An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Affirmative Action and the Gospel

A sermon on Matthew 20:1-16 by Nathan Nettleton
A video recording of the whole liturgy, including this sermon, is available here.

Of all the parables Jesus ever told, the one we heard tonight about the boss hiring workers for his vineyard tends to evoke some of the strongest negative feelings in us, feelings of protest and outrage. It just seems really obviously wrong to us, quite unfair even, and it can leave us feeling confused and even offended and angry.

The last time I preached on this parable was six years ago, and it was one of those occasions when I had half written a sermon when I suddenly noticed a whole new angle on it and had to scrap the sermon and start again. On that occasion it was because we were in the middle of the heated campaign leading up to the same-sex marriage plebiscite, and I suddenly realised that this parable shed some significant light on the nature of the anger that many who opposed same-sex marriage were feeling. This time round we are again in the middle of a heated campaign leading up to a national vote on a contentious issue, and once again, I’m seeing a connection to this parable. It’s not the same connection though, so it will be a quite different sermon, but if you want to revisit the previous one, here’s the link to it.

Having said that, I’m going to have to focus on the parable itself for a while before I get to anything it might have to say about the current referendum campaigns, so you’ll have to bear with me on that.

A quick recap of the story first. At grape picking time, the owner of a vineyard needs his grapes picked, so he goes to the town square where the casual day labourers gather hoping to be given work for the day, and he hires a bunch of workers. As the day goes on, he keeps going back and hiring some more. He does this so many times that at knock-off time, he has go some workers who’ve worked 12 hours, some 9, some 6, some 3, and some only one. But when he hands out the wages, he pays everyone the same; a full day’s pay, regardless of how long they had worked. Not surprisingly, those who had actually worked a full 12 hours are pretty pissed off that they didn’t get any more than those who only worked an hour. But Jesus says that the culture of heaven is like what that vineyard owner did.

Most of us chafe at this parable, precisely because we identify with the workers who worked the full twelve hours, and we feel that they’ve been ripped off. The concept of equal pay for equal work is a concept worth fighting for, is it not? And it has had to be fought for, even in recent years. There have been important campaigns to ensure that women are paid the same as men if they do the same work, and that unscrupulous employers can’t replace their workforce with a bunch of refugee labourers who are desperate and will accept poor wages because they have little choice. Equal work means equal pay, and it matters. And that implies that unequal work should receive unequal pay. Someone who does only half the work gets only half the pay.

So if that principle is so obviously fair, why does Jesus not respect it? Why does he tells stories that upend it and that commend an employer who violates it?

Well, perhaps that equal work/equal pay principle only seems so obviously fair and right to us because we are reading it from a quite privileged social position which blinds us to a whole bunch of other considerations. And perhaps exposing our privileged assumptions is precisely what this parable is doing.

You see, if you were a bicycle courier delivering food for Uber Eats or something, especially prior to the recently approved reforms, and you were running yourself into the ground everyday trying to fit in enough deliveries to pay your rent and grocery bills, I think you might hear this story differently. In the days of Jesus, and still in many industries in many parts of the world today, there are large pools of casual day labourers, who have to queue up everyday and hope there are enough people hiring to ensure they get work for the day. In most cases, there are more workers available than there is work to be done, and that means the bosses can afford to offer rock-bottom wages because there are always labourers willing to accept poor wages rather than no wages. With rent to pay and families to feed, the workers are desperate for whatever wages they can get. And if they only get a half a days work, or a couple of hours work, they’ve still got 100% of their living expenses to pay, and not enough to pay it with.

So how does the parable sound when read from that perspective? I find it quite difficult to do because that’s never really been my experience. It is a long time since I had to worry about making ends meet, and even back when I sometimes did, I really didn’t have much to worry about. I was a white, educated, able-bodied, heterosexual, male, so I was always given a go. I never really had the experience of being constantly overlooked while others around me were favoured. 

So people like me find it very easy to make harsh judgements about these workers, just like the privileged landowner in the parable did. Going out in the middle of the day and seeing more workers without jobs, he says, “What are you doing standing out here idle all day?”

For those of us who’ve never been in that position, it is an easy judgment to make. Those who are not working are lazy and idle. They’re just standing around when they could be working hard like us. They are not working because they didn’t have enough initiative to get out there at 6:00am with everyone else when the labour hire contractors were recruiting for the day. They missed out because they were lazy and unprepared.

