24th September 2017 - Hugh Perry
Exodus 16: 2-15
Maurice Andrew says ‘that creation does not liberate oppressed people but liberated people must be able to live from creation.’  That was very much the reality of the early migrants to this country, both Polynesian and European. The early hunter gardener Polynesian migrants would have needed to develop new skills for new species and environment and many of the plants they brought wouldn’t grow in the more temperate climate.
Early European migrants came with farm animals and exotic plants from a similar climate and there were established communities of hunter gardeners to trade with. But the land they came to was covered in forest so they still had to forage for much of their food until their form of agriculture became established.
In any migration both big and small there is bound to be a time when the past is viewed with envy and the decision to move is seen as the greatest disaster ever made. Faced with challenge people prefer slavery to freedom because slavery also has security and freedom is always freedom into an unknown wilderness.
Matthew 20: 1-16
Hiring day labourers was a normal occurrence in Jesus’ time although usually carried out by the manager rather than the householder. Those offering themselves for hire would likely have been people uprooted from peasant farms by wealthy landlords foreclosing on debt or forced from their farms because they could not support their household. During harvest and planting work at minimal wages on a daily basis was readily available but in-between times it was not.
Therefore life was unpredictable and marked by unemployment, malnutrition, starvation, disease, minimal wages, removal from households, and begging. Their situation was more precarious than slaves since an employer had no long-term investment in them.
Like all of Jesus’ parables today’s reading is about the kingdom of God. It is not about industrial relations but nevertheless the story has extra layers to it.
Many organisations have a defined process to obtain full membership. When I joined Scouts at the age of eleven I had to pass my tenderfoot badge before I was allowed to wear a scout uniform. It then took almost the next four years to get my first-class badge and then it was the time to join Senior Scouts.
Jesus’ parable offers full membership of the divine realm at any stage and that is what the parable is about. Of course, the church, because it is as a human organisation, has managed to put in a series of hoops for converts to go through. Some of that is understandable because of human frailty, particularly in respect to leadership. However this parable tells us that, as far as God is concerned, once you decide you are in, you have as much right to be in as anyone. First or last are equal members of the divine realm and the challenge of living within that realm is the challenge of living in a community of others without rank or status.
But there is also a justice layer in this parable as well as a comment about envy.
In a feudal system people farm inherited land to feed their families and give the surplus to their overlord as protection money to keep out the Philistines and other bandits. At the time of Jesus many people had lost their inherited right to land because of debt. People had to pay a flat temple tax and the Romans taxed the movement of goods. In a year of bad weather or plague of insects farmers had to borrow to meet those obligations. If the next year was also bad and they couldn’t repay the debt their farm was sold and they became day labourers.
The landowner in the parable recognised that waiting at the market place did not feed a labourers family so even when, in the last hour of the day, he finds he needed more labourers to finish the harvest he paid them for a full day. The employer in this story recognised that an employee must meet his living expenses from his wages and that is a principal not always recognised in what has become our ‘low wage’ economy.
The mantra of successful business has become; reduce costs and increase production and to many reduce costs means to drive down wages. That is in sharp contrast to investment adviser Dr Roger Spiller who has said that business not only needs to be profitable but has to also do good.
That is a principal reflected in today’s parable and I suspect that Spillers failure to fully understand neo-liberal economics has something to do with his Salvation Army upbringing.
Another layer of commentary on human behaviour in this parable is the complaining of the workers. They all agreed to work for a day’s pay but those fortunate enough to be employed at the beginning of the day were filled with envy when they got the same as the late starters, even though they all got what was promised.
Our outrage at such perceived injustice was highlighted on television recently where a locksmith did the same job on two different houses and gave the same account to each customer. The customer most satisfied with the bill was the one where the tradesman dawdled and took a long time to finish the job. We also regularly have people on very good salaries complaining about solo mothers receiving a benefit.
People in our world are very good at complaining about what they believe they deserve and so were the Israelites in our Exodus reading.
The Israelites had been led out of slavery and their very survival in a hostile environment depended on their cooperation as a nomadic community. But when the going got difficult their first instinct was not to collaborate but to complain.
