Let’s be honest, from the start today, about ourselves and about what today’s lessons reveal about us. We humans expect fairness. We equate it with justice in terms of getting what we deserve – reward for doing what we ought, and punishment for doing things we ought not. It’s a very human thing. I mean, who among the parents here today hasn’t heard the accusation, probably more than once in their life, from the lips of a child: “That’s just not fair!!!”?
Only, there’s a problem here – a disconnect of sorts – in that though God is a God of justice, God is not necessarily what we would consider fair. Justice and fairness do not always go together. Or said the way I’ve often said it in the past, fairness is not a Gospel category.
Take the Jonah story for example. Jonah hates Ninevah, plain and simple. So when God appoints him to be the one to warn the Ninevites and to call them to repentance or else God is going to wipe them all out, Jonah heads off in the opposite direction. He doesn’t want to see the Ninevites repent and be saved. He wants to see the Ninevites burn!
And it’s only fair. After all, the Ninevites are the enemies of God’s people, presumably worshiping idols and partaking in all manner of evil and sinful things. So they deserve God’s just punishment.
And there’s the problem, you see. And it’s right there in chapter 4 verse 2 where Jonah says: I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. Or to paraphrase, Jonah’s saying to God: I knew you were going to act like a big softy, and that you’d give them another chance. And it’s just not fair! They’re bad. They’re our enemies. And you, God, should do what’s right and punish them!
Oh, but let’s not forget the rest of the story.
Jonah has failed to follow God’s call, and God gave him another chance. But, I guess, that’s alright, because Jonah’s one of the insiders, one of the supposed good guys, one of God’s chosen people, and a prophet to boot! So Jonah, and I guess the rest of us, are okay with it when God is unfair with Jonah by giving Jonah another chance after he runs off in the opposite direction, or when God’s unfair with us and gives us another chance when we fail.
So, like I said at the start, let’s be honest about ourselves, and about what these readings today reveal about who we are. But also, let’s be honest about what they reveal about who God is – which, by the way, is exactly what we mean when we say, God’s word comes to us as both Law and Gospel. The Law that reveals our failures and sin and the Gospel that reveals God’s saving love in the crucified and risen Christ. Because I think it’s pretty well clear – If we’re going to be honest with ourselves about our deepest inner thoughts and feelings – that there are people we just don’t like. And the thought that these people are going to get their just deserts in the end, can feel pretty satisfying. While the thought that God might actually love them as much as God loves us, doesn’t feel anywhere near as good.
But just to be honest, just to say it clearly, Jonah messed up, and let his hatred for the people of Ninevah get in the way of fulfilling God’s call to go and tell them that there was a way for them to avoid God’s just wrath – in essence, to declare to them that God’s sense of mercy is above God’s sense of justice – to declare to them that God’s not fair!
Our Gospel reading today makes a similar point.
Today we’re in Matthew chapter 20, and, as we will for several weeks now, we hear Jesus teaching about the reign of God using a parable – a story using everyday life experiences to teach a singular truth about God. So what’s the singular truth being taught here?
Well, to put it into a simple phrase, one might say: God’s reign isn’t about fairness.
In the story, there’s a landowner who, early in the morning, hires day laborers to go and work for the day in his vineyard, and he agrees to pay them a normal day’s wage for their work. Only, this landowner keeps going out later and later in the day and he keeps hiring more help and agreeing to pay them the normal day’s wage as well – even those who are hired at 5:00, who only work for one hour. And, guess what those who worked all day say, once they realize that everyone’s been paid the same amount, regardless of how long they worked or even how well they worked?
You got it!
That’s not fair! These last ones only worked for one hour and you’ve made them equal to us! These workers are applying their idea of equality and their own sense of fairness or justice to God. Only, God, the Sovereign One who rules and reigns over the Kingdom of Heaven – which is what the parable’s about, right? The Kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner, right? – God demonstrates sovereignty in bestowing grace whenever, however and on whomever God chooses. And God grants this grace, not based on fairness or anything of the sort, but God demonstrates God’s own sovereign will and power by doing what we think is unfair.
And it’s interesting to think about how different people hear the tag line at the end – “So the last will be first and the first will be last” – because I’m willing to bet that those of us who live with privilege in the world, we who are male, educated, white, middle or higher class, don’t hear this line of reversal the same way as someone standing down in the parking lot behind Brookedale College’s satellite campus in Long Branch each morning, or in the parking lot of most any Home Depot in America, or wherever else migrant and day laborers and others who are chronically unemployed gather daily in hopes of being hired, would hear these words. Our place and station in life, our status and standing in society, has a whole lot to do with how we hear this parable, and how we understand what’s being said, and how we think it ought to be responded to in and through our daily living.
To those of us who are generally first in life, this reversal may not sound like so much good news, but to those who are generally last in life, who live on the margins, those who are excluded and forgotten, whose voices are too easily ignored and whose cares are too easily dismissed in our society, this is a promise of a reversal that is cause for great celebration!
Those who believe that they are of more worth because they have done more work, or, at least, have worked longer, think it’s unfair that the landowner would pay them the same amount as those who have worked for a shorter period of time and so, presumably, have done less work, and are, therefore, of less worth.
Only, God’s not interested in, and doesn’t participate in those sorts of comparisons.
God in Christ, as it turns out, is the One who gives everything God has to give and gives it freely, and gives it to all.
God in Christ gives his very life on the cross – There’s nothing more for God to give!
Salvation, redemption, freedom from sin and death, is given freely to all, regardless of who is first and who is last, because the One who truly is first has made himself last on the cross, in order to do away with all such accounting.
God gives God’s all, and gives it freely, and gives it to all.
Now, when you realize that that “all” includes people you don’t think deserve it, you may want to stomp off like Jonah, and sulk in the corner like a two year old child, or stand there defiantly with your arms crossed and cry out in accusation against God, saying: That’s just not fair!!!
And, you know what? On some level, you’d be right.
But would you really want it any other way?