Oh really? It is so easy to judge when we don’t have lived experience of living with next to nothing. Perhaps some of them were not out there until after 9:00am because there was no one else to get the kids off to school. Perhaps some of them are waiting out there at midday or 3:00pm because they got hired at 6:00am and then dismissed at 10 because the boss overestimated the work available, so with only a third of a day’s pay, they are desperately hoping to pick up a second shift. Perhaps some of those who are still looking for work at 5pm are the hardest workers of all and have already done an eight or ten hour shift but for the sake of their families are hoping to pick up another few hours while the sun is still up.

Most of these day labourers are not lazy bludgers but willing labourers who live and work in the precarious space at the bottom of the hierarchy because it suits the lords of the economy to keep them there to ensure that there is an endless supply of cheap casual labour to keep the wheels turning and the profits rolling in. And as often as not, the oversupply of labour that suits the captains of industry so well means that these casual labourers are left behind, with no work or only a few hours of work for the day, and they go home in despair because they still have at least a day’s pay’s worth of bills to pay and mouths to feed, but little or nothing to cover it.

So how does the parable that Jesus tells sound now, from this perspective? We might still want to question the fairness of not paying the 12 hour workers a substantial bonus, but what we have now is a boss who is doing his utmost to ensure that as many of these hand-to-mouth labourers as possible are receiving a proper living wage, a pay packet that gives them a reasonable chance of paying their rent and putting a decent meal on the table for their families. 

The boss had promised the early starters the standard day’s wage. They got it. Those who came later, he simply promised to “pay what is right.” It turns out that his idea of what is right was not determined by how much work he got out of them, but by what they needed to survive and care for their families. A decent living wage for all.

In a way, it is a reflection of what was going on in our first reading about God providing manna, bread from heaven, to the Israelite people in the desert. We are told that they were to collect enough for each day, and that if they tried to work harder to collect more and stockpile it, it went off and left them with nothing. No one had too much or too little. Similarly Jesus teaches us to pray for enough bread for each day, not for enough plus interest so that we can sell it and become rich.

Now what does any of this have to do with the upcoming referendum? Hang in there with me. I’m nearly there, but not quite.

Closely related to the orthodox economic principle of equal pay for equal work is another principle, about merit based employment. It says that we should always employ the person who has the best set of skills and experience for the job, without allowing other factors like race or gender to sway our decision. This is another one of those things that seems self-evidently good and right and true until we start asking similar questions about whether our privileged social position is blinding us to the real effects this principle.

Because it turns out that just as we saw with our too-quick judgements of the “idle” workers in the parable, this principle too is actually protecting an unequal status quo. There would be plenty of workers among the day labourers in this parable who, given the opportunity and support, could excel at much higher status and highly paid jobs, but the system denies them the opportunity because with no savings and with hungry mouths to feed, they could never do the study or buy the clothes or get the references. We have qualified doctors and engineers stacking shelves and mopping floors in this country because they are refugees who do not have the resources to get their qualifications validated to Australian standards.

But every time some program of affirmative action is proposed to try to open up opportunities to those who have been systematically shut out of the system, you will hear people screaming about merit based employment and arguing that affirmative action is a form of unfair discrimination against those who already have the skills and training and experience. But over and over we find that privilege actually perpetuates itself by creating these orthodox ideologies that justify our privilege and denigrate those beneath us in the social hierarchies.

Which brings me to the forthcoming referendum on establishing a permanent constitutionally enshrined Aboriginal Voice to parliament.

One of the difficulties in talking about the issues in the referendum is that although the Yes case is relatively simple, talking about “the No case” is a bit complicated and even misleading, because there isn’t really a single No case. There are about a dozen or so different No cases, including some that have almost persuaded me. So what I am about to say about one of the No arguments doesn’t necessarily invalidate some of the others.

But one of the major arguments being pushed by the main official No campaign, is that the establishing of the Voice divides the Australian population into different groups with different rights. It argues that it would treat Aboriginal people differently from non-Aboriginal people by giving them a kind of voice to parliament that no one else in Australia gets. It singles them out for special treatment and amplifies their voice above that of the rest of the population. It is a form of affirmative action that therefore discriminates against those who are not being singled out for a helping hand.

