Monday, September 13, 2010

God's Overwhelming Generosity

Isaiah 28.9-22
There’s a very contemporary feel to this passage from Isaiah. The Prophet laments the people’s lack of religious understanding and spiritual maturity. They are like newborn babies who haven’t learnt to speak yet. The language which God uses, the language of ethical standards and justice, the language of compassion and concern for those in need, the language of deep peace and true security, the language of loving kindness, is like a babble of meaningless noise to them, a foreign language which they do not know. In fact, not only do they not know how to communicate with God, they also deride God’s word and dismiss them as something barbarous or meaningless. God has offered true rest to those who were exhausted, but even then they would not listen.

Is there a parallel here with our own secular society, where many people have turned their backs on religion and tuned out from spirituality because they believe that it is primitive and irrational, the stuff of childish fantasy and insecurity which grown-ups and cultured people should leave behind? I once had a long email correspondence with a Guardian journalist who insisted that religion is totally unreasonable and the realm of fanatical and superstitious minds incapable of accepting concepts like logic, or scientific method. When I argued that I was both religious and rational he replied that in his opinion I wasn’t really religious. It was a dialogue with the deaf. He wasn’t listening. His mind was closed.

In the Prophet’s opinion, the people of his time had made a pact with Death instead of honouring their ancestors’ covenant with God. They had persuaded themselves that they could cheat death and be unscathed by natural disasters. ‘When the raging flood sweeps by, it will not touch us,’ they said to one another. But, of course, they were wrong. The Prophet warns them that when the raging flood waters finally do sweep by they will be like land overwhelmed by flood. Sheer terror will replace their complacency as they realise that their pact with death was worthless and has been annulled.

God, however, depends upon truth, not falsehood. He does not offer his people false promises that they can escape from harm and - indeed - he warns them that they are headed for destruction unless they heed his message.

Again, there are interesting parallels with the present time. Some obscurantists clerics in Pakistan have long taught that if people are obedient to God they will be kept safe from harm. What can they say now in the face of the terrible floods there? Some, of course, would blame the disaster on the sinners in their midst - the people who have turned their backs on true Islamic ways and brought down God’s wrath upon the nation. Isn’t the truth, however, that God is not responsible for the flooding at all? Human beings are bringing it on themselves by deforesting the mountains where the rivers rise, by building homes on flood plains and perhaps even by allowing global warming to get out of hand and interfere with the natural course of the Jet Stream, distorting the weather across whole continents. We can’t say for sure that global warming is responsible for what is happening to the Jet Stream, but it probably is creating more extreme weather events and making them happen more frequently.

Like the people of Isaiah’s time we have tried to make a pact with Death - to put if off until we reach advanced old age and to enjoy a long life of prosperity and carefree enjoyment. Is the pact breaking down now as life becomes more complicated and life expectancy - especially in poorer parts of the world - starts to get much shorter again? There’s even some evidence in our own country that, with the current epidemic of obesity in particular, younger generations will live shorter lives in future than their parents.

Isaiah suggests that God will storm with rage against his disobedient people, as he stormed with rage in the battle which Joshua fought against the Amorite people - a battle that took place in the Vale of Gibeon and that was notorious for being the only occasion when God made the sun stand still to give the Israelite soldiers more time to pursue and slaughter their defeated enemies.

Some people might think - like Isaiah - that God is using nature now to punish human recklessness and disregard for his laws. But I think many Christians would take a softer line, and would imagine that it is Mother Nature, not God, who is storming against us and that God is in fact grieving for those who are suffering. Even Isaiah says that God’s wrath against his people’s arrogance is strange and alien to him and fundamentally at odds with his true intentions. Behind this prophecy of doom, then, there is the promise that ultimately God’s nature is to be merciful and compassionate. It’s really a call to repentance rather than a threat of vengeance.

2 Corinthians 8.1-9
Towards the end of his life Paul spent a great deal of effort organising an emergency relief effort for the struggling church in Jerusalem. It was the mother church, of course, to which all of the new churches founded by Paul looked for inspiration and guidance, but its members had faced intermittent persecution and most of them were very poor. It’s probable that they found it hard to get work in such a hostile society and there may also have been other things going on which were contributing to their poverty, such as an economic downturn.

