What is Fair?

A sermon from August 13th, 2017, a reflection on the events in Charlottsville.

Matthew 20:1-16 The Message (MSG)

A Story About Workers

20 1-2 “God’s kingdom is like an estate manager who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. They agreed on a wage of a dollar a day, and went to work.

3-5 “Later, about nine o’clock, the manager saw some other men hanging around the town square unemployed. He told them to go to work in his vineyard and he would pay them a fair wage. They went.

5-6 “He did the same thing at noon, and again at three o’clock. At five o’clock he went back and found still others standing around. He said, ‘Why are you standing around all day doing nothing?’

“They said, ‘Because no one hired us.’

“He told them to go to work in his vineyard.

“When the day’s work was over, the owner of the vineyard instructed his foreman, ‘Call the workers in and pay them their wages. Start with the last hired and go on to the first.’

9-12 “Those hired at five o’clock came up and were each given a dollar. When those who were hired first saw that, they assumed they would get far more. But they got the same, each of them one dollar. Taking the dollar, they groused angrily to the manager, ‘These last workers put in only one easy hour, and you just made them equal to us, who slaved all day under a scorching sun.’

13-15 “He replied to the one speaking for the rest, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair. We agreed on the wage of a dollar, didn’t we? So take it and go. I decided to give to the one who came last the same as you. Can’t I do what I want with my own money? Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?’

16 “Here it is again, the Great Reversal: many of the first ending up last, and the last first.”

What is our response to this story? Does the manager seem fair or does it make us angry? Are we upholding biblical principles of God’s Kingdom or clinging tight to the ideals of another kingdom?

 

What is fair? – is it getting what we earned or receiving equally in grace?

Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment that we should uphold over everything else, over all our other ideals and values is to Love God and Love our neighbor as we love ourselves. If we truly love our neighbor as ourselves – would we want less for them? ” Wouldn’t we would want the best for them, at least equal to what we receive, regardless of what we perceive them to “deserve?”

What is fair? What is really fair? Would we want more for those who worked longer? Less for those who worked less? Why did the workers who started later stand around doing nothing? Was it because they were lazy? No, it was because no one hired them. This parable shows the pure luck of the first hired in that the manager found them first. Should the ones who had more trouble finding work be punished even more on top of the time they already spent unemployed, not making money?

A recent study found that “Christians are more than twice as likely to blame a person’s poverty on lack of effort.” It would be a hard push to find any of Jesus’ parables to support ideas like calling the poor lazy. Jesus was quick to judge the government officials, the establishment, even high and mighty religious leaders, but never the poor or who he considered to be “the least of these, the oppressed, the stereotyped against, the marginalized.” So this study is deeply saddening.

Most of us are guilty of this quick judgement of others in one way or another if we are honest, but as Christians we should be the ones standing up for the oppressed, lifting them up as if we see our own face in their face, our own struggles in their struggles. Jesus said that those who help those in need help God, so if we are to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves, and as much as we love God, then this should be doubly convicting.

We know what it means to give those with a disadvantage some help. We do it for children, letting the youngest stand closest to the pitcher in a family ball game for example. We do it for our own: making meals for a member of the congregation who has been sick. We do not typically look at them and say they are at a disadvantage because they aren’t working hard enough or because they are not as deserving. We want to help them even more because of their disadvantage. So why shouldn’t this grace extend beyond our family and church family?

Did you know that the largest age group who are in poverty in the U.S. are children? Did you know that a large portion of those in poverty were born into it and simply could never quite dig their way out? Would we really blame children or sick people, who had no money or resources, who were thrown every curveball in life, should we call them lazy? Should we give them less help, less love, less grace because of their misfortune? Surely not. If the manager is like God in our parable, God would put the last first and rebuke jealousy or anger at the least of these.

I hope we can train our minds to be more loving and gracious and less judging and jealous. It is no doubt difficult to feel like we have worked hard for what we have gotten and see others appear to get it easily. But God’s grace is free and equal to all. In fact, Jesus says that the last will be first. Life is not a race. So we should work at making this our mentality, how can we bring the last into first place? How can we put aside our envy and need to get ahead and adopt a grace-filled love for others who are struggling?

I love this quote that describes God’s love so wonderfully. You may have heard something like it before:

“God’s love is not like a pie that leaves less for me every time God gives someone else a slice. God’s love is more like a joke that gets funnier every time another person joins the laughing.

What a beautiful picture of the Realm of God, of heaven. People joining in on the joke and spreading joy as the laughter roars. Let’s try to treat it less like a pie that’s almost gone or an inside joke that is only for the winners. Let’s share God’s love and grace, and resources and help, with all, especially those who have been marginalized. That is what is fair in God’s eyes.

And this picture is the opposite of the hate we’ve been seeing in the world. We have to condemn the ongoing hatred of not only the poor, but of all the oppressed, and those stereotyped against, immigrants, people of color. As Christians, we’re called to, like Christ, reject anything that seeks to divide and restrict instead of bringing together and opening the doors.

We have to speak out against the White Nationalists’ violent hate crime in Charlottesville, Virginia because it goes against the picture of God’s wide table and equal grace and love for all people. This is terrorism, it seeks to harm and indeed it did harm and even kill. We cannot be silent. For if we are silent, these ideas of some deserving less rights spreads like a deadly disease.   This is the time to stand up for what Jesus has taught us – that in God’s kingdom we celebrate “the Great Reversal: many of the first ending up last, and the last first.”

These words from the hymn “There’s A Wideness in God’s Mercy” reflect God’s welcome to all. May you carry them with you always.

 There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea.
There’s a kindness in God’s justice,
which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows
are more felt than up in heaven.
There is no place where earth’s failings
have such kindly judgment given.
For the love of God is broader
than the measures of the mind.
And the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful,
we would gladly trust God’s Word,
and our lives reflect thanksgiving
for the goodness of our Lord.

Childlike

Not too long ago, we celebrated the birth of Jesus at Christmas! As we reflect on this, I invite you to reflect on what Jesus was like as a baby and as a young child. Do you think he was perfect because of his godliness, or rowdy because of his humanness? Perhaps he was a smart aleck because of both! In any case, babies and children are an important part of the family of God. In fact, I believe that children are closer to God, and it seems that Jesus made this exact point when he said:  “What I’m about to tell you is true. You need to change and become like little children. If you don’t, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

Martin Luther also said concerning the sacraments, “The older people grasp it with their ears and their reason but often without faith; children, however, hear it through their ears without reason and with faith. And the less reason one has, the closer faith is.”

The younger the child, the more carefree and open. The younger the child, the more they are scolded, “shh-ed” and told “No.” Discipline is important, but so is leaving room for children to learn to express themselves and worship God in their own way. Maybe if we did so, they would not grow out of their faith, but embrace it as their own as they age.  Perhaps it is we that need to listen to and learn from children than the other way around.

Remember this the next time you hear a baby crying in worship, or see a child shuffling in their seat, the next time a child goes on and on during the children’s message. Before you get frustrated by the distraction, consider what might be going on for that child. Worship is children’s time, too. Maybe we “kid” ourselves when we try to have perfect, silent, serene worship. The world is messy, and God is not afraid to be in that mess. Children are not perfect before God, and neither are we; we are just better at pretending. Let’s work on being more childlike in our faith.