Sunday 24th September 2023 ~ Rev Hugh Perry

The Israelites would have known how to deal with the quails just has early settlers, both Polynesian and European, would have quickly adapted to killing and eating the birds of Aotearoa.  However, the reading tells us they were a bit cautious about the white flakes that arrived with the morning mist.  ‘When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’ For they did not know what it was’. (Exodus 16:15)

Of course, they did not have Terry Pratchett’s advice that ‘All Fungi are edible. Some fungi are only edible once.[1]‘.  But the Exodus Saga is set far enough forward in human history for most communities to be aware of the need for caution when eating fungi.

Moses gave them the OK to eat it ‘It is the bread that Yahweh has given you to eat’. (Exidus 16:15) 

But how did he know?  We might surmise that, because he had been raised with the Egyptian aristocracy or because of his time as a wandering shepherd, he had a wider experience of exotic foods or wilderness foraging than slaves on a limited diet. 

However rather than speculating on any hidden reality in the story we should accept the learning in Moses statement that everything we eat, with or without GST, is a gift from God.  Not everything magically comes from multi-national supermarket chains.  Food has a life before shelves and packaging  but not everyone knows that!

When we first planted the community garden at St Albans one of the local people helping did not know that potatoes planted in the ground would grow.  But the classic story from the garden was about a boy who was given some potatoes from the garden to take home.  Next time he appeared he was asked if he enjoyed eating them, but he said his mother threw them out because they had dirt on them.

It is good to be cautious about things that are new and different, but both these readings highlight the fact that the common human response is not to accept new learning.  People find it easier to complain than learn.  

So much so that I can’t resist labelling this series of Exodus readings, where the people complain to Moses, ‘The whingeing in the Wilderness.’   

People whinge about all sorts of things and when we turn to our gospel reading we find that people are complaining in Jesus’ parable as well.  

Nevertheless, like all of Jesus’ parables, today’s reading is not about continual dissatisfaction but about the kingdom of God.  It is not about whinging, or industrial relations or even refusing to vote because the government did nothing for them.  Like all Jesus parables the story has extra layers to it.

Many organisations have a defined process to obtain full membership.  When I joined Scouts at the age of eleven, I had to pass my tenderfoot badge before I was allowed to wear a scout uniform. 

Jesus’ parable on the other hand offers full membership of the divine realm at any stage and that is what the parable is about.  Of course, the church, because it is a human organisation, has managed to put in a series of hoops for converts to go through.  Some of that is understandable because of human frailty, particularly in respect to leadership.  However, this parable tells us that, as far as God is concerned, once you decide you are in, you have as much right to be in as anyone. 

First or last are equal members of the divine realm and the challenge of living within that realm is the challenge of living in a community of others without rank or status.

But there is also a justice layer in this parable as well as a comment about envy. 

In a feudal system people farm inherited land to feed their families and give the surplus to their overlord as protection money to keep out the Philistines and other bandits. 

At the time of Jesus many people had lost their inherited right to land because of debt.  People had to pay a flat temple tax and the Romans taxed the movement of goods. 

In a year of bad weather or plague farmers had to borrow to meet those obligations.  If the next year was also bad and they couldn’t repay the debt their farm was sold, and they became day labourers.

We have recently had disastrous extreme weather events and farmers, and even just householders, are facing mortgage debt on property that no longer exists.

The landowner in the parable recognised that waiting at the marketplace did not feed a labourer’s family so even when, in the last hour of the day, he finds he needed more labourers to finish the harvest he paid them for a full day. 

The employer in this story recognised that an employee must meet his living expenses from his wages.  That is a principal not always recognised.  It was a blessing to watch a Country Calendar recently where an organic market gardener stated that he depends on his staff and they all receive the living wage as a minimum.  A contrast to the growers who import seasonal workers from low wage economies to keep their wage bill down.

The mantra of successful business has become; reduce costs and increase production and to many reducing costs means to driving down wages. 

That is in sharp contrast to the statement that investment adviser Dr Roger Spiller made at a function I addended while in Hamilton some years ago.   Spiller said that business not only needs to be profitable but has to also do good.  

That is a principal reflected in today’s parable and I suspect that Spiller’s failure to fully understand neo-liberal economics has something to do with his Salvation Army upbringing.  

Another layer of commentary on human behaviour in this parable is the complaining workers.  They all agreed to work for a day’s pay but those fortunate enough to be employed at the beginning of the day were filled with envy when they got the same as the late starters, even though they all got what was promised. 

People in our world are very good at complaining if they feel someone else got a better deal.

The Israelites had been led out of slavery and their very survival in a hostile environment depended on their cooperation as a nomadic community.  But when the going got difficult their first instinct was, not to collaborate, but to complain.

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. (Exodus 16:2) 

Many People would rather moan than face the unknown wilderness of change.  The past always looks better in hindsight so I can also understand the Israelites first reaction to fear of want was to complain to their leaders.  I am an expert moaner, next week I will have had 79 years experience at it.

The change the freed slaves faced however was much greater than any of us have, or are likely to face, although some of our forebears faced similar challenges.  

Imagine someone who has always obtained their food from the supermarket suddenly having to find food in a wilderness of one kind or another. 

Most of us would struggle to survive in any sort of wilderness and it must have been terrifying for the Israelites to leave the security of slavery to find their own way in a wilderness they had no experience of. 

We can assume that they took what provisions they had with them.  The fact that they were able to kill the Passover lamb would tend to indicate they had some domestic animals to also take with them. 

That was the case for both Maori and Pakeha who first settled here.  They brought plants and animals they used for food.  However, Maori brought a range of tropical plants that struggled to grow in the temperate conditions, the Kumara being the most successful.  Therefore, they had to quickly find new food sources to survive in this wilderness.  Maori came from Pacific islands so would have already had fishing skills and significantly settled near water.  Pakeha probably got the better deal because they not only brought plants and animals from a temperate climate, but M?ori were already established and able to show them the ‘manna’ of this particular wilderness. 

But cooperation was what enabled both waves of New Zealanders to establish in what was originally a very harsh wilderness. 

There were unique challenges for Pakeha colonisation because they came from a society with a strong class system where cooperation between classes was actively discouraged. 

The disinherited aristocratic with farm management skills quickly discovered that he had a better life with a wife who had been a domestic servant and the labourer learnt to appreciate the farming skills of the aristocrat. 

The wilderness is a great leveller, and our wilderness created a unique people that are still a work in progress.   

The obvious sign that we are still a work in progress is our ability to complain, practically to whatever leadership we have.  We complain about our politicians, our teachers, our church leaders and of course our sports coaches.  We even complain when our leaders save us from a deadly pandemic.  We object to sensible public health measures because they take away our freedom to choose.  Do we really want the freedom to die or would we rather science told us which fungi to eat and what will kill us.

It is good to be cautious, and comforting to dream of an idyllic past or even an amazing future.  But reaching that future involves trust and cooperation.  We need to be grateful for what we have, not envious of what we perceive others have been given. 

In Christ, we have the gift of a way of living in a truly human community. A gift of love and justice that is always available, at any time, to those who will live as Christ to others.

[1] Sir Terence David John Pratchett OBE (28 April 1948 – 12 March 2015) was an English humourist, satirist, and author of fantasy novels, .