invited to think that “they” have got more than us, so we are entitled to some of what “they” have got.
When that is the agenda that is presented to us, we need to remember that God’s Kingdom has different values. Just and equitable distribution of resources needs to be rooted in generosity, not in envy. And generosity is not private; it is a way of living for others, so it is intrinsically social. We the church must model what we want to see in the world.
So be on your guard for, as St Peter tells us, your adversary the devil prowls about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.

Be alert for the politics of envy and scapegoating. Live the politics of generosity and inclusion. This will be a struggle, for it is spiritual warfare. The Kingdom is happening, and our choice for the Kingdom is not a one-off decision in the past but an attitude of life that we commit ourselves to afresh every day. It is from living that commitment that we will play our part in bringing the world into God’s Kingdom.

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