Monday, May 11, 2009

It's Not Fair!

I've been meaning to post a sermon from my preaching and sacraments class for a long time, but it's just never crossed my mind while I was sitting in this chair until tonight. This sermon is based on Matthew 20. I strongly suggest that you read it before reading the sermon. Did you read it? Good deal, carry on.

It’s not fair!

For any household with children, this phrase ranks right up there in popularity with “Why?” and “Because I said so.” When served two exquisite sundaes with all the fixings, one child is sure to look at the other’s and proclaim, “He got more sprinkles than I did! It’s not fair!” I hear it so many times a day, I just block it out or reply with a noncommittal, “Life’s not fair.”

I guess I assume that my kids will someday outgrow this idea that things have to be fair. I hope that one day they will wake up and decide that it’s okay that one brother got offered a killer job in a big city and will be moving there soon with his beautiful young wife while the other is still working at a fast food restaurant waiting for good things to happen. I hope for this, but I know it isn’t likely. I know this because, even as an adult, I myself expect things to be fair. I hate it that my friend can eat everything on her plate and never gain an ounce. It kills me that the grass in my neighbor’s yard is thick and lush while mine is patchy and yellow. I can’t stand it when I do all the work and someone else gets the credit. It’s not fair.

Is God fair?

In Matthew 20:1-16 Jesus told a parable to illustrate the kingdom of heaven. A vineyard owner hires laborers from early in the morning right through the day. Every three hours or so he goes back to the market place and, finding people still with no work, hires more of them. The last group starts work at 5:00 pm so they work for just one hour. When it’s time to be paid, something surprising happens. The last ones to join the labor are first to be paid and, to everyone’s amazement, they receive a full day’s pay. The ones hired first must have been thinking that they would be earning a small fortune because they worked ten times the hours of this late-arriving group. But, in fact, they receive the same as everyone else. So they complain. They feel they have been cheated. Can you imagine the grumbling and resentment which must have arisen? But the vineyard owner says: “No, this is right. This is what we agreed. I am giving you the full entitlement. I just want to be generous to the others.”

Is God fair?

Rabbi Harold Kushner wrestled with this very question when he learned that his 2-year old son had a disease which would lead to death before he reached adulthood. In When Bad Things Happen to Good People he writes:
How does one handle news like that? I was a young, inexperienced rabbi, not as familiar with the process of grief as I would later come to be, and what I mostly felt that day was a deep, aching sense of unfairness. It didn’t make sense. I had been a good person. I had tried to do what was right in the sight of God. More than that, I was living a more religiously committed life than most people I knew, people who had large, healthy families. I believed that I was following God’s ways and doing God’s work. How could this be happening to my family? If God existed, if God was minimally fair, let along loving and forgiving, how could God do this to me?

Is God fair?

No. The parable makes it clear that God is not “fair,” in the way that we think of fairness. God doesn’t treat us all equally. He treats us all lovingly. Had the vineyard owner have treated everyone “fairly” they would have received the same hourly pay for the work they completed. They might have even received a bonus based on how many grapes they were able to collect. This way the hardest workers would be rewarded for their dutiful labor. But he doesn’t. He pays the last the same wages that he promised the first, a reasonable rate for a full-day’s work. It isn’t fair. But it’s generous. It’s loving.

The problem, it would seem, is that we are so focused on the unfairness that we miss the grace that shines through in this parable. We are afraid if some get more than they deserve, we will get less. We look at what others get and forget to look at what we also received. The truth is that, regardless of how much we deserve it, we are all offered God’s grace. It’s not fair. It’s not dumb luck. It’s not earned. It’s just very lovingly, very generously passed out at the end of the day.
There are some people who, from the very start of their lives, have lived a Godly life and have, with their family, been workers in the vineyard. They will receive the kingdom of heaven, as God has promised. But then there are the rest of us: those who have lived very differently and came to God late or find ourselves wandering away from Him from time to time. We, too, will receive the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus was crucified between two men who were being punished for living lives of crime. They had not followed the teachings of Jesus and had not named God as their Lord. While one criminal mocked Jesus, the other one of the men pointed out the injustice of Jesus’ punishment and asked Jesus to remember him when he comes into the kingdom. Even in his agony, Jesus offered undeserved grace. He told the man, Today you will be with me in paradise.” This man, this criminal, this menace to society receives the same reward as a life-long missionary who swears off all luxuries and devotes his life to Christ.
And so "the first shall be the last and the last shall be the first” is not meant to discourage those who devoted all their life to working for God. It’s not meant to demonstrate the lesson on every mother’s tongue: “Life’s not fair.” Rather it was said for those who came to God at an older age, for those who wander from the path and return at the 11th hour, for those who do evil and repent. It was said so that we may know how much God loves us. "Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning from the last to the first.” It’s all about grace. We don’t deserve it. We can’t earn it. But, because we have His priceless mercy, we will receive the reward. God's ways are not ours. There won’t be justice, but there will be love.
There is an old story about a farmer who had two sons. As soon as they were old enough to walk, he took them to the fields and taught them about growing crops and raising animals. When he got too old to work, the two boys took over the chores of the farm. When the father died, they found working together so meaningful that they decided to keep their partnership.

Each brother contributed what he could and, during every harvest season, they equally divided what they corporately produced. Over the years the elder brother never married. The younger brother did marry and had eight children. Years later, when they were having a wonderful harvest, the old bachelor brother thought to himself one night, “My brother has ten mouths to feed. I only have one. He really needs more of his harvest than I do, but I know he is much too fair to renegotiate. I know what I’ll do. In the middle of the night, when he is sleeping, I’ll take some of what I have in my barn and slip it over into his barn to help him feed his children.”

At the very time he was thinking this, the younger brother was thinking to himself, “God has given me this loving wife and these wonderful children. My brother hasn’t been so fortunate. He really deserves more of this harvest than I do, but I know him. He’s much too fair. He’ll never renegotiate. I know what I’ll do. In the middle of the night when he’s asleep, I’ll take some of what I’ve put in my barn and slip it over into his barn.”

And so one night, when the moon was full, as you may have already anticipated, these two brothers came face to face, each on a mission of generosity. The story goes that, although there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, a gentle rain began to fall. It was God weeping for joy because two of his children had gotten the point. Two of his children had come to realize that generosity is the deepest characteristic of the holy. Because we are made in God’s image, our being generous is the secret to our joy as well.

Is God fair? No. He’s not fair because He’s graceful. We don’t get what we deserve, which is a blessing for us sinners. We get what we are promised. Thanks to God!

1 comment:

R and K Marsh said...

What a great sermon! I might have to steal some of your ideas for my next one ... :-) I especially love the idea that God 'not' being fair is good news for most of us. Too right!