Text: Matthew 20.1-16
On Easter Monday, 1996, at the famous Stawell Gift Athletics Carnival, an extraordinary running race was held. It was the 400m handicap race for women. Now, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the language of athletics, the word ‘handicap’ does not here refer to a race for people with an identified disability. It refers, instead, to the practice of spacing the runners out as the race begins so that the ones with the strongest pre-race record start at ‘scratch’, that is, the starting line, and the other, weaker, runners are given a variety of head-starts further along the course. In theory, this means that were everyone to run their personal best times, they would all finish with a dead-heat at the finish line. On this particular occasion one runner, Catherine Astrid Salome Freeman – a sixteen year-old Kuku Yalanji girl from Woorabinda in Queensland - was the only runner to start at scratch, and the next closest runner was placed a full 54 metres ahead of her as the race began. Some old and grainy footage of that race has been ‘going viral’ on social media over the past couple of weeks and it is worth a look. For it shows the young Cathy Freeman not only catching the field of white runners ahead of her, but also enduring a big shove from one of them as the field passes the 350m mark. Amazingly, Cathy keeps her form and comes home to win the event by a whisker.
That Cathy did so, and went on to become both a world and Olympic champion in this same event, is something of a modern miracle. For she is Aboriginal. She belongs to a people whose lands and waterways were stolen at the point of a gun, whose ancestors were massacred, poisoned, raped, shackled, removed from country and kin, enslaved in missions, orphanages and individual homes as domestic servants, and now continue to be the single most disadvantaged ethnic group in the country on any measure. Twice as likely to be living with a disability. 4 times more likely to live with a chronic disease. 4 times more likely to take their own lives. 37 times more likely to be imprisoned than any other Australian. 1000 times more likely to die in police custody. On that Easter Monday in 1996 Cathy was at the back of the line on handicapping. But she was also at the back of the line when it came to the likelihood that she would even be there to compete. That she was able to slip pass every single white runner, including the one who tried to take her out of the race with a physical shove, is absolutely amazing. From last in the race to first. From last in this country to sporting royalty.
The story we read just now from Matthew’s gospel also talks about the last becoming first. In one of Jesus’ most intriguing parables, he says that the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who has a vineyard. The landowner goes out at dawn to the marketplace in town where willing labourers are most likely to gather. He hires those who are there after agreeing to pay them the usual daily wage, a denarius, and they head over the vineyard to pick grapes. But there are not enough labourers to secure the harvest, so the landowner goes out again at 9, 12, 3 and 5 to hire more workers. Each are hired on the promise that they will be paid ‘what is right’ for their time. Now, at knock-off time, each of the workers are paid, beginning with the last hired, and finishing with the first. Those hired at the beginning of the day are incensed to learn that all the other workers, even those hired at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, are to be paid the full daily wage, just as they are. They complain bitterly about these latecomers ‘being made equal’ to themselves, even though they have worked longer. But the landowner responds ‘Did you not agree to work for a denarius? That is what you have been paid. Are you calling me evil because I am generous towards these others?’ And so, says Jesus after he tells his story, ‘the last will be first and the first will be last’.
Now. I’ve used this story in bible studies across twenty-five years of ministry, and I can report that almost every white, middle-class, person who hears the story for the first time responds, like clockwork, ‘but that is so unfair!’ This has convinced me that many white-middle class people tend to identify most strongly with the people hired at the beginning of the day. Why? Because they are raised from birth to believe that if you don’t work, you don’t eat, and that justice is primarily about getting what you deserve because of your hard work. If you work hard, you rightly expect to be rewarded in proportion to the amount of work you have done. Since justice is proportional, it follows that those who work less than you should be paid less than you. Now, if that is what you believe, if life is most properly a meritocracy in which the hardest workers take the lion’s share of the rewards, then the behaviour of the landowner in our parable is guaranteed to offend. For it strikes at the very heart of this white, middle-class, work-ethic. It questions, and possibly even mocks, that ethic’s certainties about what is fair and what is just.
