Seeking and Sharing the Fullness of Life

Resenting Equality

A sermon on Matthew 20:1-16 by Nathan Nettleton

Most of us are sick to death of the marriage equality debate. We just want it to be sorted and over. It shouldn’t have happened. It’s expensive. It’s divisive. It’s socially corrosive. And it is only taking place because trying to take it directly to parliament would have split the ruling party, and they’d rather divide the entire country than sort out their own house.

You’re probably sick of hearing me talking about it in sermons too, and to be honest, I’m sick of mentioning it. There are more important things going on in the world than an unnecessary postal survey. $122 million would have made a big difference to the rescue and aid efforts in Mexico and the Caribbean this week, and as someone who has a number of friends in the midst of those disasters, I’d certainly rather our country was focussed on lending a helping hand over there.

But this postal survey is not about to go away. It still has about six weeks to run. We won’t be able to avoid talking about it. I can’t remember the last time an issue was so dominant in the consciousness and conversations everywhere you went, and that was at the same time so closely bound up with the churches and with what it means to be a follower of Jesus. If we ignore for a moment the neo-nazis and Cronulla Riot celebrators, most of the voices in the “no” campaign are associated with Christian churches, and we are being told that marriage equality is an offence to God and a threat to religious freedom. So when everyone is talking about the issue, and everyone is talking about the role and the attitude of Christians in the campaign, we can’t ignore it. And here in the pulpit, I can’t ignore it. There are things being said about us, and allegedly on our behalf, that seem to clash horribly with what Jesus has taught us and with who Jesus is. That demands reply.

Nevertheless, it will probably come as a surprise to you if I suggest that tonight’s gospel reading, the parable of hiring the workers, speaks quite directly to one of the key issues in this marriage equality debate. I’m figuring it will come as a surprise to you, because it came as quite a surprise to me when it suddenly dawned on me this week.

I am not for a minute suggesting that Jesus was intending to address the issue of marriage equality when he told this parable. He wasn’t. The Roman government didn’t bother with postal ballots. They just made decisions, imposed them, and killed any trouble-makers. Just occasionally that doesn’t look like such a bad approach!

So Jesus wasn’t talking about postal ballots or marriage equality. But Jesus did know plenty about how divisive things could get when social conventions were challenged and people were asked to consider changing their attitudes about what was right and wrong. And he did know plenty about what happened when people felt that their position was under threat from others who were asking to be treated as equals. And this parable was spoken directly into those issues.

The social context into which this parable was probably addressed when Matthew recorded it was a church grappling with an influx of newcomers, and probably with the issue of the longer term members of the church being predominantly Jewish, and the newcomers being predominantly gentile. Even without the Jew-Gentile divide, you can probably picture what was happening. You may have even been in a church where the same thing has happened. I’ve occasionally seen glimpses of it here over the years. There is an influx of new people, and those new people start getting involved and taking on responsibilities and being seen as emerging leaders and the like, and suddenly you have some of the longer established folks saying “Hang on a minute. Who are these johnny-come-latelys, and who do they think they are carrying on as though they own the place just as much as us?”

You can ramp it up a bit more if the newcomers are new converts. “Who do they think they are? This time last year they weren’t even Christians and now they think they can lead the worship service and join the church council.”

And in Matthew’s church, you can probably add, “Who do they think they are? This time last year they were still making sacrifices to pagan gods, and now they think they have an equal voice in the church with us who have been immersed in biblical teaching and biblical ethics since birth.”

So against the background of this grumbling, Matthew reminds his church of the story that Jesus told about a landowner who kept going out all day and hiring more workers to work in his vineyard, and then at the end of the day, he paid them all the same full day’s wage, whether they had worked 12 hours, eight hours, three hours, or even just one hour. Whatever the social background, it is one of the most confronting parables Jesus ever told. It offends our sense of justice, of fairness. Our society and economy work on a system of fair exchange, and so those who have given twice as much have every right to expect to receive twice as much in return. It’s perfectly normal.

