Learning from Pirates

Professor Sarah Mortimer
Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity


Sung Eucharist

Philippians 1.21-30      Matthew 20.1-16

There’s a story about a pirate in the ancient world, who roamed the high seas plundering ships until one day he had the misfortune to be captured.  He was hauled before Alexander the Great, who angrily demanded how dare he infest the seas like that?  But the pirate, nothing daunted, answered that he did exactly what Alexander himself did – the only difference was that because the pirate had just a few little boats he was condemned, but Alexander himself robbed the world with a huge fleet, and so was called an Emperor.  Apparently Alexander was so impressed by this that he let the pirate go.  True or not, the pirate’s words certainly gave him and his contemporaries pause for thought and one of those on whom the pirate’s words made a big impression was St Augustine.  Reflecting on what it was that differentiated a city from a group of pirates, Augustine concluded that the answer must be justice.  It is justice that makes a government legitimate, justice that separates the kingdom from the robber band, justice the social bond that unites any true community.

Few of us would disagree, perhaps, but today’s parable challenges any easy ideas about what justice might mean.  Here, as so often, the kingdom of God seems to be a place where the usual rules are turned upside down and we are invited to see ourselves and each other in a new light.  This parable stands within a series of conversations between Jesus and people who want to know that their hard work will be rewarded, a series of conversations about what justice might look like.  Just before today’s passage, Peter and the disciples were reminding Jesus of all their sacrifices for the cause, and they need reassurance their efforts will not go unnoticed; a rich man has decided it’s not worth giving all his possessions away, and later in chapter 20 the mother of the sons of Zebedee will demand that her boys, so active on Jesus’s behalf, should get a good seat in heaven.  All these people assume that, roughly, the more you put in the more you should get out, they have a strong sense of just desserts and fair shares – what theorists like to call distributive justice.

But the Kingdom of God is not like that – as those workers who labored in the heat of the day have just found out.   The reward they get seems not to be at all proportionate to the work that they put in, not when they find out how much the late comers received as pay.  Those sweaty labourers complain that the landowner has made all his workers equal, when the difference between them surely is glaring.  Justice, they insist, does not mean equality but proportion – the more you work, the more you get.  And so they feel wronged by the master, and jealous of those who were lucky enough to get hired at the end, jealous of those who got more than they ‘deserved’.

The landowner, in his response, invites them to shift their whole perspective.  ‘Are you envious because I am generous?’ he asks.  It’s no longer a debate about reward and merit, but about how the workers see their master, and how they see their relationship with each other.  Rather than rejoice in the generosity shown by their boss and in the relief of those workers who now have a whole day’s wage and so enough to eat, the early starters grumble and complain.  What would once have seemed correct now seems unfair, not because they have lost anything but because now they compare themselves with others, and begin to feel they have been cheated.  They go home cross and annoyed, resentful of those workers with whom they so recently had shared the vineyard.

It’s striking that, in our story, everyone cares about justice.  The master always tells the men he hires that he will pay them what is right, even encouraging the labourers to think in terms of justice.  But it quickly turns out that his workers’ idea of justice is very narrow, and it is self-regarding.   The workers are not interested in the plight of each other, of their fellow labourers, let alone of those still standing around in the market place hoping to be hired.  They’re not even interested in the health of the vineyard or proud of the work they have done.  And that kind of justice, it turns out, is not enough in the kingdom of God.  For justice is incomplete unless it genuinely looks to the good of others, unless it is part of a wider net of relationships in which the value of each is recognized and upheld.  At the centre of those relationships is a God who insists on generosity – a God who call on us to share in that generosity, to rejoice in it, even when it is generosity given to others. 

When St Augustine reflected on the pirate story, he saw in it an example of both the power and the limitations of our ideas of justice.  For justice is never about individuals alone, about what they deserve or merit or have a right to.  It is always about how we imagine our society, how our fates and fortunes are intertwined with each other’s and about what we value together.  Augustine believed that true justice could only be found when we lifted our eyes and our hearts up from the earth and saw ourselves as part of the great City of God, a City of people of all kinds, journeying together towards the heavenly Jerusalem.  This would be a tough journey but also a joyful one, for all are invited to share together in God’s abundant grace and blessing.  The only catch was that we must learn to see each other as equal, equally valued, equally loved, equally rewarded.

It’s fifteen hundred years since St Augustine wrote about the defiant pirate, but the issues are as pressing now as ever.  As we emerge from the Coronavirus pandemic, our society will need both justice and generosity, concern for each other and for the good of the whole.  One of the cruelest aspects of this virus is that those already most vulnerable have so often been hardest hit, existing inequalities have been increased and new ones have arisen.  It’s going to be tough to reverse these processes, to level things upwards, to support the flow of wealth and resources towards those who need it most.  As a society we will need the courage and the imagination to keep caring for each, to make sure that every person has dignity and opportunity, and to find our joy and reward in the flourishing of others.  Justice is and will be important, but the kind that looks not to its own rights and privileges but to the needs and wants of others.  Justice that challenges not the generosity of God, but the exploitation and oppression in our world.

In a few moments we will come together around the altar, at least in our hearts, as we join in holy communion.  We will share together in the bread that is broken, that is offered for all and to all, that stands above any claims of justice or merit but binds together the whole.  For each it is the same and yet always given uniquely to us, as a gift that can never be exhausted.  And as we come together we are invited to grow into that city where God’s grace flows abundantly, into a people united by a justice that can only be fulfilled through faith and hope and love.