Equality, Justice & Fairness

25 Sep


Matthew 20:1-16

 Todays gospel is a challenging one, as are many of Matthew’s offerings. They disturb us and make us uncomfortable, or, they should. We are to comfortable and often unaware of our biases and blind spots.

In this story we are challenged to reconsider what we think is fair? Is it fair to pay those who have done an hours work the same as those who have done 8 hours work? Is it fair to pay those who got up late, arrived late in the afternoon as those who were there when the starting bell rang?

At one level Matthew is referring to the right of those such as himself who followed Jesus but continued to be apart of the synagogue? Were they not entitled to the generosity of God the same as those who maintained the Jewish traditions. At another level it is about how we treat each other everyday.

This is not a first century question. We are confronted with it in our country. Is it fair to allow those who, for a range of reasons do not work to share in the good things of life in the same way those who have worked hard and made something of themselves? The federal Government is about roll out the income management card in the Bundaberg region of Queensland, the first time it has been implemented in an urban environment. Previously it was in rural areas.

As reported:

…. the controversial card will be rolled out across the Wide Bay region, including Bundaberg and Hervey Bay. Under the scheme 80 per cent of a person’s welfare income is quarantined on a debit-style card, which cannot be used on alcohol, gambling or to withdraw cash. It will apply to people under the age of 35 who receive dole and parenting payments.

Human Services Minister Alan Tudge said the region had serious social problems the Government needed to address.

“We’re concerned about the impacts on drugs, alcohol and gambling, particularly being used by families and children being neglected in the process,” he said. “At the end of the day it’s not their money, it’s taxpayers’ money which is being provided for the basics — accommodation, food, transportation, education. “Welfare is not provided to support an alcohol habit, a drug habit, a gambling habit.”

Apart from the factual inaccuracies or broad unfounded generalisations in this statement by the Minister and the fact that this card does not and has not worked successfully elsewhere, the fact is those who came early are denying equality to those who came late.

These people are not equal to us and therefore are to be treated differently and in a way appropriate to that of non-human beings. They are to be managed to ensure that we continue to drink, eat and smoke what we want, go on overseas holidays and more because we are spending our own money!

Another factual inaccuracy.

We benefit from tax concessions, loopholes, subsidies and more. The church pays no income tax, no rates and clergy get a generous tax rebate. Why are we excused from these types of measures when almost all Anglican events involve alcohol? Is it right that we spend, what is to some degree tax payers funds, in this way?

Matthew Skinner suggests:

“In the end, it’s not about unfair payments. At the parable’s conclusion, the full-day workers don’t moan that they have been cheated. They complain instead to the landowner, You have made them [the one-hour workers] equal to us.”

It is the sense of justice and generosity of the landowner that is attacked as well as the latecomers tardiness. In our modern world it is the audacity to make those who do not fulfil our expectations of what it means to be a responsible human being equal to those who have been responsible, who have sacrificed and who now have the capacity to survive on what they have hoarded away.

In our liturgy we use the word selfishness for sin.  Why? Because sin is simply replacing God at the centre of our being with the desires and wants of self. It is putting self first. Sin is selfishness.People find this challenging for we do not see ourselves as being selfish, just responsible. We can live with the fact we might sin, just a little, but we struggle to think of ourselves as selfish.

We say:

  • It is not selfish to work hard and reap the benefits of that. That is our reward.
  •  It is not selfish to use our networks to get our children good jobs, that’s what friends are for.
  •  It is not selfish to maximise our tax return, that’s what good accountants are for.
  •  It is not selfish to travel overseas every year, we have worked hard for it.
  •  It is not selfish for one or two people to live in a house big enough for 8 or more (vicarages included), this is my home, I worked hard for it.

Yet is it not just a little selfish when others in our own country don’t have the basic necessities for a productive life? Is it not a little selfish to deny others some of the pleasures of life on the basis they are spending our money, when we do the same? Selfishness comes in many shapes and sizes and it takes a brave person to open the lid marked “ME” and take a good long look.

That’s what Matthew’s Jesus is saying to those standing by who would have sided with the early workers.

  •  God is generous and treats all justly and equally, not fairly.
  •  God is generous and opens up the possibility for life by giving to all equally.
  •  God does not restrict his Spirit of Wisdom on account of the fact someone has been listening longer than another.
  •  We are treated with justice and equality not on terms of what we think is fair.

This is a huge challenge for the church and it is some of the issues Andrew raises in his letter. How can we hold back from people what God does not hold back from us – the right for self-determination? What gives Governments and church institutions the right to dictate what we think and how we behave? Can we not be trusted to behave responsibly and respectfully?

Ben Groundwater has written a challenging article entitled“Australia nanny state: Have we become a nation of idiots?”

He compares his experience in Europe with what it is like in Australia.  He writes:

“You can ride a bike without a helmet in Europe, and you are trusted not to fall off (similarly, drivers are trusted not to run into you). You can wander freely onto public transport, and you are trusted to buy a ticket. You can drink a beer in the park, or on the pavement outside a bar, and you’re trusted not to act like a drunken fool.

You can’t do those things in Australia because we live in a nanny state with a lot of rules, and we live in a nanny state with a lot of rules because there are some people out there who really need to be nannied. We don’t all need it. But we have to put up with it because others do.”

Why? Because we are not equal and we are committed to maintaining inequality in the name of fairness. It is time for us to address our selfishness and embrace equality and justice at all levels

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