Sermon on the Futility of a Labor Victory

Thoughts for a sermon that could be preached the day after Labor wins the federal election.

Matthew 18:23-35: The parable of the unmerciful servant

In the parable a king forgives his servant a ridiculously huge debt, hoping that this act will be replicated. However, the way that power works within society prevents those lower down the bureaucracy from replicating this act. The servant, shamed by his debt, must reassert his power in the bureaucracy or risk losing it; so he jails a debtor. Similarly the king, shamed by the servant who does not replicate his behaviour must reassert his power and jails the servant. Forgiveness has gone out the window despite being instigated from the top. So much for seventy times seven (verse 22). Despite this brief departure of forgiveness, both servant and king are captive to the system. Without systemic change, forgiveness is unattainable. (Or is it, without radical forgiveness, the system will remain?)

The same for a Labor government. They will try a few things, but real change will not result from their victory, because that requires systemic change, not just a change at the top. Pine Gap will remain, Talisman Sabre joint military exercises with the US will remain, troops will stay in Afghanistan and those in Iraq will leave to play our deputy sherif role policing the pacific. Uranium will be mined, furthering nuclear proliferation. All because the institutions and structures that control the resources and power of the country will remain unchanged.

No, what we want are non-reformist reforms. Of course it is better having a Labor government than a Liberal one. However, does their victory further the cause for systemic change or is it a reform that impedes further change?

Labor will have won on the back of the union’s Your Rights at Work Campaign. Does that campaign leave a grass roots movement ready to push for more radical change? No, the unions want systemic change no more than the Labor party. The campaign’s goal is to get Labor into power, which will leave everyday people disempowered. The campaign should encourage us that life will be a little easier for workers when Workchoices is softened so there will be more breathing space for movements that really want to change things. Instead, the campaign has empowered union officials, not the people. I predict that the day after the election (today?) the Your Rights at Work Campaign will go incredibly quiet, only being heard in a very token form, if at all. The reform has been won, let’s all go home. Imagine the alternative, an invigorated union movement with empowered members pushing their leadership for changes that really effect their lives. A nightmare for the leadership, but the possibility of restructuring the resources of the country for the benefit of the people…

It still needs work, but this could form the basis of a sermon to preach the Sunday after the federal election, saying, OK a Labor victory may be something, but don’t get mesmerized by the top of the power structure. Let’s keep on building a movement for change.

However, if that’s too pointed how about this: this reading comes up in the lectionary on September 14, 2008, if you are preaching, or involved in a bible study, why not give my interpretation a whirl then. Possibly a good time to preach this, as the shine would have started to wear off the Labor government.

William R. Herzog II, Parables As Subversive Speech: Jesus As Pedagogue of the Oppressed, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 1994, Chapter 8, “What if the Messiah Came and Nothing Changed?”.

Note that Herzog sees verse 35 as a later addition by Matthew and discards it for this interpretation, departing from Matthew’s use of the parable.


4 comments so far

  1. […] Paul added an interesting post today on Sermon on the Futility of a Labor Victory.Here’s a small reading:However, if that’s too pointed how about this: this reading comes up in the lectionary on September 14, 2008, if you are preaching, or involved in a bible study, why not give my interpretation a whirl then. … […]

  2. Avril on

    Interesting but, given that most of my congregation members will have voted Liberal, should Labor have won (and I’m still sternly not counting chickens) I’ll just be trying to get through the service without grinning inappropriately. Because while there won’t be big changes John Howard will have gone, and that will make me happy.

    And if Labor loses I’ll be home in bed having called in sick. Do ministers get to do that? And possibly looking for a job in another country.

    Not convinced by your exegesis of this passage. It’s an interesting, potentially plausible, interpretation, but I think you’re avoiding the context of the parable.

    I’ve been having so much fun in this year of gentle Luke with his many stories about women and his emphasis on economic justice. Not looking forward so much to the year of Matthew.

  3. Paul on

    Hi Avril,

    Liberal crowd – a tough gig. They can take solace that an electoral loss isn’t as important as it seems.

    Staying in bed after a Liberal win may be a good idea. The day after the last election a car of hoons drove past me, didn’t like the look of me so did a U-turn to drive past me again and yell at me. ‘Welcome to total Liberal control of parliament’, I thought. Conformity is on the ascendancy – no tolerance for difference.

    Yes, I am avoiding the context in Matthew. Herzog argues for the parable of Jesus that came before the layers added by Matthew, so takes it out of this context. A potentially dangerous practice, as you may just ignore the bits you don’t like. However, this does bring out the political context of this parable described very briefly above. A discussion of what Matthew has done with the parable is needed to put it in its textual context. If only there were more hours in the day…

  4. Avril on

    Yes, having posted the comment I noted your comment after the reference, and it all made sense. I guess when I have my preaching hat on, as opposed to the historian’s hat, I tend to read the text as recieved, or at least as the lectionary gives it to us, rather than trying to get back to earlier layers. Different methods of interpretation.

    The political discussion of the last few days has made me sick. When did means-testing government handouts become discrimination against the rich? What weird world have I stumbled into?

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