Atrocious Accounting, Amazing Grace

Atrocious Accounting, Amazing Grace

Glynn Cardy 24th September 2023, Matthew 20:1-15

When a wise woman reached the outskirts of the village and settled under a tree for the night, a villager came running up to him and said, “The stone! The stone! Give me the precious stone!”

“What stone?” asked the wise woman.

“Last night the Lord God told me in a dream that if I went to the outskirts of the village at dusk a wise woman would give me a stone that would make me rich forever.”

The wise woman rummaged in her sack and, pulling out a stone, she said, “The Lord God probably meant this one. I found it in the forest yesterday. Here, it’s yours if you want it.”

The man gazed at the stone in wonder. It was the largest diamond in the world – the size of a person’s head.

That night the villager tossed about in bed.  At break of day, he woke the wise woman and said, “Give me the wealth that makes it possible for you to give this stone away.”

This parable, told by Anthony De Mello, questions us about our understanding of wealth.  Is wealth what we possess?  Or is it the power and grace to give away?  Do we value, above all else, the getting?  Or do we value, above all else, the giving?  You might respond and say, ‘Well it’s a bit of both,’ and go on to talk about the flow of getting and giving, gaining and losing, having and sharing.

Yet the messages of our globalized culture largely extol, and expect us to prioritize, the pursuit of riches.  For with riches comes security, and influence, and praise.  And we all like some of that.  But the parable is suggesting the detachment from riches, the ability to give away, to not worry about what is given or who to, and by so doing not let riches dictate your life and priorities, is a far greater wealth.  If we can achieve it.

Put another way, our globalized culture believes in what it thinks is a self-evident truth, that money is power.  The more money the more power.  And the second so-called self-evident truth we believe in is, that we all want it.  We all want more money and more power.  So, politicians pitch their campaigns appealing to the desire to have more money.  How unusual, how refreshing it would be, if their pitches reminded us of how privileged we are as a nation and how we could serve better those places and people less privileged than ourselves.

Our New Testament has tales from early Jesus groups who are challenging this money and power scenario.  A scenario that was as common in their globalized (read Roman Empire) culture as it is in ours.

Consider Luke 15:1-7 where a shepherd left his flock of ninety-nine and ventured out to search for one lost sheep.  It was a noble deed, to be sure.  Brendan Boughen and I even created a cartoon about it – though the noble one in the cartoon was the lost sheep who decided he didn’t want to become a “works burger” like the ninety-nine!

But, returning to Luke’s account, think for a moment about the underlying accounting.  The text says the shepherd left the ninety-nine “in the wilderness,” which means vulnerable to rustlers, predators, or a feral desire to bolt free.  How would the shepherd feel if he returned with the one lost lamb slung across his shoulder to find half his flock now missing?  Surely the crazy accounting of leaving the many to find the one needs to be questioned.

Remember shepherds in 1st century Palestine were not owners of stock, indeed not owners of much at all.  How would the owner/s of the sheep feel about the potential loss of many in order to just rescue one?  Wealth and livestock, then and now, was power.  Why risk the loss of power?  Surely the many are more important that the few?  Surely it is better for one to die than the whole flock perish?

Not so, says the Jesus followers.  We prioritize, regardless of the cost, the little, the last, and the least.

Next consider the scene recounted in John 12:1-8, where a woman called Mary [Martha’s and Lazarus’ sister] took 500 grams of exotic perfume and loving poured it on Jesus’ feet.  And Jesus commended her for it.

Now, 500 grams of perfume is a lot of perfume.  It was worth a year’s wages!  Would not 10 grams of perfume have accomplished the same purpose?  Plenty of smell?  Plenty to massage with?  No, it was 490 grams of excessive waste.  Even Judas could see the absurdity: liquid money now running in fragrant rivulets across the dirt floor could have been sold to help the poor, or keep Jesus and his itinerant band in food for a little bit longer. 

Wealth and the cosmetics industry, then and now, was power.  Why encourage the pouring of power down the drain?  Surely the story, and the point of the story, could have been made with 10 grams of perfume.

