Well this week’s news stories - actually this first one has been playing out over the last few weeks hasn’t it? The Government is telling us we need more gas. We need to kick-start our economy and spend our way out of the COVID dumps and we need pipelines of natural gas so industry can gear back up again. Except it’s a fossil fuel, it produces as much greenhouse gas as the coal we continue to burn, getting further and further behind the rest of the world who are getting aboard with cheaper renewable energy. And the second story - babies are being born with placental damage, right now in our lucky country, premature, underweight and under-oxygenated as a result of air pollution from last summer’s apocalyptic bushfires. Temperatures are rising and the land is drying, we’re fast losing the opportunity to keep global warming under 1.5 C and our ruling classes just aren’t getting it because there’s still a dollar to be made in fossil fuel. Maybe you, like me, feel concerned but helpless when you hear stuff like this. What can I possibly do?
How much do we really need, and is there a connection between our overconsumption and the needs of others? Jesus seems to think so, for example with his pointed little story about the man who builds a super-barn to store the wheat his farms have grown but loses his life into the bargain. And also with his fiendishly clever backhander that we blithely call the Golden Rule without - it seems to me - ever really thinking through the implications. "Do to others", he tells us, "what you would have them do for you". "Love your neighbour as you love yourself". Which neatly exposes the double-standards we live by when we accumulate for ourselves and fail to respond to the needs of others.
To be fair, Jesus isn’t living in the modern world, the real-world economy of award rates and share markets and economic growth. We have rules for this sort of stuff, rules that define our responsibilities to pay tax for social welfare, and encourage us to save for our retirement. Rights are balanced by responsibilities, the worker deserves their hire and gives a fair day’s work for a fair day’s hire. Don’t fiddle your timesheet, you work the right number of hours, you get the right amount of pay. Or as our Prime Minister puts it, ‘you have a go, you get a go’. That way everybody knows where they stand, things are fair, the world’s the right way up. As good citizens we live by these expectations, and as Christians we also have internalised the expectations and the standards of the society we live in.
But remember all those parable in chapter 13 a few weeks back, how I said in the stories Jesus tells, the thing that he most seems to enjoy is taking something that seems the right way up and turning it on its head - likening God’s kingdom to a farmer deliberately planting weeds, or a worker tricking his neighbour into selling a paddock with treasure buried in it – and in today’s puzzling story in which Jesus tells us, basically: in God’s scheme of things your industrial relations laws don’t work because God’s notions of fairness just aren’t the same as yours – in God’s economy it doesn’t matter whether you work all day or you turn up at five-to-five, you’ll get a full day’s pay just the same – God’s kingdom is really good news for bludgers and latecomers, it seems!
Well,the people listening to Jesus’ story would have been poor. Jesus is telling these stories on the back blocks of Galilee where there’s rather a big gap between the haves and the have-nots. Even more than there is today, in the first century maybe 97 or 98% of the population were have-nots, living hand-to-mouth - maybe half a percent had real economic and political power, others at various levels from Herod down to the local landowner who maybe had a few acres of his own but didn’t fancy doing the actual work. But the vast majority were landless peasants - to see poverty and a social structure like that in today’s world you would have to travel to somewhere like Somalia or Yemen.
So if you’re one of the elite 2% and you do own land, and you have a harvest to get in, you get on your donkey and go down to the village, where you find all the local men sitting around under a tree, hoping someone’s going to hire them today because they’ve got a wife and six kids who didn’t have any breakfast this morning and if they get some work maybe they’ll get some dinner. And you hire the youngest ones, the strongest looking ones, not the ones who look a bit worn out.
And that’s what the farmer in Jesus story does too, except he the keeps going back during the day, and each time he picks up more, by the end of the day he’s probably picking up grandpas and men on crutches who can’t believe their luck. And here’s the really silly thing, an hour later, everyone gets enough to buy a family’s food for the day. That’s what a denarius was worth. A family gets to eat for a day on a denarius. Not enough for superannuation or saving or buying a donkey-cart but enough for bread for a day. God’s idea of justice is just-enoughness.
Well it was bound to cause grumbling, and in spite of the farmer’s clever words the ones that worked all day have probably got a point. You know what I mean by the ‘work ethic’? You probably grew up with it, I did too, it’s the voice inside that tells you if someone’s paying you’ve got to give value for money. There’s no such thing as a free ride, and deep down we’re pretty sure the way things are is how they should be. But Jesus doesn’t think so, because he’s telling us that in God’s scheme of things there’s a deeper level of fairness that our "me-first" way of thinking just doesn’t get.
The reading this morning from Exodus makes the very same point. The Israelites are on the run out of Egypt – they have left behind everything that is familiar and safe, and even if they were slaves back there at least they had something in their bellies. And so they are hungry, scared and cranky. It’s all Moses fault, it’s all God’s fault.
But God gives them what they need, what they need is bread, just enough for today, and that’s what God gives them. What they want is another thing, but God gives them just what they need. Enough for today, and even if you try to keep some for tomorrow it goes off. So here’s the difference between us and God – we’re focussed on what we want, and on what we deserve. ‘Give us what we deserve!’ - hmm - maybe I should rephrase that? ‘I’ll tell you what I deserve. Give me that.’
God doesn’t give them what they want – only what they need. Why? Because in God’s economy – in God’s scheme of things – what human beings are created for is to want God. What human beings are created to rely on – is God. Stashing a few kilos of manna behind the hump of your camel for tomorrow means not being quite convinced that God’s promises are reliable. That’s the point. God doesn’t give me what I deserve. Just as well, actually. God gives me what I need. That’s why it’s in the prayer Jesus teaches us – word for word - give us today the bread we need for today.
Yes, but. Let’s be honest, there are quite a few people not getting even that, even just what they need for today. You see, even when we do adjust our way of thinking and work out the difference between our wants and our needs - in the real world it’s not working out the way Jesus says. God’s scheme of things isn’t the way it is actually working in the world we live in - so there is a basic contradiction. What can we possibly do with that?
We’re still in Sustainable September, and so we are reflecting on the Earth and its living systems, and how the way that we live affects God’s creation. And as we know the crisis of climate change is also a crisis of enoughness, because the economics of growth and prosperity mean that we are taking more from the Earth than it can produce. Economists tell us that we are taking year by year about 1.5 times as much than the Earth can sustain - in terms of the impact on the living systems of soil and water and air and forest and oceans. Which means we are stealing from the future - the future of our planet and the future of tomorrow’s human beings, our own children and grandchildren who will not have the bread they need tomorrow if we take it and waste it today. The science of climate change is settled and actually so is the economics - the bread other people need for today, and the room to heal and thrive that the Earth and its creatures need for today are denied when we take more than we need and refuse to listen to the voices urging us to respect the natural limits.
So – what can we do? Quite a lot, I think. As Christians we can love what God loves. We can gossip the goodness of creation. We can practice an ethic of care for creation and we can model a spirituality that is in tune with God’s creation, a spirituality that is - literally - grounded. A spirituality that notices the needs of others and that widens its circle of compassion to include the whole of God’s creation. And the message for today is that we need a spirituality of just-enoughness - a spirituality that reconnects our desires with our true needs, and the needs of the Earth. A spirituality that reconnects us with our true context and our true home.