One of the advantages of being old is that your memory goes back into the nooks and crannies of history. And so it is that I remember, in the heady heydays of Rogernomics, some brilliant leader - probably on the Kim Hill show - denouncing today's parable as obnoxious and morally wrong. It was offensive to the Rogernomic advocate because everyone got the same reward and they should not have. It wasn't fair go, and certainly didn't meet the requirements of the Employment Relations Act. The ERA never for a minute imagined that employers would want to give those who worked a little the same as those who worked a lot. How can it be fair go when those who work five or six days a week get the same as a parson who only works one? How can it be fair go when some people have it easy in their work and others have it hard? How can it be fair go when others come out of the same situation better off than we did? I went to the Diversity Dinner organised by Jan Gordon, and we had to consider the difference between equality and equity. Equality is when we receive the same size pieces of chocolate cake. Equity is when my piece is bigger than yours, recognising that my appetite for such delights is somewhat greater than yours. Did the master treat the workers with equity or equality? (Jan will tell you after the service), but whatever she says, on behalf of fair go, you may well have to concede there's something a bit crooked, something a bit wrong, a bit offensive about this story.
I found myself asking why it troubles us so. As I thought about it, it seemed to me that our whole human system is based on work: that rewards are given in proportion to our effort. It goes right back to school days and the report I got at the end of each term. In Writing, Spelling, in Arithmetic it always said, Must work harder; in Social Studies, in Physical Education, in Music it always said, Must work harder. Possibly you didn=t get that on your report. I think they must have had a rubber stamp for me! Must work harder, rewards are proportionate to the effort. There can be no reward without effort. And then when I, at the end of my school days, went to Mt Albert Grammar the motto was Per Ardua ad astra. Do you want to swing on a star, carry moonbeams home in a jar, be better off than you are... Toil gives you the heavens. Proportionality is about us at every turn. The price goes up when the demand is high; the price goes down when there is abundance. The less we have to pay in wages the more we can make in profits - no wonder that the Rogernome didn't like this story of Jesus: the master is wreaking havoc on the bottom line giving every worker a full day's pay even if they worked only an hour. And we find it hard, too, for the concepts of less and more are so strongly driven into our psyche.
And we apply the principle of proportionality to our religion. The more effort we put in the more the rewards will be. The better we are, the longer we have served, the more good things we can put on our religious CV, the more we can expect from God, perhaps health, strength, and wealth. Thank God, said the Pharisee, that I am not like other people; the rich young man said, I've done all the good things you could possibly think of, I've kept the commandments! There's James and John and Peter arguing over which one will sit at the right hand of Jesus. But it's not just NT men and women who show proportionality; it's deeply ingrained in us right here and now. Religious faith becomes a matter of effort. And if we are not doing very well in church, we sense on our report card the words: Must work harder. There must be some programme to try, a multiplex church to build, a better and brighter image to present. It's exceedingly difficult for us to free ourselves from the framework of work, of proportionality in our relationship with God.
That=s why this parable opens up a whole new way of living and relating to God: the universe of grace. In the universe of grace proportionality is not important and does not count. Someone does more but it will not gain them an advantage, in fact the last may well be first. In the universe of grace there is only one reward which is God's love, given both equally and equitably to all people. God loves me no more and no less than God loves you. God loves the man 50 years in the church no more and no less than the woman of five months church experience. It's not fair go. It's not always even-handed from our perspective, but no one is left out and all shall have enough. At its best and truest the church has tried to live in and express the radical understanding of the universe of grace over against the world of work which dominates our lives so much of the time by shaping our attitudes and even our faith.
So you see, from time to time you will get glimpses of this wonderful universe of grace set out in contrast to our world of work and proportionality. You get it in the story of the manna. The manna comes down every morning and the Israelites go out to gather it, about 2 kg for each person. There is just enough for everyone, but you know what B some people are still in a world of work and they gather more to get more. It does them no good though, because it won't keep and the next day it's useless. Manna won't go into the bank or the pantry cupboard. This gift of manna is a fascinating picture of how God provides for everyone in an identical way, neither more nor less, for if you take more it rots. The principle of the manna is identical with the principles of the vineyard owner, the same for all, enough for all and no attempt to get more will work. You get a similar approach to the universe of grace in the little picture of the first church we read from Acts. Those early Christians pooled their possessions and they shared with each other. Thus all had the same and no one had more or less. They lived as if it were manna, or as if they all had the same wage. No one, says Acts, went in need of anything. These first Christians in their eagerness and simplicity are building the universe of grace.
There are other places in the Bible story where the people of God leave the world of work and enter upon the universe of grace - but not very many. Sometimes, it seems to me, the universe of grace fights a losing battle, and we go back to our old ways: must work harder, of believing that our effort is going to return a great reward; of disowning those who have little and need more; of trying to get so many Brownie points that God must owe us one. But what shall we do with these truly biblical stories of the universe of grace? And I'm caught up in a bind as much as you - for most sermons end with work: Pay more attention, work much harder, do more homework, join the roster, pray more, give moreb. The irony of the universe of grace is that God loves you whether you listen to my sermon or not, whether you sleep through it or not. And yet, if somehow we can get our hearts and minds and souls into the idea of grace, such grace that gives us a day's pay whether we worked eight hours or one, it's wonderfully comforting and satisfying. Fair go is me compared to you. But grace is my need and my welfare and my hope equally with your need and your welfare and your hope. In grace together we are one.