At the simplest level of facts, that argument is true. It will give Aboriginal people a special right that isn’t given to others. But as we have seen with today’s parable, the assumption that that is automatically and obviously a bad thing needs to be questioned. Is it perhaps another one of these things that only seems self-evidently wrong because we are looking at it from a place of unexamined privilege and ignoring the structural injustices that are presently baked into the system?

And surely that is the case here. Affirmative action is surely justified whenever we recognise that the system has been unfairly maintaining barriers that make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for certain groups of people to participate equally in the system. 

So if we can recognise that Aboriginal people have had their voices structurally excluded from the parliamentary decision making processes of this country, then surely this parable from Jesus tells us that the culture of heaven would call us to embark on some sort of affirmative action to overcome that structural exclusion. If treating every voice as equal, like simple equality of pay, is not actually ensuring genuine equality because the system itself undermines the equality, then it is time to do something about it, and that means recognising which group of voices has been left standing idle in the marketplace while we were benefitting  richly from our illusion of equality. We need to single them out for “special” treatment that actually lifts them up to a level playing field.

Our parable tells us that Jesus says that such “special treatment” actually reflects the culture of God, the kingdom of heaven.

And, even if we might sometimes initially chafe against such practices when we’ve been among the privileged ones for whom our illusion of equality was paying off nicely, ultimately we can all be very thankful that this is how God operates. Because if gaining access to the fullness of life and love in God depended on us being able to do the hard work of identifying our own privileges and blindnesses, and unravel the cords of structural injustice in our world, none of us would ever make it. But we have a God who is not willing to leave anyone in the marketplace, languishing with nothing. We have a God who is more than willing to overturn what we thought were the normal rules of fairness in order to lift us out of our spiritual poverty and offer us meaningful work and reward us as the equals of the greatest saints of history. And having lifted us up and showered us with blessings we could never have earned in a full day, let alone in the final hour, God calls us to go and do likewise in the world and in our nation.