Of course, if you are white and middle-class, there are probably a lot of things that you cannot see. You may not be aware, for example, that you have a disability, an ailment that quite a few scholars are calling, very simply, ‘white-blindness’. White-blindness is an incapacity to see what life might be like for people who are not white and middle-class, for people whose very different social location may teach them really quite different lessons about the world and how it works. For when I, an Aboriginal man, read this parable, I identify not with the people who were hired at the beginning of the day, but with those who were hired at 5 o’clock. For I know, deep in my marrow, that those who are ready to work at 6am in the morning enjoy a long list of advantages that I simply cannot count on. They, for example, are most likely able-bodied. They are four times as likely as I am to be able-bodied. Which gives them a significant advantage when it comes to being job-ready. The fact that they are ready to work at 6 o’clock in the morning almost certainly means that they also enjoy good mental health. I, on the other hand, do not. Generations of racism from the most powerful towards my people means that I carry with me a weight that is very, very difficult to slough off. It is difficult to get up each day with a certainly that I will be treated fairly when multiple generations before me were not. And that has been confirmed, many hundreds of times over, in my own experience. Simply by being Aboriginal, I am three times more likely to regularly experience high levels of psychological distress than other Australians, and that makes getting out of bed in the morning quite difficult, sometimes. I won’t go on, but I hope you are getting the picture.
From a biblical studies point of view, it is clear that those who are more latterly hired by the landowner are very likely to have been the most marginalised members of Judean society at the time. Landless peasants who are continually exhausted because most landowners exploit their labour for pittance. Widows or ‘unclean’ women who have no male patriarch to protect them. Aboriginal people like the Canaanite women we encountered in chapter 15, the one whose daughter was tormented by a demon, a demon some scholars happily name ‘colonisation’. And so on. They are late to marketplace because they have learned – through cold, hard, experience – that there is little to be gained by being there early. They are outcasts, they are rarely picked for the work available, and therefore there is little point in turning up at all.
If you read the parable from that point of view, then the point of the story is not about the proportionality of justice, as white middle-class social programming might suggest. It is not even about a failure of such justice. It is about grace, grace here defined as an excess of loving generosity toward the last and the least. To all who believe that justice is satisfied by getting what you deserve, this might come as very bad news indeed! Because if you believe in meritocracy, grace proclaims the very opposite: that it is the last and the least, those who are least deserving in the eyes of the meritocracy, who can expect to receive the love and mercy of the creator and landowner of all the earth.
For the vast majority of people who live on this planet, who are not white and middle-class, the grace at the heart of the parable is actually the very best of news. For it tells us that while the world run by white people may have forgotten us, if it even acknowledges our existence at all, God has not forgotten us. From the lips of Jesus, the very son of God, we learn that God will take us from our customary place at the very back of the field, and help us along, with Cathy, to the winner’s podium. The last, those who get barely enough work to get by, will nevertheless be made equal with those who can depend on work every day.
Let’s be clear, however, that none of this happens by magic. Faith will not, for example, immediately deliver the poor and the oppressed to the front of the queue. Faith, rather, will assure the poor one, the enslaved one, that she or he is loved, accepted and free in Christ. And this knowledge, in turn, will give her the confidence and courage to have a go, and keep having a go, even if the chips are down and the system is against you. You know, when Cathy won her gold medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 she had some help. She said that her ancestors rose up from the ground beneath her feet to fill her with the strength and confidence she needed to prevail against the odds. Here Cathy is speaking in an Aboriginal way about God. For us, God is at work in our ancestors, who live in the earth and flora and fauna, all about us, just as the Holy Spirit lived in Christ and now lives in his church. Cathy is saying, therefore, that the confidence and help of her ancestors filled her with everything she needed to run, and to run without giving up. God does not run the race for us. God gives us the power and courage, rather, to finish the race as equal partners in the gospel with all who have had a better start in life.
For, in the end, it is grace that saves us all, through faith, whether we are at the bottom of the social pile, or in the middle, or at the top. It is not our work, nor our status, as the most powerful would measure it. Such is the way of Christ. Such is the way of the gospel. So, on this Social Justice Sunday I leave you with just two simple challenges. If you are poor, God in Christ has come to raise you up, so trust that his grace will get you there, even to the banqueting halls of heaven. If you are wealthy, then God would have you leave those chains behind for the sake of the poorest and least. For by emptying yourselves of such riches (as Christ did) and sharing your wealth with the least (as Christ did) you will become rich in the eyes of God.
Glory be to God – Creator, Son and Holy Spirit – as in the dreaming, so now, and for ever. Amen.