In any case, Paul saw this as a wonderful opportunity for Christians to show solidarity with one another, and for the new converts from Gentile nations to offer help and support to Jewish Christians. He was delighted, therefore, when the churches in Macedonia - which he had established only a few years before and which apparently had troubles enough of their own - were lavishly open-handed in their giving to this good cause.

Paul being Paul, of course, he couldn’t resist using the Macedonians’ wonderful example as a way of prompting the church at Corinth to respond in equal measure. I guess there are parallels with our own public relations department which put out a message last week to say that Methodists had already contributed £20,000 to the Methodist Relief and Development Fund’s latest emergency appeal for Pakistan. No doubt they are hoping to stimulate further generosity, just as Methodists responded generously to the plight of fellow Christians in Haiti earlier this year.

But the most interesting thing which Paul has to say here is his comparison between the generosity of the Macedonian Christians and the example of Jesus. Here we see a very different picture of the character of God from Isaiah’s depiction of an angry and wrathful God, even though the Prophet had insisted that God was reluctant to show anger and had been driven to it by the wilful disobedience of his people. Jesus, by contrast, is God’s international relief effort. He was rich yet for our sakes he became poor, so that through his poverty we might become rich. In other words, his response to our dire predicament is not to wag his finger and say, ‘I told you so!’ It’s not to get angry and kick people up the behind and take their names. It’s to lay himself on the line to save us.

Matthew 20.1-16
On the face of it, this parable is about an employer with a labour relations’ problem. He hires casual workers to harvest the grapes in his vineyard but when he goes to the marketplace to take on all the men who have shown up for work there aren’t enough eager applicants waiting there to meet his requirements. So four times more he goes back and hires extra relays of workers, including some who only make their way to the marketplace to look for work an hour before sunset.

In the employment project where I work we sometimes talk about three kinds of jobseekers. There are “the sprinters” - the people who are desperate to find a new job at any costs. They don’t really need any help. They will go on searching for work until they find it. All we can do to assist them is help them hone their search skills, sharpen their CV and refine their interview technique. Then there are “the joggers” - people who do want a job but who lack confidence in their own experience or abilities, perhaps because they have been out of the labour market for a long time, caring for children or following an illness, and so on. They won’t become sprinters unless we give them a bit more help, perhaps by providing them with volunteer work experience or sending them on a refresher course, or signposting them to other retraining opportunities. Finally, there are “the strollers2 - the people who are a little bit feckless. They will work, but they’re not really inclined to go looking for work. In fact they’ve only come to our office at all because Mum tipped them out of bed and told them to get down to see us after hearing that the next-door neighbour’s lad just got a job with our help. I’m not belittling the strollers. To be fair to them, after you’ve been out of work for a short while and taken a few knock-backs form potential employers it’s easy to lose motivation and self-esteem. Our job is to give the strollers the nudge they need to become joggers again.

In the parable, the employer recruits the sprinters at sunrise, the joggers at midday and the strollers in the evening just before sunset. But he gives them all an equal chance of working and, crucially, at the end of the day, he offers them all the same wages.

Now clearly that’s unfair, and the people who have worked hardest and who have toiled through the heat of the day rightly protest that they deserve some extra recognition in the form of a bonus for all their effort. Of course the owner of the vineyard is within his rights to be generous to the strollers, but this is no way to run a successful business. What will happen tomorrow, or next year, when he needs to hire workers again for the harvest? If he doesn’t offer some incentive to get up early all the labourers for hire will turn up at the marketplace in the cool of the evening and wait tobe taken on for the last hour of the day. And who would blame them? So, in a very real sense, the last will suddenly find they are first in the queue, as the people who used to get up early to be first in the marketplace start to turn up last instead.

However, if we take the story too seriously we are missing the point. It’s not a lesson in good labour relations. We couldn’t really run a successful vineyard this way, could we? It’s a parable - a tall story designed to jolt us into a different way of thinking. And it’s not about how to manage our staff, it’s about God’s great generosity. The vineyard represents the nation of Israel, and the lenient treatment handed out to the latecomers shows just how far God is prepared to be merciful and generous to his people. Not only is anger and wrath strange and alien to God’s nature, it is in fact inimical to his nature. He longs instead to be kind and compassionate, even to the point of being taken for a pushover or a big softy. So isn’t Jesus’ message to us that, faced with such overwhelming generosity, we should respond by trying to be as generous as we dare with our neighbours, colleagues, friends and family?

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