  1. Vincent Michael Hodge

    Nathan had this to say in his sermon of some 6 years ago in relation to the parable from Matthew Chapter 20:
    “………………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…………”.
    Obviously Nathan is totally correct to place the focus upon the concept of “equality” to highlight what Matthew is highlighting. I want to pick up on Nathan’s use of the word “just” as an adjunct to “equality”. Nathan uses the word “just” as a simple grammar word to make a comparison between the perception of an unbalanced payment and the balancing or equal treatment underlying that giving of a denarius to everyone.
    If I use the word as part of Matthew’s text and not simply as Nathan’s grammar use, I can quote as “……It is JUST… have paid them the same as us…”. All of us have accepted the parable as saying that all the workers received a denarius. Even scholars make that assertion. Maybe based upon Jewish idiom and writing practice this is exactly what the text means BUT it is not what the text says. The text is silent about the workers who came in the middle. The text is only explicit about a denarius payment to the Last and the First. Curiously the text says only to those Middle workers – “…I will pay you what is just…”. So something is going on in the text about Justice. Nathan accidentally ( or mutedly and purposefully) has hit the nail on the head…..the payments are not MERELY makers of Equality but also makers of JUST-NESS! How can this be since all of us moderns eternally baulk at what appears to be a gross breach of prudent industrial relations. For me the clue is in the description of the “First” Workers as ‘envious’ – literally the word used describes people viewing with an ‘evil eye’. I am told that for the Hebrews, the root SDQ ( sedeq is Hebrew for justice) refers to fullness and peace, the state of him who responds exactly to what the situation calls for. hence the Hebrew comparison is more to do with “guilty v innocence” rather than merely “good v wicked”. Matthew has the centurion at the crucifixion declare Jesus as God’s son whereas Luke has the centurion declare Jesus “innocent”. The Hebrew “justice” also absorbs the idea of a ruling of a tribunal ( hence Paul’s justified by faith maybe where ‘faith’ implies reliance of the person of God) but the predominant reference is the life of a Hebrew being scrutinized daily by the infallible “gaze of God”. Resurrection was late in Hebrew thought. Much longer in its history was the daily judgment of God looking upon their responses to their daily events. So justice is not merely a quality, a virtue, an ideal but the concrete and immediate response to a duty imposed at the moment. It is not the rigorous observance of a sovereign law but the fidelity on constant trial and unceasingly renewed of the man or woman who is capable of responding, at every instant, to the requirements with which he or she must deal….sedeq is always the justice of someone; someone gazed upon by God’s infallible gaze.
    Hence Matthew is comparing Jesus and the First Workers- Jesus who has the infallible eye/gaze of God and does what is just and those who have the gaze of an evil eye and enviously complain when for them “equality” is the opposite of being just! hence the later deeply Hebrew references in this part of Matthew’s gospel about healing the blind and the Pharisees being ‘whited sepulchres’ and ‘blind guides’!! So rather than being a reversal, as well moderns all think, the parable is surprising beyond the apaprent injustice to the First. Beyond its mirage of an apparent reversal, Jesus has brought into contemporary focus what was orthodox Hebrew legacy – he revealed for those hearers what had become lost in the daily practice and had become an unbending dysfunctional structure of Israel life.
    Lastly the parable requires the Last to be paid first and the First to be paid at the end of the queue. This means that the First are standing around ( a sarcastic reference back to the idle workers in the marketplace) waiting and witnessing the denarius payments to the Last. This of course raises their expectations of getting more than what they thought was the regime of a previous contract founded on Jewish life.
    So the parable’s First “world” workers are not only cranky for the daylong sweat and trouble but now are having their latest pre-programmed expectations smashed to pieces in front of those who possibly might be sniggering with ‘hands over face’ self satisfaction of getting a denarius for one hours work. Jesus may well have been thought a fool by the Last as much as by the First. A prophet has few friends on either side in the heat of battle when old and new worlds clash! Expectations are not merely the enemy of the past but worst yet, enemies of the future!
    And so we arrive at Nathan’s references to the Voice Referendum. For me the parable is a key to the questions we should be asking ourselves rather than the parable be the provider of the answer. Within Matthew’s context, this part of the Gospel leads up to the entry to Jerusalem, the Temple and Fig-tree episodes, and the eventual execution of Jesus. Interspersed within these macro conflict stories are the various micro conflict stories – the conclusion is that of a centurion gazing upon Jesus as God’s son. This takes us back to Jesus baptism where there is similar scene of “seeing and recognising’. The Transfiguration in Mt 17 is similarly structured upon seeing and hearing and recognising. Accompanying this is the recurrence of the “just” man. Abraham and Isaac from the OT and Joseph in the Infancy narrative of Matthew are all remarkably built around the concept of the person who is just because they act justly because they have the gaze of God. When we vote we Christians must think about the parable not just because of its focus upon equality but because justice is equality. The conundrum is this- does the parable mean, as Nathan asserts, that Equality takes in Affirmative Action and support for the current referendum proposals or whether are there other ways to obtain Equality such that voters are also justified by God’s gaze in voting for something different than the current referendum proposals? The job of a parable is to turn our thinking inside out in search of the truth, justice and the Will of God since it is God’s gaze that is infallible.
    How are we to translate God’s Word into the words of men and women? Primarily through worship together and seeking the Spirit – a Spirit that all Australians acknowledge in some shape or form depending upon their gaze – whether First Nations, Middle comers like the colonialists and migrants fleeing poverty and exclusion within their own culture or Late comers such as Asian, Indian, African and Pacific and South American arrivals. We cannot worship both God and the demonic god of opposition (mammon) – rivalry is not an option.

  2. As the Gospel was read last night I recalled the last time Nathan preached on this parable and wondered if he would preach the same again. The previous time I found the sermon a challenge wondering when I had struggled with “you made them equal to us” statement and how that may have defined my actions
    The question from the parable this time was the challenge to what I saw as “good and right” from “my side of the fence” which may well be true but what I see when I see the situation through the eyes of the “late comers” may be very different but still true