Now, one of the usual things that preachers, including me, tend to say about this parable is that the reality it reflects is a God who gives everything in abundance to everyone. We tend to say that the objection of the workers reflects a fear of scarcity. They think that they are missing out, that they could have been given more if it hadn’t been unfairly given to undeserving others. But if we recognise that God is already giving us everything, and that God’s generosity to others does not come at the expense of God’s generosity to us, the complaints dissolve. God is already giving us everything and there is nothing more that we are missing out on. I still think that that is true. I’ve preached it before and I’ll preach it again, but I don’t think it is the whole story. There are some other things going on here, and this is where I think it has something to say to us about the marriage equality debate.

You see, the complaint voiced by the all-day workers in the parable is not simply that they weren’t paid more. As the landowner points out, they were paid the wage they signed on for. But it is not just about the money. There is something more pointed and complicated in their complaint. They say, “You have made them equal to us.” Hear that? It’s not just, “You have paid them the same as us,” it’s

You have made them equal to us.

There’s really only one argument being pushed by the “no” campaign for which I have any sympathy. Maybe two. No, probably just one. I also have some understanding for those who have a very fixed view of biblical authority and who thus believe that we must vote against marriage equality on the basis of biblical passages that outlaw homosexuality. I have some understanding, because I used to be entangled in that worldview myself, but as a committed Baptist who therefore believes that nobody’s religious beliefs should be legislatively imposed on anyone else, I don’t have much sympathy for the argument that the marriage practices of the rest of society should be limited to those approved by a particular religion.

The argument for which I do have some sympathy is the one which I think ends up being challenged by tonight’s gospel, and that is the argument that same-sex partnerships should be given a different name because they are a different thing. Unfortunately in the current climate, it is difficult to even express sympathy for this view, because the debate has become so polarised that it feels like there are only two possible positions and no subtle nuances are allowed. But I’ll take the risk and say that I have some sympathy. I think you can, without disrespecting anyone, make a philosophical case that a union of opposites and a union of sames are actually different things. Both equally legitimate but still essentially different, and therefore our language should recognise that difference.

Personally, although sympathetic, I had already abandoned that argument before I noticed what tonight’s gospel might be saying about it. I had abandoned it because it seemed to me to be one of those good theories that get a bad name if you try to put them into practice. I have only once ever heard someone argue for that position without sounding like a security guard at an exclusive club trying to keep the riff-raff out.

This week, what had previously been something a gut reaction on my part based only on that frequent experience of real life was given a boost when I realised what was going on in Jesus’s parable of the workers. The workers grumbled against the boss saying, “You have made them equal to us.”

They are not actually objecting to not getting enough for themselves. They are objecting to those they have regarded as less worthy than themselves being accepted as their equals. And isn’t that precisely what we are hearing much of the time in the “no” campaign. The defenders of traditional, heterosexual-only, marriage, are saying “This marriage club is an exclusive club for the likes of us. They are not allowed in. The law must not be changed because that would make them equal to us.”

The problem with the argument that heterosexual marriage and same-sex marriage should have different names to reflect an essential difference is that we humans have, over a long period of time, proved ourselves incapable of officially recognising differences without instinctively arranging them in a hierarchy and snobbishly defending our position on the higher rungs. And the argument is pretty useless, in fact toxic, if we have proved ourselves incapable of putting it into practice any other way. If there was any doubt about that inability, this campaign has banished all doubt. We just can’t do it.

Jesus is turning the spotlight on us here and exposing what really makes us tick. No, he wasn’t talking about marriage equality at the time, but I have little doubt that Jesus would gladly tell this same story again in the face of this debate now. He is exposing how instinctively and often unconsciously we imagine ourselves to be superior to others and so more deserving of favourable legal definitions and labels and recognitions. He is exposing how deeply we resent the implication that others might actually be our equals and be deserving of being acknowledged as such. “How dare you make them equal to us?!” “How dare you make their relationships equal to ours?!” Jesus is exposing our desire to be the chosen ones, the special ones, to be unchallenged as the good and right and approved ones. And he is unquestioningly calling us to repent.

