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Better than a fair go

Australians believe in a fair go. "Fair go, mate!" is generally accepted as a fair and reasonable claim. A hundred years or so back the expression was "a fair show" as in "Give the working man a fair show" (Tocsin, Melbourne 1897). Meaning a "an equitable opportunity; a reasonable choice or chance" (The Australian National Dictionary), a fair show became "a fair go". It was closely related to the basic Australian egalitarianism represented in an expression we might, I hope definitely, not feel comfortable using today like "Anyone's entitled to a fair go, even an abo or a policeman". That line was written in 1960 (D. McLean Roaring Day's) though it reflects the attitudes of an earlier time. I wonder in these days of economic rationalism how much remains of the old belief in a fair go.

During the time of a former state government which strongly emphasised the values of the market place, I asked a young man whether "a fair go" was still the go, and he said "No way! Not in Jeffery's Victoria. Its win or lose now." There does seem to have been a change. If you are not in, you are out; and if you not up, you are down. Not that competition was lacking when "a fair go" was thought more important than it appears to be today, but the attitude was different. It was assumed that the value of the human person regardless of status or competence justified a basic believe in an equitable opportunity. Even if there would be competition, it was not assumed that the values of the market place were to dominate over all other considerations.

There is some Christian foundation to those egalitarian attitudes emphasising the inherent value of every person; but, sadly, the faith on which such values developed in previous generations has been buried deep beneath layers of selfish materialism in recent years, while the social and economic implications of Christian beliefs had only just begun to be worked through in the nineteenth century before they were overtaken by anti-Christian Marxism and hard nosed capitalism which claims to be Christian when it pays and not when it does not pay.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and indeed for some before for many people, the Marxist or communist or socialist alternative was seen to be discredited, and capitalist values of the free market were advanced with greater stridency and increasing harshness, until perhaps more recently (in 2002) when fraud and deception have been discovered in some large companies and the question of business ethics has been raised again. We must soon reach the point where people will react against dominance of hard nosed capitalism and begin to think, 'Well, the communist alternative might have been wrong, but surely it was not the only alternative to the economic exploitation of the weak by the strong and pursuit of personal advantage at all costs; in the long run you do discover that people are more valuable than profits'. There are alternatives to the values of the market place.

The value of the person, recognizing every individual as of unique worth, is associated with some of the freedom the market place requires, but the freedom of the individual is not absolute. Sooner or later the social character of human beings will be given more serious recognition in national policy and in the choices people make, but it will not be easy to change because there are enormous advantages to the unfettered operation of a free market. Free enterprise untrammeled by principles of social justice might result in less equality but it is still expected to produce a higher average income for the population as a whole. I will come back to this, because I think there are some practical implications of the gospel for this question today.

The parable of the vineyard

Can we learn anything for the way we live today from the parable of the vineyard? Like all the stories Jesus told, the essential meaning still comes through to us with extraordinary clarity in spite of the changes in economic circumstances since his time. Of course, he was not giving a lesson in economics. His talk of money was to illustrate things of more lasting value. Yet, it is worth asking whether there are not some things to be learned from it for the way we earn our living or govern our society; that is, what does it mean for us after we have understood the essential meaning of the parable: that from God you can expect not just a fair go, but better than a fair go.

The landowner hired labourers at different times throughout the day and paid them all for a full day's work, giving those who had worked only one hour as much as those who had worked all day from early in the morning. He even seemed to favour the last hired by paying them first. When others came to be paid they thought they would receive more, and they grumbled:

They had received what they had agreed upon and could not have been treated unjustly. The only problem was the generosity of the landowner to others.

