The purpose behind my asking the Dean for this special Evensong was so that we could pause for a while and consider the fact that there are people who are homeless all around us. Certainly the staff of the Cathedral are aware of that every day when they come to work.
It is a fact of life in every city in Australia and probably around the world. The last estimate I saw for numbers of homeless people in WA was 15,000, but it is notoriously difficult to get an accurate picture, or course. By way of illustration, there was some research done in New South Wales a number of years ago about the incidence of mental illness among people who are homeless. The best estimate the researchers could come up with was that it ranged somewhere between 25% and 75%.
Last night was the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. And it is going to be cold again tonight, and sleeping rough will be about as rough as it gets. There is a possibility that someone sleeping out tonight will die from exposure. That is why this particular Sunday evening was chosen for this particular time to pause and reflect. If someone dies on the streets of Perth tonight the likelihood is that we will not hear about it, nor find out the person’s name.
God, however, will know, and will care.
What, then, are we to make of our Gospel reading? Where are the homeless people in that portion of Matthew? They are not there, are they? Or perhaps they are, but they are invisible, the way homeless people usually are. They don’t figure in the story, but perhaps we can find them and make sense of the Gospel after all.
In First Century Palestine, the working day was regulated by the sun. The working day began at sun up and finished as the first stars appeared. So, the landowner would have been out early to get his day labourers to bring in the harvest. Somehow I do not think there were any homeless people among those waiting around.
Why? Because homeless people generally melt into the background as the sun comes up and the general populace begins its routines. Those who are so very visible in the still of the night tend to become invisible again as the streets come to life. Often the only evidence is an old blanket or a plastic bag with a few odds and ends tucked away in a corner for the next night.
Bob Dylan told us in the 1960s that “the times, they are a-changing” and many of us thought that he was drawing on this parable, and the conversation between Jesus and the disciples before it, to proclaim as right and proper, the ferment which was in the air in that turbulent decade.
“The first ones now will later be last, for the times, they are a-changing”. As I read this parable and the material around it I was reminded of a man who used to stand at the intersection of Walcott Street and Green Street with a sign saying “The world will end tomorrow”. After seeing him a number of times I came the conclusion that, in fact, a scarier sign would have been one which says “The world will go on as it is”. And it does.
Lack of work is an insidious fact of our society. Strangely, it clearly afflicted first century Palestine as well – otherwise the landowner wouldn’t have found any labourers at 9.00 o’clock or midday, and certainly not 5.00 o’clock.
We know that people who hired day labourers were required to pay their crew at the end of each day. That was a simple means of ensuring that a casual labourer and (presumably) his family were able to buy supplies for each day. This is consistent with the requirement among the people of Israel that a man’s cloak given in pledge of a debt had to be given back at the end of the day - to ensure that the owner of the cloak did not suffer cold overnight.
So what precisely is Matthew telling us by putting this parable immediately after Jesus has been talking to the disciples about getting rid of their possessions if they hoped to gain entry to the Kingdom of Heaven?
There must be an important message here, because Matthew has finished one piece with the words “But many who are first will be last, and the last, first” and then finishes our parable with “So the last will be first, and the first will be last." Same words - it seems to be some form of emphasis. Different order, just so we notice that the theological point is being made twice.
And what might that point be? Clearly the weight of the message of the parable is that God works in ways which are different to those which get written up in industrial law. It is an affirmation of the generous, abundant love which God offers and bestows on us. It is a love which is as extravagant as the beauty of Creation.
Such extravagance is a theme of Jesus’ ministry as portrayed by Matthew. Early in the Gospel we read that Jesus went about healing all the people who were brought to him.
It is this extravagant love which Jesus commends to the rich man whose contact with Jesus is written up in the passage immediately before the parable. “Go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor”. Now, that’s extravagant!!!!
Where then do we find such extravagance in our society today? Is it in our provision for the invisible people – whether they are homeless, mentally ill or unable to support their families? Is it in provision for community housing? No – I rather think it is in ever bigger private yachts and houses and designer goods.
A week or so ago there was a protest by boats owners that the government is not providing enough new boat moorings to meet demand. Oh dear! Tell that to a family who have had to resort to sleeping in their car at night because they can’t find affordable housing. Tell it to the people who are turned away from emergency housing each and every day and night in this booming city.
What would extravagant love look like if we turned it towards the 15,000 homeless people in WA? If the landowner could go into the market place at the beginning of the day, and again three hours later, and then again at midday, and yet again at 5.00 o’clock and say: “take yourself off to my place where you will find somewhere to stay”.
What would extravagant love look like if Homeswest was properly resourced? If, as a community we said that it is unacceptable for there to be endless waiting lists for people who qualify for public housing?
Extravagance has a pejorative air in our society – easily placed with ‘excess’ or preceded by the word ‘needless’. But in God’s lexicon, at least according Matthew’s Gospel, it is a qualifier for ‘love’. God loves extravagantly. The last are put first and are treated extravagantly. Jesus makes it a mark of how we will stand before the throne of judgment – how did we deal with those who are poor, are naked, are in prison, are hungry? It seems that our response to those in need will determine our places in the queue of life.
Michel Quoist summed it up in a prayer about 50 years ago, like this …
Lord, why did you tell me to love (excerpt)
Lord, why did you tell me to love all men, my brothers?
I have tried, but I come back to you, frightened ...
Lord, I was so peaceful at home, I was so comfortably settled.
it was well furnished, and I felt cozy.
I was alone, I was at peace,
Sheltered from the wind, the raiii, the mud.
I would have stayed unsullied in my ivory tower.
But, Lord, you have discovered a breach iii my defences,
You have forced me to open my door,
Like a squall of rain in the face, the cry of men has awakened me;
Like a gale of wind a friendship has shaken me,
As a ray of light slips in unnoticed, your grace has stirred me
... and, rashly enough, I left my door ajar. Now, Lord, I am lost!
Outside men were lying in wait for me.
I did not know they were so near; in this house, in this street, in this office; my neighbour, my colleague, my friend.
As soon as I started to open the door I saw them, with outstretched hands, burning eyes, longing hearts, like beggars on church steps.
The first ones came in, Lord. There was after all some space in my heart.
I welcomed them. I would have cared for them and fondled them, my very own little lambs, my little flock.
You would have been pleased, Lord, I would have served and honoured you in a proper, respectable way.
Till then, it was sensible ...
But the next ones, Lord, the other men, I had not seen them; they were hidden behind the first ones.
There were more of them, they were wretched; they overpowered me without warning.
We had to crowd in, I had to find room for them.
Now they have come from all over, in successive waves, pushing one another, jostling one another.
They have come from all over town, from all parts of the country, of the world; numberless, inexhaustible.
They don't come alone any longer but in groups, bound one to another.
They come bending under heavy loads; loads of injustice, of resentment and hate, of suffering and sin . . .
They drag the world behind them, with everything rusted, twisted, or badly adjusted.
Lord, they hurt me! They are in the way, they are everywhere.
They are too hungry, they are consuming me!
I can't do anything any more; as they come in, they push the
door, and the door opens wider ...
Lord! my door is wide open!
I can't stand it any more! It's too much! It's no kind of a life!
What about my job?
Lord, I have lost everything, I don't belong to myself any longer;
There's no more room for me at home.
Don't worry, God says, you have gained all.
While men came in to you,
I, your Father,
I, your God,
Slipped in among them.
Michel Quoist Prayers of Life Gill & Son, Dublin, 1963, pp 91-92