A sermon preached at St Michael’s Church
Blewbury, Oxfordshire on 24 September 2017
Readings: Jonah 3.10−4.11; Philippians 1.21−30; Matthew 20.1−16
Many of you are parents and grandparents, so you’ll no doubt have, at some point, had to listen to a child’s voice complaining, “it’s not fair!” To which the usual response is, “Life’s not fair.” It’s an important lesson to learn, even if it is one that we question throughout our lives. Why isn’t life fair? Shouldn’t life be fair? Of course, the cry of, “it’s not fair,” most often really means, “it’s not fair to me.”
This is the complaint that the workers make in the parable of the vineyard. They’ve worked all day, and they are being paid a fair wage – exactly what they agreed when they took on the work. They are outraged, not because they are being underpaid, but because others are − in their opinion − being overpaid. But this is a very one-sided view of fairness.
The workers who were hired at the end of the day didn’t work fewer hours because they were lazy, but simply because they hadn’t been hired. They’d been in the marketplace available for work all day, just like the workers who did a full day’s work, but for whatever reason, hadn’t been offered a job until the end of the day. Maybe they were pushed aside by the others, or maybe they were older and so thought to be less capable than others. Should they suffer because of the actions or assumptions of others? Is that fair? In the parable, the vineyard owner − God − treats them all as equals. The only true fairness is equality.
In societies around the world at the moment there are tensions over the idea of treating different groups of people as equals. Depending on the country and society, the groups in question might be refugees, people of colour, women, the mentally ill, people of different sexual orientations or gender identities, or different religious or ethnic groups. Whenever these historically marginalised groups gain acceptance and equality, some among those who had previously had power and privilege are outraged, and their complaint is the same as that of the workers in the parable, “You have made them equal to us!” Or, to put it another way, “We no longer have privileged status!”
This applies on a global scale as well, and in our relationship to the wider creation. While some people might think that climate change is a political issue, and therefore best not mentioned from the pulpit, in reality, climate change isn’t a political issue. It’s an ethical issue – it’s an issue of justice (fairness, if you like), and an issue of caring for the world that God has entrusted to us. As we are now in the season of creationtide, it seems like a good time to talk about it. If you follow the news, you’ll know that one of the first things Donald Trump did on becoming President of the United States was to announce that he was taking the US out of the Paris Climate Accord. His reason? “It’s unfair to the United States.” It’s not fair. What he means is that it commits America, and other developed countries, not only to reducing their own carbon emissions but to providing financial assistance to developing countries so that they can catch up and make use of cleaner energy technologies, allowing development without the carbon burden that we’ve seen over the past 150 years or so. It puts other countries on a more equal footing. with our and other developed nations. There is also the concern (whether justified or not) that regulations limiting carbon emissions (and reducing other polluting, for that matter) might cost developed countries their competitive edge in a global economic market. Both of these things − assisting developing nations and regulating carbon emissions − are, in effect, making them equal to us. We, the developed world, are being asked to relinquish some of our privileged status.
If we want to consider what might be a Christian approach to these issues, we couldn’t do better, really, than to start with today’s parable. In God’s eyes, the only truly fair state of affairs is equality. Equality between individuals and nations and even between humanity and the rest of creation. As Christians, we are called to reject the selfish instinct that resists allowing others to be made equal with us. Instead, we should be working for equality and true justice for all, including the wider creation.
“Live your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ,” Paul writes to the Philippian church. That instruction is for us, too. We can live in a manner worthy of the Gospel in all of the choices that we make − how we travel, the diet we adopt, the energy we use, how we garden, and what we buy, to name just a few. In making those choices, we should be willing to relinquish privilege and strive for equality and justice for all creation. Why? Because the Gospel of Christ is good news for all creation. Salvation, as several New Testament texts make clear, is not for humanity alone. Paul himself writes of what theologians call ‘cosmic reconciliation’ more than once. In the letter to the Ephesians he says, “he [that is, God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” And to the Colossians he writes, “and through [Christ] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
God is concerned, not just with human beings, but with all of the creatures that he made and loves. And if we need proof of that, we need only look at our Old Testament reading today. When Jonah complains because God didn’t destroy Nineveh, God says, “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” God cares about the people to be sure. But it isn’t only for their sakes that he spared the city. He cares, too, about the lives of the animals. I’m sure that many of you know that I am passionate about animal welfare and animal rights. That’s not always a popular cause, largely because saying that animals have rights as sentient creatures made and loved by God, and that they do not exist for human use is, in effect, making them equal with us.
Once we accept that, we have to accept that we are not entitled to many privileges that we have historically assumed.
What about humanity’s special status, then? What does it mean to be made in the image of God? I would suggest that if we are made in the image of the God who created the universe, who loves his creation and who, in the person of Christ, died to redeem it all, then our special status is that we are the species that is to care for and nurture the created order on God’s behalf. We are to tend God’s garden; to help the earth to be fruitful and life-sustaining. We are to promote the flourishing of the whole creation.
When we consider what we do the wider creation for our own benefit and convenience, such as drilling for oil or clearing forests in previously pristine wilderness, or blasting the tops off of mountains to make coal mining easier and cheaper, or when we look at the effects climate change is already having: the intensity of the hurricanes battering the Caribbean (and I for one don’t doubt that the unprecedented number of category 3 to 5 hurricanes we’ve seen this year is, at least in part, due to climate change), desertification increasing in several different geographical regions, land lost already to rising sea level, it’s pretty clear that we aren’t fulfilling that God-given purpose as well as we could or should be.
There is, however, hope. We have both the example of Christ and the help of the Holy Spirit. We can, as Paul encourages, live our lives in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ − the good news for all creation. We can live our lives in such a way that we serve, not our own selfish desires, but the good of all. and if others complain that, in promoting the good of the poor, marginalised groups, our fellow creatures and the earth itself, “you have made them equal to us!” we can proudly reply, “Yes. We did.”