The gospel, the good news of Jesus the Christ, celebrates diversity. Jesus breaks down barriers and welcomes in those who have previously been excluded, and the community he creates is wonderfully diverse. We use different names and words to recognise and celebrate the differences that make us so diverse. But as soon as we start using those words and names to label people and limit their equal access to full recognition and honour in the community, we have mutated that recognition of diversity into a defence of exclusivity, and Jesus calls us to repent. And it is as a diverse community of the repentant that we gather here around God’s word and table, gay and straight and non-binary, married and unmarried and not yet allowed to be married, all gathered together in one body, and singing joyously, “Yes Lord, you have made them equal with us, and thanks be to God!”

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22 Comments

  1. Nathan, I circulated this sermon widely to people on my email list, and some of the comments I have received are:
    “Wow! What an amazing sermon.”
    ……………………………………..
    “Excellent!”
    ……………………………………..
    “An incredible insight into the Scripture Reading and particularly in over-layering it with the present debate on Marriage Equality.”
    ……………………………………..
    “I loved that sermon. If I lived in Melbourne I’d be more than happy to join you at South Yarra Community Baptist Church.”
    ……………………………………..
    Thank you Nathan – much appreciated.

  2. The parable is about those who respond in obedience to The Master’s call. They are equal, regardless of when they are called. This is not the same as treating those who refuse the call as equal. The obedient get an equal reward, the disobedient still get no reward. You are misapplying the parable. Forgiveness is given to those who turn from sin. Those who dwell in sin remain unforgiven. The parable has no relevance to the same sex marriage debate.

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts, David. It sounds like you are insisting that the parable can only have one application and one meaning, but I think that if Jesus had intended that, he wouldn’t have used parables at all. By teaching in parables he was leaving the possible applications wide open and trusting us, and trusting the Holy Spirit working in us, to keep hearing new things and exploring new possibilities for how the truths of the parable work themselves out in different situations. So while you are certainly right that the parable was not being applied to the marriage equality debate when it was first told, that doesn’t mean it can’t speak into that situation now. There is no doubt that the parable portrays some people as responding with resentment when other people who they regard as unworthy are treated as their equals, and that seems to be exactly what is going on in some of the opposition to marriage equality now. I’m also not persuaded by your view that forgiveness is only given when people turn from sin. Jesus was constantly criticised for telling people they were forgiven before they showed any signs of change. He seemed to operate on the assumption that being forgiven would enable us to change, and he forgave far too liberally for the liking of the religious people of his day. Forgiveness is a generous gift from a loving God, not a reward for effort from a demanding judge.

    • Hi David, I totally agree, I’m saddened and concerned that there are those who call themselves Christians are sold out to the world , it costs to stand for righteousness but we see that many want to be friends with the world and declare their allegiance to Christ in the same breath , it just doesn’t work that way . As the bible teaches , there are many who will heap up teachers in the last days who will tell them what their itching ears want to hear . Murderers thieves, adulterers , liars ect will always be received by Christ and even forgiven before they have asked , Christ knows whose are His , but never will they be encouraged to remain in their lifestyles, as Jesus said , you are forgiven, now go and sin no more . Christians are not encouraged to be inclusive of such behaviour and tolerate it as an ongoing lifestyle.

      • Hi Jo. Thanks for joining the conversation. The trouble with labels such as “sold out to the world” and “preaching what their itching ears want to hear” is that we all tend to think that they apply to those who preach what we disagree with. Jesus says that we will know the true prophets and true teachings by their fruits. So I ask myself whether my preaching is forming a people who are known by their love and grace, or a people who are known for who and what they oppose. Jesus was pretty clear about what he wished his followers to be known for.
        After the sermon I preached the previous week (“You did what in honour of the Lord?!”), a gay member of our congregation said to me, “I don’t think I’m ready to hear that stuff about loving and forgiving them yet, but that’s okay. You keep preaching the gospel whether I’m ready to hear it or not. I’ll get there.”
        I guess that means that if I was setting out to preach what his itching ears want to hear, I failed spectacularly!

  3. I don’t believe your Bible, but clearly you don’t take it seriously either – one good reason why I don’t believe in it or your Jesus.

