Saturday, September 20, 2014

Is Your Eye Evil, Because I Am Good?

Thoughts on Matthew 20.1-16
21 September 2014

Click here to listen to the Sermon as preached at the 10.00 a.m. Eucharist.

On Thursday night of last week I was paying close attention to two electoral processes taking place.  The first was the referendum on Scottish independence, the second the teachers' ratification vote on the draft agreement to end the four-month-old strike.  Both votes generated strong emotions in the hearts of partisans' on both sides of the issues:  pro-independence and pro-unionist Scots, pro-settlement and anti-settlement teachers.  Both sides in both debates must now take on the difficult task of reconciliation in the face of the decisions reached in both votes.

In some ways both votes involved the question of 'fairness'.  Is the distinctiveness of Scotland served in the present constitutional structure of the United Kingdom?  For that matter, are the needs and concerns of England, Northern Ireland and Wales served as well?  In the case of the settlement of the teachers' strike, we have competing questions of fairness when we consider the needs and concerns of teachers, students, parents and government.

'Fairness' begs another question that is the concern of today's gospel reading from Matthew.  What is 'fairness'?  Some would say that 'fairness' means 'an equitable distribution' of any resources, tangible or intangible.  When we are being 'fair', no one gets more than anyone else and everyone, in an ideal situation, gets enough.  This notion of 'fairness' is often the one our children expect:  If I give one child two cookies, the others think it only 'fair' that they receive two as well.

But other voices might say that 'fairness' means 'a just distribution' rather than an 'equitable' one.  A 'just' distribution sometimes means that one group, deprived of 'fairness' over many generations, might actually be given a greater share or consideration.  This may mean that when all things are equal, preference might be given to the appointment of a woman or an aboriginal person to a given position.  The time should come when such preference is no longer necessary, but, for the present, it is.

Today's reading from Exodus and from the Gospel according to Matthew suggest a third course:  'fairness' as 'generosity'.  As the people of Israel complain in the desert and long for the 'benefits' of their slavery in Egypt, it might seem 'fair' that God leave them to their own devices.  After all, ingratitude for freedom would, I think, irritate any deity.  But God's response is generosity:  quail descend from the heavens and manna, a food source derived from the secretions of insects feeding on tamarisk trees, covers the ground.  There is enough for all and, on Friday, the eve of Sabbath, God doubles the amount so that no one has to work on the Sabbath to find food.

In Matthew's parable of the labourers in the vineyard we hear something that would probably disturb some economic commentators.  All the workers receive the same amount of pay:  a denarius, the amount of money considered sufficient to feed a family for one day.  The owner of the vineyard is unwilling to send anyone home hungry; all will have enough.  But tomorrow they will all return to the same struggle for survival, a momentary respite in a unforgiving world.

When confronted by the leader of the labourers who have worked all day long, the owner responds, 'Why be jealous because I am generous?'  The literal translation of the Greek is marvellous:  'Is your eye evil because I am good?'  This is the real question:  What should be our response to the generosity of God?

The simple answer to this question is that we should be grateful.  Gratitude, genuine, heart- and mind-changing gratitude, is not always a quality of North American society and culture.  We are surrounded by messages, whether in the media or elsewhere, that extol self-reliance, independence and, in some cases, self-satisfaction.  One ad campaign's theme is 'You deserve this'. Another proclaims 'the benefits of membership'.  It is as if we intuitively understand that generosity requires a response and that response will change our lives.

Please don't get me wrong.  I value hard work and I respect those who make sacrifices to achieve their goals.  But I value more the old saying that 'much is expected of those to whom much has been given'.  Many of the benefits you and I enjoy are, in part, accidents of birth.  What God asks is what we will do with these benefits.  Will we respond to God's generosity with a gratitude that opens our hands, our hearts and our minds so that all God's children may be free from all those conditions that lessen their dignity and impoverish the quality of their lives?

When we chose the theme of 'a kingdom of abundance' to guide this year's fall financial campaign, we did not choose it because it was a catchy phrase.  We chose it because Walter, Heather, Christine and I actually believe that all of us who participate in the life and ministry of Saint Faith's do live in a kingdom of abundance, whether the abundance of financial resources, the abundance of talents or the abundance of time.

My experience of this community and so many like it throughout our Diocese is that we do not have 'evil eyes'.  I think that we are like those workers who, having only worked an hour, go home to their families with a full day's wages and say, 'You will not believe what happened to me today!'  I imagine that some of those workers invited their neighbours who had not worked to come and share their good fortune.  Gratitude is infectious; gratitude is always open-handed rather than close-fisted.  That has always been my experience when I travelled to the Solomon Islands, Burma and many aboriginal communities, places we often describe as 'poor'.  The gratitude of the 'poor' to the Giver of all things leads to their generosity to all those whom the Giver loves.  

May our hearts, hands and minds be open in gratitude to the One who has given us all that we have.  May our 'fairness' be equitable, just and, more importantly, generous.  Amen.

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