Sermon: 16th Sunday after Pentecost
20 September 2020 – Archdeacon Mark Long
Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; and Matthew 20:1-16; NRSV
Today, along with marking day 178 of our South African lockdown and the last day of Alert Level 2, is also the 3rd week in the Season of Creation. Today’s theme is “Need, not Greed”, and clearly calls us to reflect on our relationship with Creation itself. We have had the opportunity to reflect on our relationships with one another and with our communities over the past two weeks. Today broadens this conversation dramatically as we embrace the created world around us.
Scripture, specifically the early stories of Genesis, proclaim a boundless truth: God created everything! This truth is often undermined by our inability to hold this Biblical truth in one hand and the gift of science in the other. This is often due to our unwillingness to grapple with paradox, desiring the simplistic ease of a dualistic either/or reality when in fact life is best lived when we find the courage to perceive the world through a both/and lens. I have found Rabbi Jonathan Sacks helpful here, when he says, “Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.” This is helpful because it gives us a tool that makes it possible for us to believe that God created everything without having to deny the wonderful insights science gives us into how life and our known universe function. Very simply, when we ask the question “How?” we are asking a scientific question, and when we ask the question “Why?” we are in essence asking a religious question. Both the stories of Creation in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 are an answer to “Why?” I can imagine the older story of Genesis 2 being told around the evening fire as children asked their elders this question as they began their own search for meaning in life; and we are pretty certain Genesis 1 was written during the exile as God’s people struggled to make sense of the chaos that arose from finding themselves forcefully removed from their land.
Dualism (where we fall into the trap of seeing the world from one or other end of a continuum) has the effect of disengaging us from any search for meaning, and when we disengage from this search we disengage from each other and from life itself. Paradox engages us in conversation and is the source of learning as we explore the world around us; it draws us into relationship as we begin to search together for meaning, and births a growing understanding of how the variety of dimensions of life and our world both function and interrelate. Greed is an overwhelming symptom of disengagement.
When we consider the devastating impact of humanity on our global environment – visible in global warming, catastrophic flooding or ruinous drought, the destruction of earth’s biodiversity – greed becomes an umbrella term that defines our disengagement from need of our earth to be stewarded with care and compassion. Greed does not just impact on our external environment, but also on our relational environment, and communities become disengaged from each other and considerable need, both material and spiritual, continues to be ignored. Much of the corruption and incapacity of Government in Africa (and in other parts of the world) is greed driven, and we know from our own experience how the needs of the poor in particular remain unresolved. In previous Seasons of Creation we have been bombarded with examples and statistics of what human disengagement from the needs of the earth looks like, and Green Anglicans and other organisations continue to hold these realities before us. We cannot claim to be unaware, but we often feel powerless in the face of humanity's greed.
Today’s Scriptures offer us some direction: in Exodus we are reminded that despite our ability to whinge God does see our need, and God does respond. The Israelites, struggling with the demands of a journey from slavery into freedom, misremember the realities of life under the Egyptians and paint a rosy picture of their oppression in comparison with the harshness of desert life and their struggle to find food in the austere climate. God hears their complaint and responds with a generous provision of manna every morning and quail each evening. However, God’s provision is sufficient for their daily need, and any greed is discouraged because the manna spoils quickly and the resultant smell dissuades any urge to hoard. An important question we each need to ask of ourselves is, “How do our personal lifestyles reflect a trust in God’s ability to provide sufficiently for our daily need?”
The parable in Matthew is a little more complex. We often prefer to see life in terms of cause and effect, but a number of parables in Mathew disallow this type of thinking, and instead we are faced in today’s parable with an incomprehensible generosity where wages are disconnected from the norm, and connected instead to availability and willingness, not time. But with all parables we need to dig a little deeper, and explore some of the inconsistencies, especially as the parable is headlined with the words, “The kingdom of heaven is like …”. The landowner’s seeming generosity is tempered with the manner in which payment is made at the end of the day: those who started later are paid first, and those who have worked all day are thus made aware that although fairly paid, their effort is unrecognised in relative terms, and their dissatisfaction is evident. The Gospel can be unsettling, and this is such a time. It seems clear that the landowner desired to provoke a reaction, but why? A good place to start may be to ask – as listeners to this story – what is our reaction? Hopefully it gets us to sit up a little straighter and thinking a little more critically? And if time allowed, it would be helpful to share our thoughts. However, it is often in our discomfort that we ask our best questions, even if the answers remain illusive, as they probably will here. Parables often contain paradox, and this is such a time: how can a generous person also be seemingly vindictive (especially when we have likely aligned the lead character in the story with our image of God). One of the threads in the New Testament is the conversation around what it means to be a follower of Jesus as Messiah, and it is seemingly equally unfair that late in the day Gentiles could join the Jewish believers without any requirement that they embrace the Jewish law; and it is quite possible this parable may be a dressing this element of dissatisfaction in Matthew’s community. An important question here is, “How do we respond to God’s generosity, especially if it is generosity in which we do not immediately share?” Is there envy in our reaction, dissatisfaction? And if so, again, why? In light of today’s theme it may be helpful to recognise that greed (and resultant corruption) is often due to envy and dissatisfaction, especially if others are perceived to have gained unfair advantage, which would have been the perspective of the labourers who began early and worked a full day towards those who began as the day ended and yet received a full day’s wage. The real challenge of this passage may be to acknowledge our complicity in other’s greed.
We are complicit on a number of levels: our lifestyles quite possibly do not reflect a trust in God to sufficiently meet our daily needs, resulting in a lack of generosity or compassion towards others; a desire to deal with the speck in another’s eye while ignoring the log in our own; and more. To acknowledge our complicity can be quite freeing, because it gets us off our high-horses and back on the ground; it reconnects us where we have become disconnected, both to others and to the earth; it leads us to lament, creating a spillway for God’s mercy. There is hope in God’s mercy.
I close with a prayer from Pádraig Ó Tuama. Let us pray,