Pentecost 13 (Proper 15/Ordinary 20): Year B

1 Kings 2:10 –12; 3: 3-14

This reading contains a poignant coda to the readings in recent weeks concerning David’s abuse of power in his dealings with Bathsheba and her former husband Uriah the Hittite.

It begins with the bland narration that Solomon was established on David’s throne as his successor after the latter’s death. There is then a large lacuna in which the reading jumps to the third verse of chapter three. Both the narration and the lacuna hide the fact that Solomon’s succession was neither straightforward nor inevitable. Rather, it was largely a result of Bathsheba’s political skills that Solomon succeeded; Bathsheba out-manoeuvred David’s other wives and concubines, all of whom naturally wanted to place their child on the throne. In particular, their strongest rival was Adonijah, son of Haggith, whose older brother Absalom led an unsuccessful rebellion against David. By allying herself to the priest Zadok, and the general Benaiah, Bathsheba managed to secure enough support to have Solomon elevated to the throne.

Adonijah then attempts to manipulate Bathsheba into using her influence with Solomon to enable him to contract a politically advantageous marriage. Solomon, however, sees through the ruse and orders Adonijah to be killed; as long as he is alive, his position will never be secure.  Also killed is Joab, David’s former army commander, who was the instrument by which David secured the death of Uriah, Bathsheba’s former husband. These intrigues and their bloody aftermath are the necessary outcome of David’s abuse of power; having established a precedent, he has set in chain a sequence of events that will ultimately divide the Kingdom of Israel.

The remainder of the reading concerns Solomon’s famous request for wisdom. Perhaps shaken by his experiences with Adonijah and others, he realises that he will need more than brute strength and political chicanery to keep his place on the throne. Ruling will require actual wisdom in order to secure the peace and prosperity of the Kingdom. And so he turns away from the conventional symbols of power – wealth and tyranny – to seek discernment, the capacity to know good from evil, that he might govern the kingdom as an expression of the covenantal relationship into which God calls all people. But even here there is a tragic overtone: because of the culture of abusive power David has set in place, all of Solomon’s wise stewardship will come to naught. The Kingdom will be ruptured and ultimately destroyed.

Modernity’s construction of work and economy has placed waged labour – and its capacity to access material possessions and social standing – at the heart of human existence. To be gainfully employed is deemed the ultimate marker of legitimacy and achievement. And yet the very paradigm which humanity has made the benchmark of what it is to be human enslaves and dehumanises us, whether through drudgery, abuses, stigmatisation, exploitation, physical and psychological harm, or the marginalisation of all the other aspects of human life to the fringes of existence. Wealth and tyranny have become the conventional expressions of industrial and economic power, wielded neither wisely nor with concerns for the common good and the non-human ecology.

And yet voices of dissent and concern are beginning to arise, even from within the circles of what might be thought of as the privileged beneficiaries of modernity’s construction of work and economy. Yet these voices of dissent, important though they may be, will be ultimately ineffectual if the prevailing culture does not change. The rise of neoliberalism and the abuses of power and inequalities which it embodies may have shot-term benefits in terms of material prosperity and general quality of life: but the stresses and exactions which it imposes both of human society and personhood, as well as the non-human ecology, will militate against any wise stewardship that may emerge. Wisdom among individuals or even individual communities is not enough; the world requires a wholesale cultural change, lest the abuses already enacted set in train an irreversible and destructive course of events.

Psalm 111

This Psalm is both a hymn of praise to the majesty of God, as well as a celebration of God’s faithfulness to covenant. Both God’s wonder and justness are described in terms of God’s works; those works are a reflection of God’s orientation to faithfulness, compassion, provision, and abundance. The ultimate purpose of those works is to establish God’s sovereignty; but this sovereignty is not the tyranny of absolute monarchy; it is the mutual indwelling upheld in covenantal relationship, in which humankind responds to God’s call to relationship, and orients itself faithfully to the faithfulness of God.

Work in human life has several purposes. It provides for humanity’s physical and material needs. It becomes a part of humanity’s expressive and existential purpose. It facilitates our need for self-expression and creativeness. It becomes a mechanism through which human individuals and societies live relationally with one another. And it also becomes a mechanism through which human beings live a covenantal with God, participating with God in God’s redemptive work in creation.

This diversity of purpose reflects the reality that human work takes many forms. Voluntarism, artistic creativity, family raising, nurturing relationships – all these are forms of human work. Yet modernity’s focus on waged labour has both reduced our understanding of work and confined human purpose to narrow and constricting bounds. Work, as waged labour, no longer serves the relational and existential dimensions which human life requires for fullness; it has simply become a way in which we “contribute” by “paying our way” and enabling our participation in the destructive cycle of production and consumption.

Both Adam Smith and Karl Marx, the founders of modern economic theory, warned that the industrialisation of labour would both rob work of its intrinsically human values, as well as alienate human beings from their labour. From the Christian perspective, this process has also had the effect of reducing work from a means to an end (covenantal relationship with God and with one another) to an end in itself (“paying our way”).

The Psalm declares that “fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom”. This “fear” is not abject terror, but an understanding of the compelling reality of what it means for humankind to be called into relationship with God. That call summons us to a particular way of life, not as perfect saints, but as beloved individual and collective agents who orient their lives to the love of God for humankind. When we diminish the faculties and expressions of human life so that they no longer address that orientation, then the consequences for us and our society can be devastating indeed.

