Any of you who have children – and I expect many of you are hoping you don’t – but those of who do will know that one learns as much from them as one ever tries to teach them. My eldest son is a great fixer. He fixes cars when they are ailing; he fixes things electrical; he fixes deals. Drive him to just about anywhere in England and he’ll mention the location of the latest car scrapyard. Travel the length and breadth of the country and he’ll know someone who can help with a deal. (I should add that he is a law-abiding citizen!)
I saw this in operation when he was very young. I suppose he was about five years old and had just returned from Sunday School. His Sunday School teacher had taken the whole class (fifteen under 8’s) to visit an elderly man who was poorly; I’m not sure it improved the old-timer’s health. On the way back Aidan looked sad. His teacher asked why. ‘Well’, said Aidan, ‘that nice man gave us all fun-size Mars Bars.’ ‘Well that should have made you happy!’ said David, his teacher. ‘Yes,’ said Aidan, ‘but he gave us three Mars Bars and there’s Gregory and me and mum and dad.’ Later on the journey David noticed Aidan looking more cheery. ‘You look happier now.’ David said. ‘Well, yes.’ said Aidan. ‘You see I’ve been thinking. If I eat one Mars Bar then it’s all right, ‘cos then we can break the two in half and all four of us will have something.’
It seemed to me to be a marvellous piece of logic. In Aidan’s mind, the issue was one of fairness or justice. At the start someone would lose out. By the end of his reckonings, in his mind, justice was satisfied – and it was, in a way, even though he would have eaten one and a half Mars Bars. For Aidan, justice or fairness was ultimately about love. He knew about love because that was what brothers and mums and dads were about. Anyway in Sunday School he’d also already learnt that God wishes us to love one another.
So on that basis, justice is love distributed. Each shall receive their share. There is, indeed, originally much more about love in the New Testament – and even in the teaching of Jesus – than about justice. It is there in the two great commandments in the gospels. We are to love God and also we are to love our neighbours as ourselves. So, at the heart of it are three destinations for love – God, our neighbour – that is our fellow human beings – and ourselves; proper self-love is encouraged.
Love is there, too, woven into the writings of St Paul. Again, love which is not purely self-regarding, is at the centre. Paul is also a theologian of justice – although this is not often recognised. The Greek word dikaiosunē is usually translated righteousness but it could also be justice. For Paul, then, the church as a community incarnates the justice of God. In the second letter to the Corinthians he writes, ‘For our sake God made Jesus to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the justice (righteousness) of God.’ (2 Cor 5.21). In the upside down world of the Gospel, Christ takes on our sin and we take on God’s justice. Paul links this to the message of reconciliation with which the church is entrusted. The community makes visible God’s justice through its work of reconciliation. Here love and justice come together.
In John’s gospel and in the letters of John – almost certainly the products of different authors but probably the same school – in these writings love again is prominent. Again, it is about loving one another. So it seems to be about ‘love in the community.’ Love is what identifies a community which is living within the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. ‘See how these Christians love one another.’
There are hints of justice in Jesus’ teaching. Perhaps it is best summarised in the so-called ‘Golden Rule.’ Act towards others as you would have them act to you. But that saying was one which went well beyond the bounds of early Christianity. It was almost an accepted truism. So what did Jesus teach?
Well, we had something of his teaching set out in the amazing gospel reading about the labourers in the vineyard. I don’t need to remind you of the tale. Those who were employed last were paid just as much as those who had borne the heat of the day. The final response from the vineyeard owner is breathtaking: ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage (a denarius)? Take what belongs to you, and go. I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ That final question captures the essence of Jesus’ radical teaching. It is certainly not about justice if justice is fairness. It is certainly not about justice if justice is a sort of convention within society as perhaps the most famous definition of justice from contemporary moral philosophy suggests.
Jesus simply has the head of the winery saying: ‘Do you begrudge my generosity?’ It is that same generosity that allowed Jesus to offer his own life as a sign of the most radical generosity that humankind can imagine.
This is a classical time to reflect upon justice, as a general election approaches. Each of the political parties will be making an appeal to justice. Each will be offering ‘lollipops’ to attract voters – lower taxes, higher pensions or whatever. None, I imagine will be using Jesus’ parable of the labourers in the vineyard as the model of their policies or indeed as a slogan.
Isaiah’s prophecy which we heard alongside our gospel is sharp: ‘Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands afar off; for truth has fallen in public squares.’ That is virtually a perennial truth. With Jesus’ parable it is different. As the winemaker indicates, there is justice; he is paying what he agreed. But the parable presses us well beyond justice. Young Aidan was not far from the point with the Mars Bars: ‘Do we begrudge him his generosity?’
But the message underneath this is more radical still and will be played out in a week’s time in the bitter-sweet feast of Candlemass. Here, in the Temple, Mary is told of her son’s ultimate destiny ‘a sword shall pierce your own soul too.’ Jesus lives the generosity he teaches, a generosity well in excess of justice, but never leaving justice behind. It is summarised movingly in Samuel Crossman’s most powerful Passiontide hymn:
‘Here might I stay and sing
No story so divine
Never was love, dear king!
Never was grief like thine.
This is my friend,
In whose sweet praise,
I all my days could gladly spend.’
Rt Rev’d Stephen Platten, Bishop of Wakefiled
24th January 2010