This morning was the first of our two services using the JPIT material. Because I've just had two Sundays off we have two weeks to explore four themes, so I chose to pair them up as 'Truth & Justice' and "Peace & Wellbeing'. The format was deliberately chosen so that there was less of me speaking and more opportunity to listen for God's voice in scripture and in the vox pop videos offered by JPIT. It seemed to work quite well.
It is rare I post anything sermony that I've written, not least as it is a heck of a lot of words. But here, for what it's worth, is the script from which I worked today. For it to make sense you need to know that one of the Bible stories we used was the parable of the landownder who hired people to work in his vineyard at various points through the day (Matt 20: 1 - 16)
“What is truth?” asked Pilate. And it is a question that philosophers and theologians have pondered throughout the whole of history.
“I am the truth,” said Jesus – but what did he mean by that? Was he making a divine claim or an ethical one? What did he mean when he said his purpose was to testify to the truth, or that if his followers knew the truth they would find liberation?
Is there one ultimate, absolute truth? Or are all truths partial and imperfect?
We say we want politicians and other people in power to tell us the truth, but what do we actually mean by that? There are clearly facts that can be verified about any issue we choose to consider, but facts are never viewed in isolation, they are always part of a narrative, a story, an interpretive framework that seeks to make meaning from what is, otherwise, raw data. Given the same information, different people conditioned by different experiences will interpret it differently; each may be truthful in their endeavour, but none is value free. Perhaps that’s what Pilate was hinting at – the difference between verifiable fact and interpreted truth.
And perhaps that’s why Jesus’ story about the workers is so challenging – the interpretive framework that validates the landowner’s actions challenges the established truth that a person is paid in direct proportion to the amount of hours they have worked – that an hourly rate or a piece-rate is self-evidently a fair and just way for rewarding employees. The more you work, the more you get paid… the way of the world, an indisputable truth, or a value judgement conditioned by a context that values productivity?
The landowner in the story chooses to break with expectations and pays everyone the same sum of money, irrespective of how many hours they worked, or how productively they filled that time. Understandably, those who have worked long and hard question the justice of this decision: it seems unfair; it’s not the way the world works. And those who arrived late, whose voices are not heard are almost certainly equally bewildered, delighted for sure, but conscious that this is not the way it is. An equal hourly rate for all the workers would have seemed fair, just… an equal day’s salary irrespective of hours worked is certainly not equal by any measure with which we are familiar.
So we are left with puzzles to ponder…
What might justice look like if it is not exactly the same thing as equality? And if we value equality, of what, and in what, and how? Who might be the unhired workers in the metaphorical marketplace of our society, willing and able to play their part but for whatever reason not engaged? Who are the hard workers and what does justice or fairness look like for them?
Whose truth do we listen to? What values shape the narratives by which we live our lives? If truth is linked to integrity and authenticity, how do we demonstrate that in the choices we make, the questions we ask, and the votes we cast?
Jesus said, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ What might liberation look like, not simply for us and those like us, but for our neighbours, near and far? How do we begin to live truthfully the hope of which we speak?