Ephesians 5: 15-20

In this brief excerpt from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, Paul continues his discourse on what the fruits and outcomes of a life dedicated to discipleship to Christ might look like. These are neither rules nor proscriptions about what a “holy” person would do, or what a “real” or “genuine” Christian “looks like”. Rather, they describe the outcomes of discipleship, of the life-long commitment – however faltering and interrupted by human brokenness – to the covenantal life to which God calls us through Christ.

These exhortations are reminders that a life of discipleship is a life of intentional orientation to God through faith in Christ. It is a reminder that the outcomes described are products and fruits of discipleship, not ends to be strived for for their own sake. They are not badges of our sanctity, nor outward signs of some special relationship that elevates us above “ordinary” sinners. Rather, they are expressions of our commitment to life with God and one another in imitation of God’s faithfulness to us.

Modernity’s prioritisation of waged labour has not only invested it with a privileged position in determining legitimacy and authority in human life, it has also invested those who are engaged in waged labour with a special status of sanctity and righteousness – even as they are exploited and dehumanised by their experience of it. This special status is embodied in the notion of waged labour as “gainful employment”: one is said to be “making a contribution” or “paying one’s way”. Only “gainful” employment that contributes to “productivity” and “growth” confers legitimacy and establishes one’s identity as a “giver” not a “taker” (or, as one Australian politician put it, a “lifter” not a “leaner”).

Two pernicious consequences follow from this elevation of waged labour to a special status. The first is that other forms of human work are either illegitimate or, at best, less “useful” or “productive”. Some forms of work, such as voluntarism, may be admirable in their way; but they are really a “second division” form of work, not in the same category as waged labour.

The second pernicious implication is that those who are unable to access waged labour – or secure paid employment sufficient to maintain their material and existential needs – are immediately delegitimised as human beings. They are “unproductive” persons, hardly members of society at all. The working poor, the unemployed, the retrenched and redundant, the chronically ill, the disabled, those with intellectual deficiencies, those struggling with mental health, all those who have been damaged and scarred by work – these are consigned to the scrap-heap of “dole bludgers” and “welfare cheats”, viewed not as human beings with an innate dignity but as “costs” to or “drains” on society.

These implications allow us the “moral” arguments through which we justify cuts to welfare and aid programs while cutting taxes for wealthy individuals and corporations. These implications are the source of our moral superiority and sense of entitlement, blinding us to the fact that we – or, at least, most of us – are only an illness or an economic downturn away from unemployment, destitution, ridicule.

Paul’s descriptions of Christian life in Ephesians are not the hallmarks of sanctity and privilege, but of the self-giving love that places itself at the service of human dignity and relationality. In the context of work and economy, they are a reminder that these constructs – properly understood – serve, not their own purposes or the purposes of the privileged few, but the same dignity and covenantal co-existence to which God calls all people. The sanctity and legitimacy conferred by modernity’s prioritisation of waged labour, by contrast, demonises those who are not able to access that labour, and marginalises other forms of human work.  This is not consistent with the Gospel, or to the covenantal faithfulness to which Christians are summoned.

John 6: 51-58

In this passage, we continue the sequence of readings from The Gospel According to John that began with the feeding of the five thousand and culminates in Jesus’ self-declaration that he is the Bread of Life come from heaven. In the process, Jesus declares that he is not like Moses or one of the prophets through whom God acted in order to communicate the covenantal message to humankind; rather, he is God’s direct action, the embodiment of God’s faithfulness to covenant, come to reconcile the world to the life of God.

The image of bread is, of course, fundamental to human life. It is one of the staples of human existence that make that existence possible. In this context, human work has the connotation of “earning one’s bread” – of doing that which is needful to sustain human life. In the context of waged labour, “bread” is often a euphemism for “money” – the wages that enable one to purchase the necessities for another day, another week, another year.

But this passage from John is also playing with the concept of “bread” – because the bread which Jesus embodies does not merely enable us to live, it provides us with life – the abundant, fully human life which Jesus came to bring. Bread in the context of Jesus’ self-proclamation, is not a reductionist concept, implying a bare minimum; it is an expression of God’s gratuitous giving, the outpouring of divine love that, in Christ, empties itself for the sake of the other and relationship.

In many countries today, calls are being made to mandate a “living wage” or a “universal basic minimum”. Some of these calls are being made in response to rising inequality; some because the legislated “minimum wages” don’t actually enable people to afford food and accommodation; some because of the desire to decouple work from the exchange of cash payment. But from the standpoint of the Gospel, a “living wage” and a “universal basic minimum” still don’t cut it – they are “bare bones” or reductionist responses to the dehumanising impacts which modernity’s construction of work and economy impose.

The idea of abundance, the idea of life as distinct from mere living profoundly challenges the cultural assumptions in which modernity resides – and into which many modern Christians have been encultured. We are profoundly captured by the idea of the autonomous individual, the one who “earns their bread” and establishes their legitimacy through their own efforts. The idea of earning a living opposes the Gospel notion of abundant life. God does not want us to merely exist, but to flourish: and human flourishing, seen from the Christian perspective, has nothing to do with money or power or material possession or social status. All these things exist apart from the Gospel; and when they become the end toward which human work is directed, then the work of humankind is likewise directed away from the Gospel proclamation of universal human dignity.

Work does, indeed, serve the purpose of sustaining human existence – it enables us to live. But God’s purpose for that existence is not mere self-perpetuation; it is flourishing, abundant life for all. This necessarily requires a radical rethink about how we construct work and economy, and the relationship which that construction bears to issues like social justice, ecological sustainability, and human dignity.

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