Absurd Generosity

23 Sep

Matthew 20.1-16

Many years ago, when I was slimmer, I used to perform this Gospel Reading with an assemble called Ludus. We would mime the process of each group arriving and then the picking of the grapes before turning on those who came later in revolt against the landowner for his/her absurd generosity of paying all, including the latecomers, the same daily wage.

How dare the landowner break the agreed societal terms of employment, fairness, and justice, the economic imperative of his times? How dare he see them as the equal of those who put in a full day of work and pay them the same? Surely, they did not deserve it.


  • They were lazy and didn’t get there on time.
  • They were indulgent having overslept, stayed out late, failed to be educated or whatever, and then expected to get work?
  • They lived in a family with a poor work ethic and needed to break free from that generational failure and take responsibility for themselves.
  • They were ignored by others and not given work although they came early and stayed all day.
  • There wasn’t enough work, and they were desperate for anything.
  • And the list goes on.

This all seems so unfair.

Larry Broding asks: “What is the difference between fairness and justice?” It’s a question we too should ask at this time in history as we prepare to vote in the referendum – what is fairness and justice? Are they the same thing or is there a significant difference highlighted by the treatment of the workers by the landowner and implied in how God treats us?

One of the arguments I hear regularly against Recognition and the Voice enshrined in the Constitution is that it is giving one group of people something others do not have because of their race. It implies that all in Australia have equal opportunity to excel, aspire to be more than they are, to lift themselves out of poverty and despair, and that no one should be given something others do not have.

The analogy with our reading is that when our nation’s constitution was written we were excluded from it because Alfred Deakin and others presumed we would die out completely and that by the end of the 20th century, there would be no coloured people in Australia, not even slightly tinted ones.

By being excluded from equality with all others who came here, then, and later, we were deemed persona nulllius – empty people, non-existent and non-present. We were deemed requisite of the caring hand of the state – protection, assimilation, and reconciliation – always mediated through the view of whiteness, white possessiveness, and a universal worldview that says how white people see the world, speak, and believe, dominants all other world views. First People were deemed unable to be human in this way although we had lived in harmony with our world and each other for 60,000 years.

Answering Brodings question is answering the vineyard workers’ question – what is fair as against what is just? I would suggest, along with Herman C. Waetjen that “Jesus’ parables violated the ordered system of land tenure and economic exchange in the world of his day. The rule of God, which his stories metaphorically disclosed, will undermine the ruling elite’s self-serving systemic structures and institutions.” That is justice and is the root of the fear many who oppose the voice, including those in the church if not the church itself – that their ‘self-serving systemic structures and institutions’ will lose their pre-eminence over all other world views, that somehow by giving justice to another it will demean yourself.

It is interesting in our case that when we do lift ourselves up, get educated, and become articulate and successful we are deemed to be elite, out of touch with the real First People, and unable to understand the issues our people face. Meritocracy is not available to us, in fact, our success earns us further exclusion and disempowerment.

The workers who came early and worked hard to achieve their goals, living with an ancient concept of meritocracy, were determined to maintain their status as the preferred workers in a competitive space. Australians find the possibility that the heroics of their forbears to tame this country will be lessened by equality with the First People. Meritocracy is the underpinning of much of the No case – you must earn equality and if you don’t then you are to blame, not the impact of dispossession, protection, and stolen children.

Justice requires a giving up of privilege and entitlement based on a meritocracy that, in our case, was predicated on the idea of race that came with the first fleet. Privilege, by definition, cannot be shared – it is for the one. Privilege and entitlement must be relinquished and renegotiated based on equality.

In our case, this equality is bound up with our ask to be included in the Constitution and given the basic right to have a voice on matters that relate to us. It is asking Australia to give up its privilege of possession and control and to allow us the freedom to speak for ourselves on matters that relate to us. We are not going to take away your right to be or diminish your democracy as you understand it, but simply to extend, or perhaps more accurately, complete the democratic vision which has been incomplete because the original custodians were excluded from it.

For the vineyard workers who were privileged to work all day, their society was incomplete in terms of both fairness and justice if only some were able to benefit from the “the ordered system of land tenure and economic exchange” they lived within. If there is injustice for one, that injustice impacts the whole.

This parable reinforces the value of the individual as imperative to an authentic society. Devaluing people based on not being given work, for whatever reason, impacted their society and reinforced the unfairness of the economic system. Devaluing people on universals such as race, as we in this country have done for some 250 years, leaves us with a colonial memory of benefits gained by dispossessing others which we are yet to resolve.

The Voice, like this parable, is about fairness and justice and we are yet to see if Australia is ready to give up some of its privileges to include us in this space.




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