September 23-24, 2017: It’s Not Fair

Sermon A Pentecost L.25 2017                                  King of Kings, New Windsor                             September 23-24, 2017

Jonah 3:10-4:11, Matthew 20:1-16

Every time I hear this gospel, I want to stomp my feet and scream, “It’s not fair.  It’s not fair to pay the people who came to work an hour before closing the same wage as those who came at the crack of dawn.  It’s not fair to compensate the workers who worked through the heat of the day the same as those who came at the last minute.”  For me, fairness is a primary virtue; I believe that people should be paid equally for equal work, so when I hear this parable, I resist.  Instead of “equal work for equal pay”, each of the workers in this parable is paid equally no matter how many hours he worked:  twelve or nine or six or three or even one.  The workers who come at the last hour get paid, essentially, twelve times more than they expect; their wage is twelve times more than the fair wage.  It seems to me, in this story, that Jesus doesn’t care about fairness, and I don’t like that.  I want to stomp my feet and scream.

I guess I’m in good company with Jonah.  Can you hear him stomping his feet and screaming in today’s parable from the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament book of Jonah?  Jonah is concerned about fairness, too, and he notices, just like I notice in today’s gospel, that God doesn’t seem to care about fairness, and, just like me, Jonah doesn’t like it.  Jonah, a good Jew, wants God to treat the people of Nineveh fairly; he wants the wicked Ninevites, who are not Jews, to get what they deserve, which, according to Jonah, is destruction.  When God sends Jonah to Nineveh to tell the people to repent, Jonah runs the other way, because Jonah knows that if he goes to Nineveh, if he tells the people to repent of their wickedness and they repent, then God will not punish them.  God will change his mind about destroying them, and then they won’t get what they deserve.  This, according to Jonah, is not right.  Can you see him, in this story, stomping his feet and screaming, “It’s not fair!”?

God sends Jonah to Nineveh to tell the people to repent, because God wants to forgive them.  But Jonah doesn’t want those evil Ninevites to repent from their wicked ways, because he doesn’t want God to forgive them.  If God forgives them, Jonah knows that they will not be punished.  So, as you probably know from the parable in the first chapter of Jonah, Jonah runs away from God’s direction and jumps on a ship and is thrown overboard during a storm, after which he gets swallowed by a big fish and then delivered from the fish, after which he makes his way to Nineveh and tells the people to repent, albeit presumably reluctantly.

Today’s lesson begins after Jonah has called the people to repent, and they have repented.  Then, the author tells us, “God changed his mind about the calamity that he would bring upon them, and he did not do it.”  Then Jonah was “displeased” and “became angry”, because God had forgiven the people of Nineveh, as he knew God would.  We hear Jonah stomping and screaming at God, “It’s not fair.  Weren’t you supposed to destroy the Ninevites?  They aren’t your people.  They are Gentiles, outsiders, people who don’t belong.  They don’t deserve your mercy or forgiveness.  ‘That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.’  What was the point of me going to the people of Nineveh if you were just going to save them anyway?  It’s not fair.”

There’s a lot in the world that’s not fair.  It’s not fair that your wife was diagnosed with cancer or your friend was injured in a car accident or your neighbor’s son overdosed.  It’s not fair that African Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of white Americans, or that 63% of white students enrolled in college graduate, while only 38% of blacks do, or that a black shopper is followed by a security officer while a white shopper is not.  It’s not fair that one hurricane after another is destroying property—or decimating towns—or debilitating whole countries.  It’s not fair that DACA young adults have no country to call home, or that Palestinians can’t thrive in their own homeland, or that Syrian refugees have nowhere to go.  The world is not a fair place.  Some are born with more resources, more money, better housing, more health care, more opportunities for education, more family support, more stuff.  Others are born with almost nothing—and little opportunity to access even the basics needed for life.  One has more than enough, another has barely enough to survive.  It’s not fair.  It’s just not fair.

But Jesus is not talking about this world.  Listen, for a moment, to the beginning of the parable.  “For the kingdom of heaven is like…”  This is a parable, not about equal opportunity or equal wages or fair labor practices.  It’s not about education or the prison system or the military or U.S. business or public health.  Instead, it’s about the kingdom of God; it’s about how things work in God’s reign, wherever God is reigning.  According to this parable, in the reign of God, fairness is not a primary virtue.  According to Jonah, God isn’t so much interested in treating the Ninevites fairly as God is concerned with forgiving them and giving them a chance to repent.  The point of both these parables, in Matthew 20 and Jonah, is that the reign of God is not fair.

To convey this point, Jesus borrowed a scenario common to his mostly rural listeners:  the village square, where day laborers gathered to offer their services to landowners in need of extra workers that day.  His listeners knew what the prevailing daily wage was, and they knew that someone hired only for the last hour or two would receive a lesser wage than someone who had come earlier, which was only fair, since he had worked fewer hours.  Jesus used this scenario to shock his listeners into an awareness that the kingdom of God, the place where God reigns, is not fair.

In God’s reign, the grandmother born into a Christian family and baptized as an infant and active in church every Sunday gets salvation.  So does the felon who converts after a long life of drug addiction.  So does the family who treats the church as a store in which to purchase a baptism or a wedding or an inspiring Christmas Eve service or a joyful Easter Eucharist.  And the young adult who wanders away from the church and comes back in time of crisis.  And the homeless man who comes in for change and ends up hearing the gospel for the first time.  In God’s reign, each of these children of God gets the same wage, the same product, the same result.

In God’s reign, you don’t get the prevailing daily wage.  Instead, you get the whole package.  In God’s reign, you don’t get what you deserve.  Instead, you get grace and mercy and steadfast love—all those gifts of God that Jonah didn’t want to share with the Ninevites.  In God’s reign, you’ll find space to be yourself and to grow in faith at your own pace.  In God’s reign, there is room enough for all of God’s children.  There’s a wideness is God’s mercy, so that you and that crabby neighbor and that angry teacher and that silly uncle and that impatient friend can all fit inside it—and you’ll all get the same wage, the same product, the same result:  everlasting life, forgiveness of sins, and salvation.  That’s not fair, but it is something to stomp and scream about, so that everyone can hear the good news!  Thanks be to God!  AMEN

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