  3. Vincent Michael Hodge

    May I just state some states of my mind when I try to form my conscience from a Christian perspective in respect of the upcoming referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. Whatever the outcome of the vote in October, the issue of “voice” will remain, no less importantly within my Roman Catholic christian tradition and also the Baptist christian tradition on key issues.
    I have always been fascinated by the number of times in the Christian bible we have accounts of the “voice of God” literally speaking to us. I like the Gospel one where there is a sound like thunder and there is disagreement over whether it is God or not. I think John also has a passage where Jesus thanks god for letting hearers receive a truth through hearing the voice of God literally.
    I therefore cannot separate the referendum focus upon “voice” and my christian background. Most of the discussion around the referendum seems to be a focus upon material outcomes – reparations, land ownership, jobs, health, housing, and more. All of this is valid, especially when it is packaged into a heart felt recognition of our common dignity as humans. Equality is key as nathan has mightily pointed out in respect of this weeks gospel. But as christians, the concept of a “voice” relates primarily to a communication from God.
    There are so many RC who hear discordant voices whenever the reforms of the 1960s Second Vatican Council are mentioned. Today one of the predominant topics for speeches and papers among these RCs is the topic of the Development of Doctrine- what constitutes valid and invalid developments. Invariably it is all about the perceived threat to long held positions and invalid changes. I have quoted from the Catholic Catechism:
    “…………. Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved…”.
    Please note that the church in this paragraph formally acknowledges that there is no scientific (psychological genesis) opinion that is determinative and that the matter must be resolved in the present by resort to scripture and a thing that Catholics call “the natural law”. That “natural law” is reflected in the entire chapter where para 2357 is located. That chapter makes it a sin for heterosexual married couples to use ‘artificial contraception” on the same basis as unmarried couples (heterosexual or otherwise). In other words the debate is framed around a limite dnumber of sources taken as authoritative and in themselves, highly contingent in the current world of religion or secular views. This line of confusion and complxity inhabits the Baptist tradition in similar wasy as “battle lines” are drawn using authority which itself is contested ground.
    My point in all this is that whenever i hear the term “voice”, I am unable to relax. That is why in my first comment yesterday, my only solution is to worship and dialogue together until the Spirit shows us the way. I heard recently a comment that Australians are too quick to direct conversation to the “bottom line’ while other cultures spend large amounts of one on one conversation circling a topic. it seems that what brings solutions is relationship, closeness, being brought into common fields of activity before making the big decision. I think that is why Liturgy and Sexuality are so connected. they both involve building unity through heart felt nearness and self giving. I was once told that lecturer in a catholic university in Rome always stressed in his classes that there are 2 things that should never be done alone – Liturgy and Sex. Conversation between humans is always in those categories in some degree.
    So whatever the Referendum result, the question that will be left unanswered, as it is left unanswered within the churches in their current uncivil “civil wars” is a spiritual question. The Reformation and then the Enlightment continues to chafe christian positions. 1788 continues to do the same to Indigenous spiritualities. At a time when western Culture is deserting religion, proponents of the Vote claim they understand Indigenous Australian culture. And yet the essential malaise at the heart of Indigenous peoples, as it is at the heart other Australians is their loss of Spirit. is The Uluru Statement from the Heart a statement about the heart of Indigenous peoples to the heart of other Australians? If it only frames a materialistic utopia based upon guilt for the past history, then it is a shallow forward looking view.

    The whole Referendum seems much like a campaign that is based up promoting material benefits when the core issue is one of the spirit. Just as 1788 represented a major disruption of Indigenous spirit , migration from Great Britain and other countries, what we term colonialism, has also created a nation , not of British, Irish, European, Asian peoples but of a multicultural based Australian born peoples. Our last vestige, the English monarchy, remains only because we cannot agree upon a way of electing a Republican Head of State. In all but name, our Governor General is our Head of State. Charles is constitutionally King of Australia as a distinct legal fiction. Just as the Enlightenment changed Religion, our complex Australian history has created a unique nation . A history that up to now has been based, as per Ergas, on a “…..shared regard for this country’s past…”. That includes the guilt and the shame as well as the creation of a shared Spirit.

    There is much talk of treaty and reparations as the appropriate response to colonial invasion and frontier wars and neglect of remote settlements. Historians have a mantra that those who do not know their history become prisoners of history, prisoners of recent history. Complex systems are counter-intuitive but Henry Ergas has outlined how a simplistic straightline view of recent history has distorted our perceptions of who we are now and where we need to go. The differences we see between Indigenous peoples and Australians of other racial backgrounds are differences of spirit, heart and aspiration. Differences that create newness in one another, not enmity. These are issues of the future. Christians have been mollified for decades for their hyper vigilance about guilt. Still we spend a bulk of our time disagreeing about sexually based guilt.
    I am worried that our religious and secular elites also want to continue to follow that hyper-vigilant path of guilt as well.
    After the Referendum my hope is that the Christian Voice will be more Christian, that Indigenous people will be more Indigenous and that all Australians will be voicing a common anthem of dialogue which is the only way to find Life together – shared abundantly in love.

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