Not so, says the Jesus followers.  The love that Mary expressed, and we are called to emulate, should not be restricted to the usual boundaries of good accounting and management.  Let love be love.  Love extravagantly.  Love wastefully.  Disrespect the parameters of prudence.  Remember the movie Babette’s Feast.

Next consider Mark 12:41-44.  After watching a widow drop two puny coins (leptons) – the smallest coins in circulation – in the Temple collection plate, Jesus belittled more substantial contributions.  “I tell you the truth,” Jesus remarked, “this poor widow has put more into the collection than all the others.” 

‘Huh?  No, she hasn’t.  Just count the coins.’

Jesus went on: “They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything she had.” 

‘Well, it’s nice to encourage her Mr. Jesus, but really is a few cents going to repair the Temple roof?  No number of poor widows and their mites is going to get that roof or a pillar earthquake-strengthened.’  Jesus’ approach is not a good one if the point of giving is actually to pay the bills.

Wealth and money, then and now, was power.  Surely at the end of the day running churches and temples takes a certain amount of money.  The amount of money is important.

No so, says the Jesus followers.  Our movement is built on commitment.  This commitment is what builds faith communities.  Commitment is the foundation of church, not how much money you can give.

The last example of atrocious accounting is from today’s reading, Matthew 20:1-15.  The story goes that a wealthy landowner hired people to work his vineyards.  Some were hired at sunrise, some at morning teatime, some at lunchtime, some at afternoon teatime, and some an hour before finishing time.  Everybody seemed content until the wages were given out.  The stalwarts who had worked twelve hours under a blazing sun learned that the sweat-less newbies who had put in barely an hour would receive exactly the same pay.  The landowner’s action contradicted everything known about employee motivation, fair compensation, and the economics of the Empire.  It was not just!

The Vineyard Labourers is a frequently misunderstood parable.  It usually has been interpreted as the landowner is God, and God dispenses grace not based on our labour but on divine generosity. 

Scholars[i] though point out firstly that it is a mistake to equate the wealthy male landowner with God, just as it is always a mistake to equate divinity with unequal power.  It is the outcome that is divine, reflecting a very different economy than that which was normative in Rome’s empire.  God’s is a subversive economy undermining the patron-client hierarchical order where wealth, power, gender, and class are all important.

Secondly, they point out the social situation of the labourers.  They were a readily available pool of cheap labour who had been uprooted from their peasant farms by wealthy landowners after foreclosing on debt, or forced from family plots because they could not support the household.  They sought work day by day, and at minimal rates.  Their situation was more precarious than slaves since an employer had no long-term investment in them.  So, when v.6 uses the word ‘idle’ the implication is not laziness.  They were available for work but there was none.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the payment was recognition of equal need, recognition of the poverty the labourers found themselves in.  So, it was an egalitarian gesture, reflecting the divine which offends the normative economy of recompense for work done.  Grace then, rather than something the wealthy landowner dispensed, was the currency of God’s economy: gift, needs of the least, worth of everyone, solidarity between all.

Wealth and wages, then and now, was power.  Why share it evenly when it had not been earnt?  Surely such is not just.

Not so, says the Jesus followers.  Justice, grace-in-action, is the recognition of need, of the worth of everyone, and the subsequent allocation of resources to reflect that.

All these Bible stories – the 99 sheep, the perfume for the feet, the widow’s mite, and the wages slight – seem to make little economic sense in the world of wealth and power.  Yet these are stories not about cents, but about grace.  Grace is not about counting or being counted, but giving and receiving.  We receive grace as a gift, not as something we toil to earn.  It is unconditionally given.  A counter economy.

And grace upsets the normative understandings of our globalized culture about wealth and power.  Grace prioritizes, regardless of the cost, the little, the last, and the least.  Grace prioritizes love – extravagant love, scandalous love, wasteful love.  Grace is seen in commitment, and commitment not the amount of coin is what builds churches.  Grace is the recognition of need, of the worth of everyone, and the subsequent allocation of resources to reflect that.  Amazing grace.  Grace still amazes us.

[i] Warren Carter, Brandon Scott.