God Values: That’s Not Fair!
A couple weeks ago, I told you all that I had a lot more to say to you about God and fairness. Well, today is that lucky day! Let me tell you a little story from my childhood. I am blessed to have a family that is well-educated. My mother, working as a nurse, always had a job, if not two, and by the time I was say, in junior high and high school, my family had a fairly stable middle class financial situation. But it took us a long time to get there. My early years were spent in the small country village of Westernville, and my father was out of work off and on from the time I was two until I was in fifth grade or so. That is another story to tell, but the point is, we were a poor family. We used food stamps, we received help from my grandparents, and we received one of the food baskets we helped put together at church. Westernville was too small for its own elementary school – we were bused to Rome for school, and as geography would have it, relatively poor Westernville kids went to school with kids from some of the wealthier parts of Rome.
Somehow, it doesn’t take many years of life to learn the different between rich and poor and to assign value judgments – and poor is definitely not cool. The most popular girl in school, Kelly, child of a former professional baseball player and one of the teachers at school, who lived in a house that had more floors than I could count – well, she made my life pretty miserable sometimes. I remember most vividly that for my sixth grade birthday, my brother Jim took me to the mall and let me spend $100 of his hard earned money. It was a huge gift to me. In addition to Mariah Carey and Wilson Phillips single cassette tapes, among other things, my major purchase was a new outfit – a Skidz brand t-shirt and shorts. Anyone remember those? They were all the rage, and I knew, for once, I would be at school with the right clothes. When I arrived at school the next day, Kelly immediately made fun of me – because even though I had the right brand, I had purchased them from JCPenney, and not Tops N Bottoms, the cool store. I just couldn’t seem to win.
The worst thing was though, that I was a kid who attended church every week, and I read my bible, and knew it pretty well, and I knew about this parable, and I knew pretty much what it meant. I knew this parable meant that Kelly, as mean as she was, as bad as she made me and other people feel – I knew Kelly was just as loved by God as I was, and that Kelly could live her life as she was and still get God's grace and all the benefits of our generous God if she wanted them. I actually thought about that a lot. And I knew that that was just. not. fair.
This parable, sometimes known as the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, is taught by Jesus following another familiar scene. A rich young man had approached Jesus and asked about getting into the kingdom of heaven. Jesus told him to sell all his stuff and give it to the poor, and the man went away disappointed. Jesus then said to the disciples that it was harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. But, Jesus said, with God, anything is possible. Then Peter says, in reply, the scriptures tell us, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’ Peter wants to know what exactly the disciples are in for. Jesus tells them they will receive eternal life, but that the first are last and the last are first. And then he tells this parable.
A landowner goes out in the morning to hire laborers for the vineyard. He offers them “whatever is right” for a day of labor. He goes out again at noon and at 3 and at 5, and hires more and more laborers. At the end of the day, the landowner pays them all a day’s wage. All of them. That means that the workers who have worked 10 hours, 8 hours, 5 hours, and 2 hours all get the same paycheck at the end of the day. Naturally, this upsets some of the workers. The workers who worked all day were suddenly less happy with the wage they had received, because those who worked only one hour also received the same salary. But the landowner won’t hear it: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Jesus concludes, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
This parable goes against everything we stand for and value in a society like ours. Here, you get what you work for, or at least we value such an ideal. We like things to be fair. We care about equality and equity. We know it isn’t right for people to get the same pay for such drastically different amounts of work. Who would agree to such a thing? Who wouldn’t be resentful of others who had it so easy, who hardly had to do anything to get such a reward. “I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.” Do we feel the same sense of outrage if we remember that this parable is about the kingdom of heaven and about God’s grace?
I think we have two responses to this parable that we don’t want to admit to ourselves. The first is this: I think we would say that we know what grace is. Goodness knows I talk about it enough, and talk about what it is, and our hymns are about grace, and our liturgies and our prayers and our sacraments – all about grace. And what do we know about grace? I hope that you have learned that grace is God's gift to us, it is free, without price, God's unconditional – that is without conditions! – love, which is poured out on everyone. That is grace. I hope that sounds familiar! But, the thing is, I don’t know if we believe in grace. Oh, I think we believe in it in an abstract way. We believe in it as a concept, a theory. But in practice? I am not convinced we really believe in grace – not fully, anyway.
I think, in our hearts, in our behavior, we are really trying, still, to earn grace, to make sure we are doing what is good enough to be loved by God. Maybe we don’t feel that we are good enough to be loved. So we try hard to be good enough. And somehow, we feel like, if at least we are better than the next person, if we are better than someone, than somehow we are a bit closer to God. We end up trying to get close to God by pushing others farther away, instead of by actually drawing close ourselves. We know from our own experience that love is inexplicable – who can explain why we love who we love? And yet, we can’t accept that God loves us. All of us.
So here is our second response to the parable. If we are finally convinced, at last, that God is gonna give the made elementary school rotten for everyone Kellys of the world as much love and grace as the awesomely well-behaved, life-long, faithful, didn’t even have delinquent college years Beths of the world, which, as we have established, is so unfair, then I think we start to have this creeping-into-our-minds question. Why do we bother trying so hard to be good and to live a good life? Why do we struggle so much to follow God's plans for us, God's commands for us, when other people seem to do what they want, and end up with the same reward as we do? If we get God's grace either way, why not live a little? Party a little? Go a little crazy? Why this struggle for following God, if God will ultimately find us and lavish us with grace anyway?
Again, our response reveals what we really believe: that we see grace as a reward for good behavior and not an outright gift. Grace is not a prize that we get, but sometimes it seems that the only reason we are following God is because of the reward (or fine, gift, we might get out of it at the end.) When Jesus talks about abundant life, living water, bread of life, all that he offers, he is talking about what we can claim, the life we can live not in some distant future, but right now if we will walk with God who loves us. But don’t we sometimes treat these offers like chores we must complete to get to the end of the game and win the prize?
We are getting mixed up. The life God offers is meant to fill us up, fulfill us beyond our imagining. When push comes to shove, even though being a disciple is sometimes hard and challenging and seemingly impossible, I wouldn’t trade it in for a minute. I would never want to struggle with that emptiness, with that search for meaning, without knowing the love of God. I would never want to feel so groundless. The life God offers us is truly good and abundant. Laboring longer in God's vineyard is not a punishment, but in itself a blessing, being part of God's kingdom now, right here, today, on this earth, in this time.
No, God is not at all interested in being fair. God is interested in justice. God is interested in mercy and compassion. God is interested in our abundant lives. God is interested in loving each and every single precious person in creation. But God definitely does not play fair. Thanks be to God. Amen.