Friday, September 16, 2005

Industrial relations in the knigdom of God

When I was a kid we lived in Collie for a number of years – so that’s a couple of hundred kilometres down there, about three hours drive or so – and every now and then we came up to Perth for family things, I remember staying with my cousins in Perth, seeing my grandma – I remember sometimes Dad had to come to Perth by himself, wouldn’t that bore you silly?, three hours in a car by yourself, without the kids?

It was always great fun coming up to Perth, there were these different things to watch out for – one way into town I think through Armadale there was this car stuck up in a tree, a bit further on there was a plane stuck nose-down in a paddock, these things were wonderful for country kids who hadn’t seen much of the world.  I guess when I look back it, those three hour trips must have been excruciating for Mum and Dad, four kids in the back fighting the whole way down, refusing to allow the possibility that just once we might actually share something, all the time ‘are we there yet …?’  You’ve had that sort of experience?

I don’t think it’s just kids, maybe it’s human beings in general.  By the time we’re grown up we’ve maybe got it more under control, but I don’t think we’re genetically programmed to share.  It’s not always in our best interests.  One of Mum and Dad’s most diabolical tricks was ‘you cut and you choose’, I mean, how do you get around that?  How do you cut yourself just that little bit extra, because your sister is the one that gets to choose, so she’s going to get it!  The only thing you can do is save it up and use it yourself when you have kids.  Gets ‘em every time.

It’s like the do unto others rule, Jesus’ sets up this fiendish guideline that, no matter how you look at it, you can’t get around it, you have to cut the other person the exact same size slice you want to get yourself.  Maybe that’s where Mum’s rule came from, maybe that’s where we get a lot of the other rules we live by as grown-ups in a society that’s full of rules to keep us playing nicely.  Don’t overcharge, don’t fiddle your timesheet, you work the right number of hours, you get the right amount of pay.  That way everybody knows where they stand, things are fair, the world’s the right way up.  But remember all those parable in chapter 13 a few weeks back, how I said in the stories Jesus tells, the thing that he most seems to enjoy is taking something that seems the right way up and turning it on its head - like deliberately planting weeds, like tricking your neighbour into selling you a paddock with a treasure buried in it – here he does the same thing and he says, in God’s kingdom your industrial relations laws don’t work, God doesn’t think the same things are fair that you do, try this – it doesn’t matter whether you work all day or you turn up at five-to-five, you get a full day’s pay just the same – God’s kingdom’s really good news for bludgers it seems –

The people listening to Jesus’ story would have been poor, Jesus is telling these stories on the back blocks of Galilee where there’s rather a big gap between the haves and the have-nots.  Even more than today, back then maybe 95% or more of the population were have-nots, maybe half a percent were like Rupert Murdoch, the others at various levels from Herod down to the local landowner who maybe had a few acres of his won but didn’t fancy doing the actual work.  So what you do, is you get on your donkey and go down to Centrelink, where you find all the local men sitting around under a tree, hoping someone’s going to hire them today because they’ve got a wife and six kids who didn’t have any breakfast this morning and if they get some work maybe they’ll get some dinner.  That’s literally how it was.  Apart from the Centrelink thing.

And so you hire the youngest ones, the strongest looking ones, not the ones who look a bit worn out.

And that’s what the farmer does in Jesus story too, except he keeps going back during the day, and he gets more, by the end of the day he’s probably picking up grampas and men on crutches who can’t believe their luck.  And here’s the really silly thing, an hour later, everyone gets enough to buy a family’s food for the day.  That’s what a denarius was worth.  A family gets to eat for a day on a denarius.  What they got didn’t have anything to do with how long they worked, or how hard, or whether their work was any good, they just got enough to feed the kids.

Well it was bound to cause grumbling, and in spite of the farmer’s clever words the ones that worked all day have probably got a point.  You know what I mean by the ‘work ethic’?  You probably grew up with it, I did too, it’s the voice inside that tells you if someone’s paying you’ve got to give value for money.  There’s no such thing as a free ride, even if we have these dreams about winning Lotto, deep down we know it’s fair how things are.  But Jesus doesn’t think so, in God’s scheme of things there’s a deeper level of fairness, he says, that your human way of thinking just doesn’t get.

Usually I just preach on one reading, takes less brainpower.  But today the Exodus reading just jumps out at you.  The Israelites, they’re on the run out of Egypt – they’re halfway across the Nullabor Plain and Moses and Aaron are in the front seat, and the kids are fighting in the back seat, and the whole time they’re saying ‘are we there yet?  … He won’t share! … Can we stop for a drink?’  They are afraid they’re not going to get what they need.

But God gives them what they need, what they need is bread, just enough for today, and that’s what God gives them.  What they want is another thing, and they start trying to save it up, maybe open up a little manna shop, except if you keep it overnight it goes off, even in the fridge.  You just get enough.

So here’s the difference between us and God – we’re focussed on what we want, and on what we deserve.  ‘Give us what we deserve!’ -  do you mind if I rephrase that?  ‘I’ll tell you what I deserve.  Give me that.’

But God doesn’t give them what they want – only what they need.  Why?  Because in God’s economy – in God’s scheme of things – what human beings are created for is to want God.  What human beings are created to rely on – is God.  Stashing a few kilos of manna behind the hump of your camel, means not being quite convinced that God’s promises are reliable.  That’s the point.  God doesn’t give me what I deserve.  Just as well, too.  God gives me what I need.  That’s why it’s in the prayer – word for word - give us today the bread we need for today.

Yes, but.  A few people still don’t seem to be getting it though, do they?  Where’s God when you need him, when at last you’ve worked out just what he is and isn’t promising.  When’s the next delivery of bread in Dafur, how many of the necessities of life got delivered last New Year’s Day in West Sumatra?  Because just think about the story – at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, just an hour before knockoff time at sunset, the only ones left at Centrelink are the lame and the sick.  The old, the blind, foreigners that nobody trusts.  They’re not getting the bread they need today, and even now in 2005, they still don’t seem to be.  The poor miss out, the old and the sick miss out in real life.  But not in Jesus’ story, not in the way God looks at things.  You know very well the rich still get richer in the world we live in, even in spite of parables.  It’s like Jesus’ parable about the man that went our and planted weeds in his back paddock.  It’s topsy-turvy, and why’s that?  Because Jesus is telling us that in heaven things are going to be different?  Oh, yes they are, too, because of all that remains a mystery to us the one thing we know for certain is that in heaven God’s way of looking at things is the only one there is.  But that’s not the only reason.  If it was, I couldn’t look you in the face and tell you that injustice and inequality has to wait until after the next life to get made right.  That’s not what the God who creates and who loves us intends.  The mustard seed kingdom that Jesus keeps talking about, over and over – is God’s topsy-turvy perspective that keeps on peeping around the corners of the world we live in, that keeps breaking in right where you know there shouldn’t be a single crack it could have got in.  It’s the life force, the irrepressible stuff that can only mean the Holy Spirit’s in town, and Jesus says, ‘I have a dream!  The ones that always miss out – they’re not going to miss out any more!  Everyone gets enough!  I dare you to believe me!’  And you say, ‘I’d like to, but I don’t quite see …’  And then he looks at you and says, ‘well, how many bread rolls have you got there?  Any you’re not using today?’  You lose concentration for a second, just for a moment you forget how much you dislike door-to-door salesmen, and you put a bread roll into somebody’s empty hands.  That’s all it takes.  The kingdom of God has just broken in.