That is the way it is with the grace of God, his willingness to give freely far more than we ask or deserve. In fact, for most of us, if we got only what we deserve in the sight of God, who is the owner of the vineyard we all work in, it would not be very much, and would certainly not amount to fellowship with the owner and eternal life. Part of the irony of this sort of justice is that it is most appreciated by those who know they don't deserve very much. In that strange way it is easier for sinners to enter the kingdom of God than for righteous people. In the gospel lesson for next week from the following chapter we have:

The strange economy of grace

So none receive less than they deserve, but the least deserving were given more than they had earned. It is a strange economy: one very difficult for hard working, good living people to appreciate. Giving a fair go to a battler is something we can appreciate, but God gives better than a fair go, and he is not concerned with equality. As in the comment of the landowner Or are you envious because I am generous?, there is a suggestion of envy in most people's idea of justice, especially if others get more than they deserve. There is a concern with status and envy in most talk of equality.

Equality is not a biblical idea, at least, not in the way we commonly think of it. It is there in the general idea that we are all children of God, and that differences like those between people of different races or nations, or between men and women, do not count in regard to membership in the body of Christ or a place in the kingdom of God.

That is more about the irrelevance of such distinctions, the differences that people often take pride in. The idea is further developed in 1 Corinthians 12 where the parts played by different members of the body are to be valued without any being thought of less value because they are different. But there is something better and even more just than equal treatment. The parable of the labourers in the vineyard illustrates a saying of Jesus which is recorded at the end of the preceding chapter:

That is a revolutionary idea, far more radical than the democratic liberal ideologies which demand equality for various disadvantaged groups. The promise of the kingdom of God is for more than equal treatment, but not because anyone deserves it. It is certainly not a right, and it is something that could never be a achieved by a bill of rights based on a belief in equality. The radical change is a gift of grace. Being treated better then equal is one result of the overly generous character of God. The first last and last first; the one who would be the leader must be the servant of all. Harlots and tax collectors go into the Kingdom of God before righteous people. The same reversal of expectations was celebrated in Mary's song:

This seems to apply to spiritual as well as material gifts. Jesus at other times promised rewards in heaven to those who were faithful, for example in the verse before the one about the last being first:

It is likely that this parable would also have been interpreted in the early church as applying to new believers who had only recently accepted the faith. They were to be honoured as members of the body of Christ just as much as those had been there all along and had laboured long and hard in the Lord's vineyard, through the heat of controversy and persecution. They would all have a place in the coming kingdom.

On the other hand, the impact of his generous attitude on the way money is handled can be seen in the story of Zacchaeus:

Implications for us

You will have to work out what this means for you. I cannot tell you; or rather, I can only tell you what Jesus taught for those who have ears to hears. it should be a comfort rather a threat. Most of us poor sinners can hope to receive the great reward of a place in the Kingdom of God in spite of our late coming and poor efforts. It is a free gift, rather than as a just reward. But what a great comfort that is. What a relief! How liberating the freely given grace of God is! That is a practical implication because it means that we can go about our lives in thankfulness for the great benefits we have received from God, instead of always worrying about getting our just rewards. That is practical because it is liberating.

I wonder if there are not also practical implications for our economy as well? I suppose a rational attitude would appear to be to say that the most efficient use of resources, the best return on capital, would be obtained by paying people no more than they deserve, being firm but fair, giving people something to work for and saving money for some other good purpose. But I wonder what other good purpose that would be? To make more money! But for what? How far can it go? When is the human benefit of increased returns to be realized? What is of ultimate value? What is the human and spiritual cost of unemployment, for example, and where does it weigh in the balance?

Do the values of the market place have beneficial effects in all fields of work? Strange things are happening now in fields like health and education, where money has to be used efficiently but the aim of the enterprise is not to make money but to confer a personal or social benefit. If the bottom line is service and not profit, how much damage do you do if you impose the values of the market place?

Then there is family life and personal relationships. Do these not work better when people are treated better than they deserve to be. Indeed one way of helping children to become what we hope they will be is to begin to treat them as if they were already what you hope they will become, rather than punishing them for not yet being what they ought to be. It is the same between husbands and wives, marriages flourish when partners treat each other with more generousity and understanding than they each deserve. That is what God does: he treats us as if we where already deserving members of his kingdom, and in that way, through his grace, he helps us to get there.

We are saved by grace: that is by being given better than a fair go.

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