Sermon for Septuagesimaadmin | 12 February 2017
“Why stand ye here all the day idle?”
The answer is clear and prescient: “because no man hath hired us.” Welcome to the second half of the second decade of the twenty-first century. Welcome to the “brave new world” of digital exuberance. There will be fewer and fewer jobs. There will be more and more of the idle and the unemployed. Welcome to the world of automation only just beginning to ramp up. No work and all play? Think again.
Alarmist? Reactionary? Maybe. But when Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk concur that the greatest danger facing our humanity is AI – artificial intelligence – then, perhaps, even the most confirmed digital cheerleader might, just might, pause for a moment and reflect. Even, perhaps, Yuval Noah Harari, the latest super-exuberant cheerleader for a brave new world of a digitally enhanced humanity. “Now we see through a glass,” digitally, some may think, but make no mistake it will still be “through a glass darkly”. Quite apart from the myopia! There is nothing else to see, after all, if it isn’t on your screen. What can’t be seen on your screen doesn’t exist. “O brave, new world”, indeed.
Okay. A bit of rhetorical excess on my part, I admit. The rant’s over. The readings for Septuagesima Sunday speak rather profoundly to an important aspect of our contemporary dystopia. On the one hand, we are easily seduced by the obvious wonders of technology, especially in medicine and in terms of communication, or so we think. We are rightly impressed with some of the progresses in medical science, to be sure, but I leave it to you to decide whether our culture is really better informed and wiser than previous ages. On the other hand, we are largely oblivious to the ethical and intellectual problems that come with all of that. They are not insurmountable, in my view, since all of these problems are our problems. This is, as you have probably guessed, the segue to the Gospel. The very point when we realise that “Houston, we [don’t] have lift off”, is the point when we realise that the deep dilemmas of the human community cannot be solved simply by us through technological ingenuity. Ancient wisdom, certainly Christian wisdom, has been largely ignored and forgotten. The problem is not with technology – that over-used, abused and largely meaningless word – the problem is with us, with our approach to one another, to nature, and, ultimately, to God.
The Gospel for Septuagesima recalls us to the very thing which our digital and technological exuberance removes us. What is that? The natural world which is the place of human labour. What is so crucial in our times is the whole matter of human labour. It is true that many jobs have been made much easier by virtue of automation and technology. It is true that there are many, many rather underwhelming, even meaningless jobs that people do, too, but which allow them to be part of a community. This is the real counter to the Marxist notion of Homo Faber, man the worker. The paradox, though, is great. We now have an educational system dedicated to producing employees who will be quite happy to punch in numbers and data – data-entry positions will always be important – until an algorithm can do it better than you. Exit you. Homo Faber has a certain shelf date in the digital world; a ‘best before’ your work and your being are now longer required.
The Gospel for Septuagesima belongs to a rich and profound tradition about the dignity of human labour, a dignity which is found more in the activity itself than simply in the remuneration for the labour. No Gospel story challenges our digitally and quantitatively fixated culture quite so much. The real dignity of labour lies not in the recompense but in the labour itself.
But even that misses the real point of the Gospel. It is our labour in God’s vineyard that matters most. It is about a labour that belongs to the pageant of human redemption and not to the parade of fiscal profit. Gain the world and lose your soul. No issue if you have no sense of yourself as a self (though assuming that completely). The point being that you are more and far more precious in the eyes of God whether you have worked long or short (which is no argument for being a slouch). Ultimately, God sees and knows the worth of our labour which is really about nothing more than our working with the good, the true, and the beautiful in the order of creation, nothing more than our attention to being with God in his being with us in Jesus Christ. We find the truth of our labour in the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. On the one hand, work begins as a curse, as the result of our separation from the truth of God and his creation; on the other hand, work becomes part of the project of human redemption, about our being recalled and returned to God. Standing idle with nothing to do becomes the far greater curse, the curse of an empty and meaningless existence; a kind of hedonistic nihilism. Pleasure without wisdom is hell.
Work is really about our connection to the land, to the vineyard, which is itself an image of creation and one to which we sadly contribute more often than not destruction and disorder. No Gospel recalls us more profoundly to the truth and dignity of human labour than this. Our lives and our labours are measured only by God; hence, “Whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive”. That is, to be sure, the good news. God and his creation are not there to be manipulated by us to our ends and purpose. Creation exists and we exist for God and that makes all the difference.
The ‘Gesima’ Sundays recall us to the ground, to the joyous humility of our connection to the whole of the physical world as spiritual creatures. More importantly, we are recalled to God through these parables which reveal something more of the kingdom of God to us. They defy, essentially and necessarily, our usual prejudices and biases, our own self-certainties. We are recalled to the true and deeper meaning of our labour in God’s vineyard. It is all grace and, as George Bernanos wisely observes, “grace is everywhere”. This is all about grace.
Human labour is not simply labour. It belongs, instead, to the very meaning and essence of our humanity. It is work which connects us to God, to his grace and will for us in our lives. Machines can help us but is a dangerous thing to think they can replace us especially if only to condemn us to hedonism and to being idle. “O brave, new world”, indeed.
“Why stand ye here all the day idle?”
Fr. David Curry