    I think you’d find yourself a lot more at peace if you abandoned the wrangling to try and reconcile your sense of social justice with a Bible which inherently is not compatible (because it’s framed very differently). The Bible IS very clearly a message of being set aside, of standing out, of being different – the opposite to what you preach, and the fact that you don’t stand out, you don’t stand for the differences, is the reason I don’t believe it.

    If you don’t stand for something, you stand for nothing.

    • There is a lot of insight in what you say, Philip. You are quite right that the message of the Bible is about being set apart and being different. What I think you are missing though is that much of the Bible is a sustained argument between multiple voices about what sort of differences we should be standing for. That doesn’t mean that I don’t believe the Bible, but that I don’t believe that the Bible is merely the last will and testament of our dearly departed God. The Bible is a living conversation and God invites us into that conversation, to be caught up in the trajectory of the conversation, and to carry it into the future.
      What sort of differences are these multiple voices calling for? There are voices within the Bible and within the church today that argue that the difference is shown in rigorous obedience to a set of laws. Don’t eat this. Don’t eat with them. Offer this sacrifice on this day. God is seen as a stern judge tallying up our offences and dictating what price must be paid to be spared the otherwise mandatory punishment. It remains a common view, and it sounds like your criticism of me is that I don’t commit to that pattern of being different, set apart.
      But there are other voices within the Bible that are already challenging that view of God and of being set apart. Several of the prophets began to say that what God really wanted was mercy, not sacrifice. Jesus quoted that line from the prophets several times, and called for his followers to stand out as different, not by their moralism but by their love, their mercy, their hospitality, and their refusal to seek vengeance. In a world that often thinks that anything goes in the quest to protect ourselves from possible enemies, Jesus’s call to extend love and hospitality to our enemies and to bless those who persecute us is actually far more radically, counter-culturally, different than trying to stay on the right side of a moral ledger. Standing for a love that crazy is not standing for nothing.

      • Agreed – love your enemies, bless those who persecute you.

        According to the Bible, Jesus also said “go, and sin no more”.

        That bit seems to be pretty inconvenient these days.

        Sure, you don’t have to go around inflicting your beliefs on anyone else and judging them – after all, “all are sinners”. But that doesn’t mean you need to stop understanding the nature of sin.

        But if someone came to you and asked “Do you believe God has any guidance on this topic”, would you have anything to share with them?

        I find it bizarre that the church is so confused that it can’t see a way to simultaneously love people while still having a Biblical foundation.

        If someone walked into your church and said “I’m an adulterer”, would you welcome them? I hope so. I hope the church would say “We love you. Everyone has sinned.” But would you also say “We celebrate adultery in our church.” I hope you wouldn’t. You would say – we love you, but as the body of Christ on this earth we want to get alongside you and help you deal with your adultery issue.

        Go, and sin no more.

        • I’m a bit lost here, Philip, because I’m not sure where it is that you think I disagree with you. You seem to be implying that there is only one way of thinking that qualifies as having a biblical foundation, and that I don’t fit neatly into that particular box. I probably am guilty of not having the particular biblical foundation that you are suggesting I should have, but since you have said that you don’t believe it yourself, I’m not sure why you think it is so important that I should have it.

  4. “I have little doubt that Jesus would gladly tell this same story again in the face of this debate now.”
    Sorry Nathan. I disagree with that comment & your premise of argument. That would mean Jesus had changed his mind on what he had previously said in scripture about what marriage is. You would then be putting a lie into Jesus mouth regarding what he says marriage is & that is an extremely unwise thing to do.
    Somewhere I feel you have been deceived about what God himself has said of marriage being between a man & a woman. Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”
    Yes Christ calls us to offer love & respect to all people but it is He who defined marriage & I do not believe you have any authority to change it’s definition especially as a teacher of the Word.

    • No need to apologise, Pete. You are quite welcome to disagree with me. But I’m surprised by the quote that you have singled out. Even if Jesus agreed with you completely about the definition of marriage, I don’t think it follows that he wouldn’t also challenge the attitude of those whose opposition to same-sex marriage is not based on definitions but on resenting others being treated as their equals (perhaps using this story to do it). Jesus often seems to challenge the attitudes of those on both sides of a debate.

