Todays readings for 16th Sunday After Pentecost-also known as Social Justice Sunday Exodus 16:2-15 Psalm 105:1-6,37-45 Philippians 1:21-30 Matthew 20:1-16
Transcript of the Sermon given by Reverend Roberta Hamilton.
Social justice is a very big topic and I could talk about it every week of the year and still not cover everything that there was to say.
I want this morning to have a look at two of this morning’s readings and a couple of other passages and talk very briefly about what it all means for us.
At first glance the Exodus reading may not seem to say very much about social justice, unlike many of the passages in Leviticus where there are direct references to what you must do to care for the widows and orphans your enemies and the alien within your community, among others. But in this early stage of the formation of the Israelite nation a very basic principle is illustrated.
The Israelites have escaped from Egypt and have begun their wandering in the dessert. But food is obviously scarce for these people who have been slaves, who naturally have to be fed or they can’t work. Moses has taken them from the ‘flesh-pots’ of Egypt to return to a nomadic life, which was how their ancestor’s lived, however many generations before. But they don’t have the flocks to feed themselves and they become hungry very quickly and start to complain against their leaders. Now we have a very negative idea of ‘complaining’, we think that they are whinging but they are just like the poor souls we have seen running out of Myanmar fleeing persecution and starving. God hears their cries and provides for them. They haven’t yet reached the ‘promised land’ where they will till the ground- become a settled agrarian society, and while they are nomadic hunter gatherers God provides quail for them to hunt and manna for them to gather. The basic necessities are given by God not for any righteousness in them but simply because they are humans. This picture is again mythical, but it tells us something about God- God doesn’t want people to starve. And when we look at our world some of the starvation is effected by climatic factors but much of it is the result of war, or social disruption, and the people living in the marginal places where the ground is poor or the climate unforgiving are living there because they have been pushed there. All of us, given the choice, would inhabit the flesh pots of Egypt or the land flowing with milk and honey. The other really interesting thing here is that there is a sacramentalisation of eating and drinking. This, following as it does the Passover meal, reveals the sacredness of food. There are instructions about how it is to be gathered, and the provisions are that it will not last beyond the day- this is not something that you can trade with! And at the same time, it will last so that you can properly observe the Sabbath, which in the timeframe of the text has not yet been hallowed, except in creation itself. It also ceases as soon as they pick the ‘first fruits’ of the new land.
The Gospel for today seems to me to illustrate a similar point. This parable, in its particular context here in Matthew’s gospel comes at the end of a discourse about money and its use. A man, who is rich, but not in Matthew a rich young ruler, comes to Jesus and asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to keep the commandments and he says that he already does that, so what does he lack? Jesus says if you want to be ‘perfect’, and here I read ‘complete’, he must sell his possessions and give to the poor and then follow Jesus. But the young man goes away sad because he has many possessions, obviously inherited one would think given the careful detail just at the end there that he is ‘young’. The disciples are very surprised when Jesus tells them that it is hard for the wealthy to enter, not heaven, but the Kingdom of God, God’s Kingdom here and now. Peter quickly reminds Jesus that they have left all their possessions to follow him and Jesus assures him that there are benefits to that. And says, for the second time that the first will be last and the last shall be first.
Then he tells this parable- a strange and confronting one for those of us with a good protestant work ethic.
It is really important when looking at the parables to remember that they were brief little stories in which the details are very important but nevertheless the overarching story is there to make one big point. And the one big point here is that the first shall be last, and the last first. There is no explanation for why the landowner doesn’t just hire them all at the beginning of the day or why some of them were not hired by someone else; the important thing is that when they are paid, they are all paid the same, regardless of how long or hard they have worked. The one’s who have borne the brunt of the work are indignant, but the land owner, gently reminds them that they have not been treated unfairly, but that it is his right to pay what he chooses. Now, one thing that is important about this is that the money the have all received is the daily subsistence wage. Nobody is getting rich here, but they are all paid enough so that they can eat. And the landholder is like the God that fed them all in the wilderness, old and young, good hunter or poor. It seems that God wants us all to be fed.
