St. Mary Magdalene Anglican Church
Diocese of New Westminster
Anglican Church of Canada
Wednesday 7:00 pm
Thursday 2:00 pm
September 24th Pentecost 16, 2017 John Marsh
Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-165
Perhaps, as we hear the parable, we can slow down to consider the possibility of other hermeneutic alternatives.
If we were to slow down to consider alternatives, we may be surprised.
We may notice hitherto unknown perspectives, certain choices, consequences, notice the stress, the impact of these consequences and choices on every aspect of life; we may even begin to suspect that that which promised the light of freedom also brings shadow realities, that there is no light without shadows.
The parable is almost universally held to be about the generosity of god…
And let’s be clear, it’s not that this is a wrong interpretation but perhaps, as we slow down, there can be reconsiderations of our assumptions.¹
Perhaps there is another viewpoint, another interpretation lurking beneath expected meanings.²
And so, perhaps we can ask…
Does the social position of the hearer shift how the parable is heard?
Is the landowner really the embodiment of god as we so often assume? (Truth to tell, god, whatever is going on in the name of god, slips and slides away from our assumptions.)
Who is this landowner and who are the labourers?
What is the system that produced them?³
Is the usual daily wage a fair living wage? (We know, don’t we, that in the history of labour, wage inequity and injustice are all too common!)
Why is the landowner going out at 9:00am, 12:00pm, 3:00pm and 5:00pm? Did he wilfully miscalculate what he needed?
And what’s with the observation, ‘he saw others standing idle’ (Matthew 20:3b) and the question, ‘Why are you standing idle all day?’ (Matthew 20:6b)
Are they idle or are they unemployed?
The landowner may not know but the labourers know why they’re standing in the marketplace – ‘Because no one has hired us.’ (Matthew 20:7a)
The parable haunted by the assumption of ‘laziness’ reveals a blindness birthed of arrogance and privilege; it reveals the presence of a judgement which separates the landowner from the masses of people; it reveals the insidious presence of the moralism of the elite which so often blames the poor and the victim; it reveals a profound lack of understanding, the absence of insight!
If we were to playfully imagine the original hearing of the parable, we can almost hear Jesus say, ‘you know how landowners treat labourers – it’s not to be that way among you – it’s not that way in the reign of god’; ‘you know how landowners lord it over others – it’s not to be that way among you – it’s not that way in the reign of god!’
Is a system which reduces many to the precarious status of day labourers just?⁴
Is this the grace of god or is this how domination systems work?
And the grumbling of the labourers who worked the entire day – what we’re surprised about their complaint?
Could not the generosity of the landlord have also been extended to them as well?
To be clear, the generosity of the landowner is built on the backs of the labourers; the sweat equity of the labourer is the source of the landowner’s generosity!
Yes, you can almost hear Jesus softly say, ‘It’s not to be that way among you!’
So, is this a parable of the generosity of god or a parable about how domination systems work?
Well perhaps, beneath the choice, there is a possibility of a double hearing.
Perhaps the parable is about the extraordinary generosity and compassion of god and the extraordinary lack of generosity and compassion inherent in all systems of domination!
Perhaps, if it is not too much to hope, we can be a community capable of a double hearing...
Perhaps we can be honest enough to admit that we can come together to sing hymns of love and justice, to pray prayers for the hungry and the lost, to extol the generosity of god and then, leave and live otherwise…
Perhaps we can hear Jesus whisper, ‘It’s not to be that way among you – it’s not that way in the reign of god!’
So perhaps we can be a community capable of a double hearing…
Perhaps opening to a generosity stirring within the name of god, perhaps risking grace, we can begin to see the plight of the labourer…
Perhaps deeply grounded in ‘the otherness of god’, we can come to hear ‘the other’ on their own terms:
‘We’ve not been hired.’
‘We’re dependent upon the ‘whims’ of the landowner.’
‘What you call ‘generosity’ we call dependency.’
‘God hears the cries of the people so why can’t the landowner.’ (see Exodus 3:7)
‘We want to work; we want a system to address our needs’ – where’s the concept of jubilee when you need it?
Perhaps deeply hearing the generosity and compassion of god, we can deeply live it.
Perhaps we can imaginatively hear the spectral voice of Jesus say,
‘It’s not to be that way among you – it’s not that way in the reign of god!’
Perhaps we can hear Dom Helder Camara, the former Archbishop of Olinda and Recife in Brazil, when he says:
"When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
¹ I’m not sure if what follows is a deconstruction or a reconstruction of an original hearing; either way if you can hear – hear!
² What follows represents an alternative interpretation proposed most prominently by William Herzog II, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. Ultimately it seeks to resist our tendency to spiritualize (sentimentalize) the good news of god in Christ.
³ Day labourers and tenant farmers suffered under a system which easily indebted people and then readily foreclosed on the debt.
⁴ Day labourers were the most vulnerable strata of society because their work was seasonal and often sporadic.