The Kingdom of God is Like This ...
Ordinary Sunday 25, 18 September, 2011
Nicholas Browne, Lay minister at St Peter's, Eastern Hill
You know, one of our problems is that we don't take the Bible literally enough.
OK, now I have your attention, I promise that I will explain what I mean by that a bit later on, but it was such an arresting way to start a sermon that I couldn't resist beginning with it.
Today's gospel reading has been very important to me for a long time for reasons that go back to my 20s. I studied ancient history under Professor Ron Ridley at Melbourne University in the 1980s. And when you study the Graeco-Roman world you pretty soon realise that virtually every source you can read comes from within a tiny elite population and ignores the life of the vast majority of the population of the time. For a historian, then, part of the value of the gospels — and the synoptic gospels in particular — is that they give some clue to the thought world of people far removed from the urban elites represented by writers like Cicero or Seneca. I've recently been reading a book called Invisible Romans by Robert Knapp who has trawled the literary and epigraphical sources for evidence of how the ordinary people of the Roman Empire lived, behaved and thought. And it is striking how often he makes use of the gospels. Parables such as this can give the historian some useful clues about, for example, the experience of hired labourers: clues that are virtually absent from most contemporary sources.
Look at the situation of the labourers in the parable. They're there in the marketplace at dawn hoping someone will hire them. But some of them are still there at noon, and some late in the afternoon. Knapp calculates that a Roman day labourer could just keep his family fed if he worked every day. So those men's families would be one step closer to starvation. This is not an experience you encounter in the literature of the Roman elite.
Indeed, the radical American scholar Ched Myers refers to one of the synoptics, in his case Mark's gospel, as "virtually alone among the literary achievements of antiquity for one reason: it is a narrative for and about the common people. The Gospel reflects the daily realities of disease, poverty and disenfranchisement that characterized the social existence of Palestine's 'other 95%'"
But this parable touches part of my life much more directly. For my historical endeavours, such as they were, were actually my second attempt at university study. Straight out of school, instead of doing the sensible thing and studying to be a teacher — the career aspiration I had had since at least third grade — I let myself get talked into trying something more lucrative and prestigious, and began a law degree. I hated it and felt alienated at a large impersonal campus with a population bigger than my home town. So, like many rural students before me and since, I dropped out without finishing first year. I went home to Mildura and became, quite literally a labourer in a vineyard.
Now I don't want to pain this experience as something out of The Grapes of Wrath. There are worse jobs. I've had worse jobs — being a department store Santa was just about the pits. But working in a vineyard (or a 'block' as we called them in Mildura) is no bucolic idyll. The work is hard on the back and knees, you are hot and dusty, often plastered with a nasty mixture of dirt and grape juice which attracts flies and on most blocks you are paid not by the hour but by the number of tins you pick or vines you prune. Plus if you are clumsy like me, your hands are covered with cuts from the picking or pruning knife.
And this is why this parable speaks to me so vividly. Because I think we can interpret it too much and fail to let the story speak to us. One traditional symbolic interpretation of this parable is allegorical — that Jesus is talking about the Jews and the gentiles — that though the Jews were called into the vineyard first, the gentiles would be admitted on an equal basis. Another interpretation, particularly popular in some Protestant contexts, is theological — that this story demonstrates the absolute and unaccountable sovereignty of God. Or it has been seen as a moral teaching dealing with envy and how as Christians we must eschew that nasty and destructive attitude.
But I think back to afternoons in the sun and the dirt, with my hands stinging and my back aching. And this is why I said we don't take the Bible literally enough. Forget the symbol and allegory. Forget, for a moment, even the moral teaching. Put yourself in the place of a first century Palestinian labourer. Remember, you have no job security. No disability insurance. Usually no redress against unjust employers. If you can find work it is from dawn till dusk and even then you can barely keep yourself and your family fed. Now listen to this parable.
Imagine, it says, a world where you could turn up for work at five o'clock and still get a day's wage! Just think, it says, the kingdom of God is like this.
Imagine the potency of this image for someone who struggles to get a fair day's pay for a hard day's work. Look what the kingdom is like, it says, where you don't even have to settle for fairness. Instead, the world is turned upside down. Better than what we deserve — indeed the whole idea of our just deserts is out the window. Allegory and theology and moral teaching and all of those middle class virtues — fairness, prudence, appropriateness, even justice, forget them all.
And the kingdom of God is like this!
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.