I was imagining this parable being read to Pauline Hanson or someone of her ilk. She wouldn’t get it, I don’t think. There would be cries about working hard and not giving things to people who don’t deserve them, but it appears to me that at the most basic level God feeds us all, and those at the bottom of the heap are going to be first in God’s Kingdom.
This week I attended the Archbishop’s Chat about Homelessness. This interesting conversation was moderated by Barney Zwartz, and involved Tony Nicholson from the Brotherhood of St Lawrence and Jason Russell a man who has been homeless but is now assisting others through Anglicare, and the Archbishop himself. It quickly became clear that whatever responsibility the individuals might bear for their state it was systemic failure that led many into the problem of homelessness and certainly that kept them there. God’s principle for making sure that each person had enough to eat each day includes I am sure the provision of a place to sleep as well. The causes of homelessness are complex, but some that stood out were unemployment, mental health issues, trauma, family breakdown, including family violence, and the lack of affordable housing. People on the New Start allowance often have to choose between eating and having somewhere to live, and in their homeless state still have to attempt to meet the criteria for the allowance. We hear a lot of rhetoric about making people work for the dole, but then we do not provide the structure to enable that. And in God’s vineyard those who couldn’t work for the whole day were still paid a living wage. Another very alarming statistic was that the rough sleepers that are visible, only make up 10% of those who are homeless in our society. So the problem is much bigger than any of us realise.
In this brief conversation a number of Social Justice issues were raised, because they are interconnected. Domestic violence is something that we have heard a lot about over recent times but again, there is not much actually being done to counteract it nor to support the victims. Poverty, particularly effecting children is rife in our society. I know I said last week that we are among the wealthiest in the world, but at the same time at the bottom of the heap in our wealthy society there is still poverty. There is also poverty rife among the aged population. And all these problems need to be addressed at a systemic level. The problem of refugees worldwide is growing at an alarming rate. We only see a very small number of the world’s refugees here in Australia, but from the rhetoric about them you would think we had a million people on our doorstep as they do in other places in the world. We have all watched the people of Myanmar fleeing the villages that are being burnt down, and hearing the stories of people killed. We condemn both the powers that be in Myanmar and the Bangladeshis who are failing to welcome them, and all the time we have Rohingyas locked up on Manus and Nauru. We the people of Australia continue to allow our government to actively mistreat the most desperate people of the world.
The problem of slavery is a huge and largely unseen one for us though there are people, even in our happy home who are enslaved. And the number of children in child labour around the world is horrifying. There are also, of course, the many problems faced by our first nation people.
All of this requires a three-pronged attack to make change. The first is relief, the second is development, and the third is structural reform.
The good news is that the churches continue to lead the way in the provision of aid or relief, for all of these social justice issues. In Australia the homeless are being cared for by the Brotherhood of St Lawrence, Anglicare and many other Christian organisations, indeed if the Christians were to withdraw from the sector the whole thing would collapse. And it is the same in other areas. We are good at providing relief, here at this church we regularly provide groceries for the hungry in our corner of the world. We also support agencies through our missional giving.
The second part of the tripod is development, which is much easier to see in other countries than in our own. Many of you, like me, would support one of the aid agencies, like World Vision or Compassion, Oxfam or Unicef, and UNHCR who help with education, with wells, with small loans to establish little businesses. In Australia it is again our agencies like Brotherhood or Benetas that are involved in developing programs to effect change.
And the third part of the process, structural reform? Well, this is by far the most difficult on which to impact. And again, our agencies try to influence government both here and abroad, but while governments, of whichever persuasion are looking only to the next election by means of the polls, it continues to be an uphill battle. And I believe that it is here that Christians could have a huge impact. If we were to petition our government for the changes that are necessary for social justice to be done, our voices, when combined would be heard. I am not talking here in any sense about party politics because to be effective we need to petition people on both sides of the political divide.
“What does the Lord require? Does God want a sacrifice of bulls or even of our firstborn?” the prophet Micah asks. No the answer is clear, God requires that we, “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God”. Together we pray every week that God’s kingdom will come and that God’s will, will be done. Let us do our part for God’s Kingdom.