Pentecost 14 Matthew 20:1-16
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Most of you don’t know this about me, but I struggle with greed and that means, I love money. I absolutely love love love it. I love money. There I said it, I’m out of the closet now… again. This pulpit does that to me.
But what you probably don’t know is that I don’t come from a privileged background. And I think when you don’t come from privilege and every day is a struggle and you don’t have the things you need, you make a vow to yourself that when you grow up things will be different. And we didn’t, we didn’t have much (many) servants growing up. I can remember many ‘a night going to bed without eating (dessert) when cook was away. And there were times when we had to live in very cramped quarters. My brother and I had to, at one point, share a small wing of a home for a few months when renovations were being done on the other wings of our family’s holiday home. It was, it was devastating and I think it made me say ‘as God is my witness, I will never go hungry for dessert again, and I will never be forced to live in a small wing of a house again.’
And when I say I’m greedy, I don’t mean I want to be like Oprah rich, gosh no, that’s like God-rich, but maybe like John Key rich, that’s a reasonable kind of wealth I think. But the problem with being rich is…getting the money; I mean that’s a big part of it, having the money. You all know I work here in the church as the events manager. And I just can’t see the work of the Lord becoming extremely lucrative for me here. I mean it’s just not going to happen.
So I think when you want something good to happen in your life, the first place to start is by listening to what other people who have achieved that goal have to say about how they did it. And so I listen to Oprah a lot, not John Key so much. Oprah’s amazing and like I said she’s God-rich so she knows what she’s talking about. Oprah says to think positive. If you want to be wealthy, positive thinking can help attract the money to you. It’s like a magnet. She say’s to live in the world as if it is the way you want it to be. And I want to live in a world where I am rich.
So I’ve started doing that. I’ve been thinking positive and living in the world the way I want it to be. So I recently applied for… maybe it was like 10 credit cards. And I’ve gone shopping and have purchased all the Spring lines from Dolce & Gabanna and Versace and Dior and I bought some of that monogrammed Louis Vuitton luggage for my holiday in the islands and of course I’m wearing Prada today. And for the past few months I’ve been spending up large, and l have to tell you I have been walking on air feeling really super positive and good about myself like my dreams of great wealth might actually come true. I’ve been living in the world the way I want it to be. And I thought this was really working for me.
But then I got credit card bills in the mail, because banks send them like immediately, and I was feeling really gutted. And for the first time, I started doubting myself and doubting my goals. And I thought to myself now is not the time to ignore Auntie Oprah’s advice, think positive. And when I said that to myself, the answer just came to me. So what I did was I applied for more credit cards and of course the banks gave them to me, and I transferred the debt on the first cards to the new cards. And now the first cards are totally paid off!! And so to celebrate my new savvy way of attracting money, I went shopping again. But then more bills came. So I’m having to re-evaluate my strategy because maybe I’m not doing it right or maybe I’m not thinking positive enough, only Auntie Oprah knows.
And then I remembered that God helps those who help themselves and it doesn’t actually say that in the Bible but I don’t care, I believe it’s true. If more poor people like me would just help themselves by becoming money magnets, the world would be a better place. So I am sorry to say, I’m having to seriously rethink my job situation here at the church. And I know that in some churches in America you can get rich by preaching. I don’t want to move back to America, so then someone said to me, “we have places like that in New Zealand where you should go be a preacher, it’s quite lucrative.” But then they said you get a ring, and you have to, all the men have to be promised or kind of like married to the pastor like in a sort of, in a gay way, but it’s not gay, I don’t know, I don’t really understand it. But its not gonna work for me, my partner’s incredibly jealous and besides they said you have to pay for the ring yourself. And I’m trying to get money without spending it now so that’s not going to be an option for me.
