A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
September 18, 2005
Ordinary Sunday 25 Exod 16:2-15 Phil 1:21-30 Matt 20:1-16
Mathematics is interesting. The answer to any equation is always dependent upon the number of components in the calculation. If the components are my family, my interests, and I, one type of answer will be arrived at. If, on the other hand, the components are the world, our vitality, and I another answer will be arrived at.
I grew up in Birkenhead. Over the road from our home was the bush. When the area was landscaped for roads and houses in the 1950s the gullies were largely left alone. There the native bush remained. It was a playground par excellence.
When I was young I took it all for granted. I took it for granted that koura [native crayfish] could be caught in the streams. I took it for granted that native birds serenaded our play. I took it for granted that I could run barefoot through the tracks.
Yet the prevalent form of mathematics in our society is my family, my interests, and I. So over the years people built new houses and sub-divided for more houses. Invariably inorganic waste went over the fence into the bush. Drainage, and occasionally not just storm-water, went into the bush. Trees that provided inconvenient shade were dealt to, usually at their base.
Not surprisingly the koura are no longer there. The native birds have been severely reduced due to feral cats. It is no longer safe to play in bare feet. Indeed it seems children seldom play there anymore.
At some point the good people of that neighbourhood, like they've done elsewhere, will do the maths differently and realize what they've lost. Then they might galvanise themselves into action and address the problem. Hopefully it won't be too late.
Unlike 30 years ago we can no longer pretend to be ignorant. We now know that what goes down the drain doesn't disappear. It turns up somewhere for someone or no one to deal with. We now know that we can't chop down any or every tree without impacting on the life of birds, animals and insects, or on a larger scale our climate. We now know we can't dump our storm water or sewage into the sea without it having an effect. We now know about polystyrene, global warming, the ozone layer, nuclear waste, extinct animal and bird species. There is a prayer about pollution by Michael Leunig that has the refrain: “God do not forgive us, for we now know precisely what we do.”
It's about mathematics. We need to factor into our equations the component of the health and well being of our earth. If our planet is our home we can't keep soiling the carpet without creating a stink. I tire of hearing small-minded politicians and other leaders that want to preserve our country as a little South Pacific paradise regardless of the rest of the planet. Their equations are too small, and too self-centred.
The gospel reading today is also about mathematics. Jesus told of a farmer who hired people to work his vineyards. Some clocked in at sunrise, some at morning teatime, some at lunchtime, some at afternoon teatime, and some an hour before finishing time. Everybody seemed content until the wages were given out. The stalwarts who had worked twelve hours under a blazing sun learned that the sweatless upstarts who had put in barely an hour would receive exactly the same pay. The boss's action contradicted everything known about employee motivation and fair compensation.
The farmer, a.k.a. the God figure, seemed to have made a big mistake. He got the arithmetic wrong. Or did he? Maybe the sum was different. Instead of asking what was fair for the individual, maybe God asked what was fair for all those dependent upon the workers. If you begin your enquiry into this parable with the need of the community to have its unemployed men engaged in work in order to support their dependents you might sympathise with the conclusion. Maybe this was the component that influenced God's mathematics.
Yet, when you bring the God factor into any equation you get anomalies. Think of that divine accolade 'infinite', and the mathematical sign for it! God's sums are very different from ours.
One of my favourites is the story in Luke  where a shepherd leaves his flock of ninety-nine to search for one lost sheep. A noble deed, to be sure, but reflect for a moment on the underlying arithmetic. The text says the shepherd left the ninety-nine “in the wilderness”, which presumably means vulnerable to rustlers, wolves, or a feral desire to bolt free. How would the shepherd feel if he returned with the one lost lamb slung across his shoulders to find twenty-three others now missing? Is this a story of care or neglect?
Or how about in John's Gospel , where a woman named Mary took 500 grams - worth a year's wages - of exotic perfume and poured it on Jesus' feet. Think of the wastefulness. Would not 10 grams of perfume have accomplished the same purpose? Even Judas could see the absurdity: the treasure now running in fragrant rivulets across the dirt floor could have been sold to help the poor. This is not an example of caring for the well being of the whole community!
What these biblical stories have in common is revised mathematics. They are not extolling casual work habits, or wayward wanderings, or wastefulness. Rather they are stories about the God whose calculations are bigger than ours, who values and loves each individual whilst carrying a vision of a planet community who care for one another and how we live.
In order to meet the challenges of caring for our planet, addressing the needs of all species, thwarting the greed of large seemingly unaccountable global companies, and undoing the destruction wrought by generations of in the past, we will needbetter maths. We will also need, alongside our calculator, an iron and passionate will.