Practicing the Common Good

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Matthew 20:1-16

1.

The Acts of the Apostles relates that members of the newly formed Christian church shared all things in common:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need (Acts 4:32-35).

Similarly, other groups in and around early Christian Palestine—and the Jewish sect known today as the Qumran Community—attempted to live a communal life together.

People in these communities worked. At the end of the day they’d return and the community’s resources were pooled. Regardless of how much or how little each individual member of the community brought in, from this pool the community members were able to live lives of relative equality. Each member drew from the pool as he or she needed.

Discussing these communities one day in seminary, and referring to today’s Gospel, my church history professor posited this question:

“Was Jesus’ vision for his new realm one of communism? That’s what this sounds like to me—or something very much like it. Of course, we’ve seen that communism as a political ideal has failed. But the world’s twentieth-century experiments in communism were atheistic, largely devoid of God. What if God were central? Could a kind of Christian communism work?”

I shot my hand up in the air, along with several other classmates. After a few had shared their affirming thoughts—a few younger, idealistic classmates—it was my turn.

“Try raising five kids,” I said, “and you’ll see right away that communism doesn’t work.”

I was thinking of dishes, for example. Nobody in my family wants to do the dishes; everyone sees them as a chore. When it’s their turn, the family members with a lazier disposition (not to mention any names) don’t do a good job, or don’t do them at all, leaving the more industrious family members to clean up after them. Sharing the chore is supposed to be for the common good; and yet the result is guilt, frustration, and resentment. Christian communism is a nice ideal; but the reality just doesn’t work.

Later that week, at a community picnic, my young professor, whose wife was expecting their first child, pulled me aside and said, “You know, Tim, that was a really profound statement: ‘Try raising five kids; communism can’t work.’”

And I said thank you and smiled politely; and silently wished him good luck.

2.

Now, we can bag on communism all we want; for we live in a culture that values free speech and other liberties that are self-evident. But, at the same time, I’m pretty sure Jesus’ vision wasn’t western capitalism either.

Just look at the parable:

First, early in the day, a wealthy land owner hires some workers. The mutual monetary agreement between them is a denarius, a day’s wage for a laborer. It’s not much; but it is enough for daily bread.

Next, three times more, every few hours, the land owner hires another batch of laborers. Each time a wage is not specifically stated; but it will be a just wage, the land owner assures.

Finally, at the eleventh hour, an hour before the sun sets, the land owner hires additional laborers one last time. This time there is no mention at all of a wage.

So, when the workday is done, the land owner has the laborers line up, the last to be hired at the front of the line. When he pays them each a denarius—same as the agreed wage for those hired early in the day—naturally, some expectations in the back of the line surface: the laborers hired last worked only one hour; it seems only fair then that we who worked the entire day should be compensated more for our troubles.

But when those hired in the middle of the day come forward and are given a denarius and no more, these expectations turn to feelings of entitlement: we who were hired early on did so much more for the land owner; don’t we deserve more compensation?

At last, when those hired first are paid a denarius just like everyone else, there is frustration and resentment. They grumble against the land owner. They feel themselves superior. They voice their complaints. “You have made them equal to us,” they say (v. 12)—as if equality is a negative value.

The land owner wonders out loud if these first hirees might be envious at his generosity.

Envy—ding! ding! ding! That’s one of the seven deadly sins.

Now, the point of this parable is God’s generosity. God treats all people equally, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, gender, or whatever other category we want to place people in. God is generous, benevolent, and good.

Nevertheless, for many of us this parable is unsettling. Dissolved boundary lines aside, it feels unfair; maybe even unjust—like when I end up doing someone else’s dishes.

But I wonder how much of this unsettling feeling has to do with the ideal of western capitalism.

Capitalism teaches us from birth to compete against others, excel, and distinguish ourselves. If we go to the right college, earn the right degree, and work for the right company, why, aren’t we then entitled to receive a higher income than the person who didn’t? And when someone seems better off with fewer credentials, aren’t we prone toward frustration and resentment? Even envy?

And envy—ding! ding! ding! That’s one of the seven deadly sins.

3.

But there’s another option that stands between the human ideals of communism and capitalism: the Christian practice of the common good.

This phrase, the common good, shows up in many places in our Book of Common Prayer. A few examples:

  • In the Good Friday Liturgy, we pray for those who serve the common good, including the President of our country, Congress, and members and representatives of the United Nations.
  • In the Collect for Vocation in Daily Work, we pray, “Deliver us in our various occupations from the service of self alone, that we may do the work you give us to do in truth and beauty and for the common good.”
  • In the Prayers of the People, Form IV, we pray, “Guide the people of this land, and of all the nations, in the ways of justice and peace; that we may honor one another and serve the common good.”
  • And in the Great Litany, we pray, “That it may please thee to inspire us, in our several callings, to do the work which thou givest us to do with singleness of heart as thy servants, and for the common good.”

I’ve said it before: our calling in Christ is not just about a personal relationship with Jesus. Christ’s mission and ministry are for the common good; or, in other words, the best quality of life we can experience together, as a community.

And while our community starts with you and me as individuals, it flows outward, like circles after dropping a rock into the still waters of a pond, to our church, city, state, nation, and the world; from Jerusalem to Judea and all Samaria, even to the ends of the earth.

That’s the idea of the common good. Which is a big part of our calling as followers of Christ.

But, of course, our reality is modern-day America, a highly individualized culture. Ideas about the common good are seemingly lost in a vast sea of individualism.

So then, how do we practice the common good in our cultural context?

4.

Well, I’m glad you asked. Our annual Pledge Drive affords us a wonderful, tangible example.

We will be launching our Pledge Drive soon.

All too often, financial stewardship is addressed from a very individual perspective. We’re asked to be introspective, to look at our personal budgets, to pray individual prayers about what we can reasonably afford to give to God, and figure out a way to give from what is rightfully yours.

But in our financial stewardship, God doesn’t call us just to be individuals, as if stewardship is merely a personal exercise just between me and Jesus.

Yes, personal introspection is a very real part of faithful stewardship; but it is not the complete picture. God also calls us to consider the common good.

Thus, when we pledge, in addition to our introspective, personal considerations, we also need to consider the bigger picture of this church body, its unique and particular makeup; its unique and particular needs.

And we need to consider the biggest picture of all: God is generous, benevolent, and good.

In pledging to the common good, then, we are merely managing what is already God’s: our pledges are acts of love to the Lord our God; and to our neighbor.

And what happens when we pool our resources together for the glory of God? We enable ourselves to live into our common life: we enable ourselves to work together as equals—no competition, no distinctions, no status; no frustration, no resentment, no envy—in order to accomplish Christ’s ministry and mission in Temecula and the world.

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