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. (Exodus 16:2)
Many People would rather moan than face the unknown wilderness of change. But I can understand that people who have been born and grown up in slavery, where a stable economy provided enough food and shelter to survive, would be terrified at leaving that stability behind. The past always looks better in hindsight so I can also understand that their first reaction to fear of want was to complain to their leaders. I am an expert moaner, next week I will have had 73 years experience at it.
The change the freed slaves faced however was much greater than any of us have, or are likely to face, although some of our forebears faced similar challenges.
Most of us have seen Bear Grylls eat something revolting on television or been unable to avoid seeing a promo for a ‘lack of reality’ programme where a group of selected individuals forage for food and try to humiliate each other in some exotic location. However, all those people have the backup of a camera crew and access to instant evacuation and medical assistance.
But imagine someone who has always obtained their food from the supermarket or a food bank suddenly having to find food in a wilderness of one kind or another. I have heard snippets of anecdotal evidence from our community garden that demonstrate that some people can’t cope with food that needs the simplest of preparation. I was amazed when we first planted the garden that one of the people helping did not know that potatoes planted in the ground would grow. I have recently heard a story about a boy who was given some potatoes from our community garden to take home. Next time he appeared he was asked if he enjoyed eating them but he said his mother threw them out because they had dirt on them.
Most of us would struggle to survive in any sort of wilderness and it must have been terrifying for the Israelites to leave the security of slavery to find their own way in a wilderness they had no experience of.
We can assume that they took what provisions they had with them. The fact that they were able to kill the Passover lamb would tend to indicate they had some domestic animals to also take with them.
That was the case for both Maori and Pakeha who first settled here. They brought plants and animals they used for food. However, Maori brought a range of tropical plants that struggled to grow in the temperate conditions, the Kumara being the most successful. Therefore they had to quickly find new food sources to survive in this wilderness. Maori came from Pacific islands so would have already had fishing skills and significantly settled near water. Pakeha probably got the better deal because they not only brought plants and animals from a temperate climate but Maori were already established and able to show them the ‘manna’ of this particular wilderness.
But cooperation was what enabled both waves of New Zealanders to establish in what was originally a very harsh wilderness. There were unique challenges for Pakeha colonisation because they came from a society with a strong class system where cooperation between classes was actively discouraged.
The disinherited aristocratic with farm management skills quickly discovered that he had a better life with a wife who had been a domestic servant and the labourer learnt to appreciate the farming skills of the aristocrat.
The wilderness is a great leveller and our wilderness created a unique people that are still a work in progress.
The obvious sign that we are still a work in progress is our ability to complain, practically to whatever leadership we have. We complain about our politicians, our teachers, our church leaders and sports coaches. We are particularly good at complaining about the coaches of teams where our only participation is to watch them on television. Of course, we complain about referees as well.
One of the points of similarity with our complaining and the complaining in our Exodus reading is that we often suggest that past slavery was better than an uncertain future. This is particularly noticeable when talking about cell phones and other new technology but we do it about all sorts of things.
The other night I watched the first episode of the new series of Grand Designs New Zealand which featured a woman that had dragged her family into building a replica of the grand villa that she had seen as a child. The result was a magnificent building but she was not satisfied because there was a height restriction on the site and a covenant on the subdivision that required all new building materials. Therefore the replica villa did not have the same ceilings height as her dream house from the past and she was not able to use recycled kauri for the floor. The programme ended with the couple explaining that they were putting the house on the market and had found another sight to build again. With the help of the presenter the viewer was left with the impression that this family was going to squander their six children’s childhood in the wilderness of construction sites with no real hope of recognising the promised land if they ever arrived. The woman’s dream home belonged in a past that was finished and gone, even if such a home ever existed beyond her imagination.
It is good to dream but our dreams must be open to the possibility of whatever ‘manna’ surrounds us. We need to be grateful for what we have, not envious of what we perceive others have been given.
In Christ, we have the gift of a way of living in a truly human community. A gift of love and justice that is always available, at any time, to those who will live as Christ to others.
 Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999)p. 105
Warren Carter Mathew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading, (London/New York: T&T Clark International 2004) p.395-398.