In the Name…
In a Peanuts cartoon, Lucy is walking home from school with Charlie Brown, carrying her report card in her hand. She turns to Charlie, and, in self-righteous indignation, complains: “It isn't fair Charlie Brown, it just isn't fair! I studied for a whole week for my test and got a C. Sally only studied for two hours the night before and she got an A. It just isn't fair!”
How many times have we said, or heard others say, "It just isn’t fair!" Maybe once or twice?
The Bible is full of examples of seemingly unfair situations. God chose Jacob the conniver and cheat over his brother Esau. He chose to make a king out of a shepherd boy above his strong and handsome brothers. Jesus chose to have dinner with a collaborator named Zacchaeus instead of with the patriotic people. And, after a lifetime of crime, the thief on the cross made a last minute confession and Jesus promised that he would be saved. That hardly seems fair!
So, I’d say that a theme that comes through the Bible is that God is unfair. And, our Gospel reading is a classic example. Jesus tells about a farmer who hired people to work for him. Some clocked on at sunrise, but most came at various times throughout the day. The farmer even hired some just an hour before knocking off time. Everyone was happy to be working, but things changed at pay time. Those who had worked all day saw that they received the same as those who had worked just one hour. This story offends our sense of fairness. Why should the latecomers receive the same as the full-day workers?
Indeed, the story doesn’t make economic sense either. No employer in his right mind would give a twelve-hours wage for one hour’s work. And that was the intent. Jesus was giving us a parable about grace – something which cannot be calculated like wages. Grace is not about finishing last or first. It’s not something we toil to earn, a point that Jesus made through the farmer’s response: "Listen, friend. I have not cheated you. You agreed to do a day's work for a day’s wage. Now take your pay and go home."
And, it’s true. The farmer didn’t cheat anyone. Everyone who was promised something got what had been promised. It’s just that some wanted more. And what Jesus is trying to get through to us is that if God paid us according to what we deserve, we wouldn’t get more, we’d all end up in Hell. Or, as Shakespeare put it, “Use every man after his desert, andwho should scape whipping?"
Fortunately, human attitudes about fairness do not come into God's way of thinking. In fact, the word “deserve” doesn’t even seem to be in God’s dictionary. No, Jesus’ story is about the generosity of God and “generosity” is a word God likes to use. God is generous. He gives gifts.
And, the reason he gives is because of who he is and not because of who we are. After all, we are weak, impulsive, and a thousand more things besides. As St. Paul once said, we do things we know are wrong and we don’t do things we know are right. And, still, God doesn’t give up on us. In fact, he gave us his Son rather than give up on us. And that was something terribly unfair. The sinless one dies because of the sin of everyone else. But, that’s God's grace at work.
Last week we heard Peter ask Jesus, "How many times shall I forgive someone who sins against me? Up to seven times?" And, Peter thought that he was being extremely generous. But, what did Jesus say? "Not seven times, but seventy times seven." In other words, forgiveness is not something that can be counted with an abacus or a calculator. For the follower of Jesus there is no limit to the number of times we reach out to another person in forgiveness.
One author has called this an example of the new math of grace. A new standard for our relationship with others.
God is generous and we are called on to practice this kind of divine generosity in our own lives. It’s a generosity that calls me to step over all my arguments about who is right and wrong; to overcome that part of my heart that is quick to feel hurt and wronged; to conquer the need to get revenge either by actively doing something to hurt the other person or by avoiding any contact with them; and to rise above that part of me that wants to put conditions on my relationships with others.
This is a hard thing to do because we have ingrained in us the merit system. You get what you deserve. That’s why it’s hard to find forgiveness easy, and, even when we do forgive, let’s be honest; rarely do we find it completely satisfying. Nagging injustices remain, and the wounds still cause pain. That’s why it’s only by living in the stream of God's grace that I will find the strength to respond with grace toward others.
It is so easy for us to adopt the world’s sense of fairness. In a worldly sense it is only fair that the successful people are rewarded. In the ways of the world it is only fair that if bad things happen to you, then you are somehow at fault.
Or, to use the example of the Good Samaritan story, if you are stupid enough to travel alone on a road that is notorious for robberies and beatings, then you deserve to be robbed and beaten. That’s how the first two passers-by saw the situation. But, the Samaritan doesn’t see a fool, he sees someone who needs kindness, care, comfort and help. He applied God's sense of fairness to the situation. And, in order to do this, he had to be unfair and forgive. He had to forgive the Jew for all the insults and bigotry that other Jews had heaped on him and his people. He had to take a big step forward and not just stand back and enjoy the view.
This parable challenges us to rethink what is truly fair. When the world around us, and our human nature, shout, "That’s unfair!" we are confronted with the question, "Should I be joining the shouts or should I be more generous, open minded, and accepting in the same way that God is to me."
No question. It’s not always easy. We will make mistakes. But, in the Cross, in the water of baptism, and as we take into our hands the Body and Blood of Jesus we see that these are the things that fill us again and again with a fresh dose of God's grace. And, so filled, we can apply that divine unfairness to the lives of those who need it and, in so doing, imitate God.
In the Name…