  5. Hi Nathan. Appreciate your passion for grace and the hostility that brings. I am the pastor down here in Morwell. We run a soup kitchen attended by some of the gay community. We deal with the mental ill, migrants and people out of prison. We just had a couple stay in our emergency accommodation house, who the male was just five weeks out of jail and homeless. Through our community they enjoyed a weeks accomadation of the streets which directly led to him gaining a job. I could go on and on and tell stories of community engagement all based on the personality of Jesus and his surprising parables of grace and unfairness.

    However, we are conservative church which will be voting no.

    I am sorry but your stereotypes are in fact a form of spiritual blindness…. a failure to see grace in the most unlikely places. Places perhaps that you don’t want to see. Like conservative churches that do more good works and acts of charity that simply don’t fit your stereotypical strawmen of a security guard saying keep out . Sorry but you are going to have to deal with the utter insanity of many conservative churches operating at a level of grace love and acceptance that will leave you speechless ( and by the sounds of it annoyed that grace could find it ways into the wrong camps, sorry if that is not your heart….but it does sound like that a tad). I have never spoken on this subject to our church. You on the other hand have many a time by the sounds of it. We however…. No sermons, no preaching, just feeding the poor the marginalised and the gay community……..and voting no. Sorry but none of us have the monopoly on grace……it is from the Father, and is disappointing to hear again another typical tribal sermon, subtly demonising those who have different views than yourself. Perhaps a prayer of understanding might help. “Lord I thank you that, that I am such a caring gracious person, inclusive of all that come my way. I thank you that I am not like those conservative christian filled with small mindedness and fear. Ethnocentric to the core. God thank you for filling me with you love and truth. Amen”

    The church and God’s grace are more surprising than we can imagine.

    • Hi Peter. Thanks for your message, and congratulations to your church on the excellent work it is doing in your community. I’m not sure why you think that I would be thinking that conservative churches don’t do such work. It sounds like my church can’t hold a candle to yours in that area, and I can think of many many conservative churches that are much more active in street-level compassion ministries than mine.
      I apologise for coming across as demonising you, subtly or otherwise. One of the tragedies of this debate is that it has become so polarised that it is now very difficult to express and listen to our disagreements without perceiving one another as hostile and rejecting. If you end up thinking that I have written you off as devoid of grace and compassion, and I end up thinking that you have written me off as a blinkered, pharisaical hypocrite, then the real loser is Christ’s gospel of reconciliation, love and unity. I’m sorry for contributing to that divide, and I commit myself to seeking to do better at standing for what I believe without disparaging those who disagree. Thanks again for challenging me to do better.

  6. Thank you, Nathan, for sharing what I believe is an excellent application of this parable to a modern, complicated situation. As you point out in your responses to comments, it’s not easy to be heard without judgment, so I applaud your willingness to put yourself out there. However, do you – do we – have any other choice but to proclaim the gospel as we understand it? None of us has the monopoly on biblical interpretation and none of us dare claim to speak for God, so all of our reflections will always be partial and limited just as all human communication is subject to the limitations of our abilities.

    What am I trying to say here? That those who don’t turn to the bible will always struggle to understand why others do. That those who interpret the parable as a rebuke to the unrepentant will always struggle to hear Jesus’ gift of forgiveness to all. That those who feel judged because they are coming from a different theological/ecclesiological position will always struggle to hear that your comments are not value-laden. That I myself am guilty of all of these sorts of misunderstandings and accusations and much worse besides. In short, I am guilty of “resent[ing] the implication that others might actually be [my] equals and be deserving of being acknowledged as such.”

    However, isn’t it wonderful that we are able to declare, “Yes, Lord, we are all equal and thanks be to God!”

    • Well I am undone and repent in ash and dust. Thank you for your consideration and most thoughtful reply. Look forward to catching up with you one day at the gathering perhaps and discussing our differences in opinions.

      • I look forward to the catch up, Peter. Maybe discussing our plentiful common ground would be fun too! Blessings to you, and thanks.

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