I mean, I know what you’re thinking, Jesus said something about money being the root of all evil or something to that effect but he frankly, in my opinion, wasn’t very clear and in all fairness to me, he couldn’t possibly have understood the fashion pressures on the gays of today. I mean, not only are we expected to look better than straight people, we’re supposed to do it on the same incomes as them and… it’s impossible. And times are hard, there’s no denying that. I know one friend who recently had to buy… ’off- the- rack’… just last month because of the recession. Times are hard and people are fearful about Spring and even Summer wardrobes and it’s all looking pretty grim. And I pray sometimes at night, how long O Lord how long will your people ‘the gays” suffer, O God?
But it didn’t seem to be all bad news. I discovered a Christian movement in America called the Prosperity Movement whose principles I can use here in New Zealand so I don’t have to move back to America. And it works under the doctrine that God indeed wants us Christians to be rich! You and I, God wants us to be rich! Ok, they don’t use the word ‘rich’, they say “prosperous”… however you define that. I define prosperous as rich and if God wants that for me, well…
So I was thinking of joining this movement but then I read the parable that was our Gospel reading this morning. I’ve got to tell you, it just completely; I don’t know… it bummed me out? It’s depressing! Peasant people in the Bible are depressing – DE-PRESS-ING. I mean, it’s all about the living conditions, about having enough food to eat, living on less than one denarius a day blah blah blah. It just goes on and on and on. And I think if I was a rich landowner in Jesus’ time, how could I be expected to enjoy my God-given wealth with all that complaining going on in the background?
But one minister in the Prosperity Movement said that he encourages his congregation to help the poor by… not becoming one of them. When he said this, I thought I was having another Oprah moment; that my eyes were suddenly opened wide to the Gospel again. What better way to help the poor than by not becoming one of them? But the fact is, I think my conscience is finally getting the better of me. Your prayers must be working.
So where is the seriousness in this so-called sermon? It’s all pretty serious if you ask me. Greed is serious business. But I hope this morning that you can see the message embedded, albeit very deeply, in the satire – that you can see it for the social critique it is meant to be. What if we are being asked in our parable to consider that maybe this isn’t a story about a generous landowner, or even a representation of what equality and fairness should look like in the kingdom of heaven? What if the parable is a social critique?
Jesus starts out the parable, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner…” We often hear Jesus say in the Gospels that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, it is here and now and in first century Palestine, the Kingdom of Heaven was indeed like a landowner.
Landowners were members of the elite urban class. Many of them profited off of the misfortune of the poor sometimes seizing peasant farm land when a farmer defaulted on his debt repayments. So the problem with interpreting this parable in the typical way is that the landowner is usually interpreted as a symbol for God. The original hearers of this parable however, peasants themselves, would have understood that the term ‘landowner’ was functioning as a symbol of the oppressive elite.
Furthermore, we have to be mindful that Jesus lived in an honour/shame culture. The fact that the landowner wants the first hired labourers to see what the last hired labourers were receiving in payment is a challenge to the first their honour. In other words, the landowner humiliates them by conducting this transaction in front of them. When they grumble, the landowner uses a condescending form of the word ‘friend’ to insult their honour again this time by saying he can do what he likes with his money and ‘his’ land. Jesus’ audience would have seen the scandal of this as the land belonged to Yahweh and no one else.
There are many more reasons why I don’t accept the typical interpretation of this parable. I hope you will take this parable away with you and wrestle with it yourself. There is a great Jewish tradition of arguing with the teacher and I quite frequently argue with Jesus.
Most of us want just want to live comfortably. I don’t think there’s any shame in that. I think for our purposes we need to be alert that that comfort is not coming at the expense and the pain of others. We would do well to remember the kingdom of heaven is not a place, it’s a way of being, of behaving, it’s acting responsibly here and now. We’ve inherited the responsibility to make the kingdom visible and to critique the powers of greed and oppression whether we do that through satire or through parables but always, always doing it to bring about the kingdom.
In closing, I actually did grow up quite poor and I’m not actually as greedy as I pretend to be. The above was just satire…mostly. But if you particularly liked the sermon today, or… if you just feel sorry for me because you didn’t, please… don’t hesitate to send a wee little something my way. You can get my bank details from the church office. Thank you.