Sunday, September 18, 2011

That's Not Fair!

A Sermon based on Jonah 3:10-4:11 and Matthew 20:1-16

That’s not fair! Having grown up with a younger brother – I both said and heard that phrase said a lot. Things were often a competition between the two of us. Fairness was, in my mind, the two of us having equal and the same (if he got 2 cookies then I got 2 cookies) – although, I could have more because I was older, (I could have a 3rd cookie) that was somehow also fair in my mind. If my brother had more of something for any reason then that was obviously unfair, unless it was more chores. He could have extra chores and that would be fair in my mind too. We shared a lot, but the difficulty of dividing things up between us depended upon how generous we were feeling at the moment.

In some ways we never really grow out of childhood. Adults still complain about what is fair or not fair all the time – and some of that complaint is warranted but much of it is not. Human beings are so egocentric that we end up measuring fairness with scales that are biased in our own favor and against others.

A sense of basic fairness, of justice is very important. Without it, no one would have challenged Jim Crow laws and apartheid and every other “separate is supposedly equal but in reality definitely is not” policy. The idea of the equality of every person, although implemented imperfectly, has led to a society where a greater number of people have more opportunities than ever before. And yet, human beings have a tendency to cling to a kind of supposed fairness that is anything but fair and just but is instead self-centered.

Jonah was an adult, but he was stuck in that childish place of “that’s not fair”. Can you believe the nerve of Jonah, to be upset about God’s mercy for Nineveh? After experiencing God’s mercy for himself and after going through so much to deliver God’s message to Nineveh, Jonah is upset because the Ninevites repented and God spared them. Jonah is upset that God is merciful.

Jonah said, “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. And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live."

Apart from being over-dramatic, Jonah is also very selfish, wanting to keep God’s mercy for himself and for Israelites. What Jonah needed to realize and accept was that God’s mercy is God’s alone to distribute as God pleases.

There have been many times in the Hebrew Scriptures where a prophet was sent to the Israelites with a message of warning, the people heeded the warning, and God was merciful and spared judgment. But this is Nineveh, the capital of Assyria which was at the time the enemy of Israel. Jonah doesn't want his nation’s enemy to survive to continue being a problem for Israel, and with good reason. In 722, the Assyrians will completely destroy the northern kingdom of Israel and turn the southern kingdom into it’s vassal. God’s mercy for Nineveh in Jonah’s time meant that in the future there would be a stronger Assyria to conquer Israel. Of course, by that time Israel and Judah would have had their own prophets and warnings that they did not listen to.

God’s mercy is God’s alone.

Jesus’ parable of the day-laborers relates this same message of God’s mercy to his audience.

Try to imagine the lot of a day laborer in Jesus’ time. Your work was very uncertain. You basically had to show up at a public square and wait until someone hired you. The healthiest, most-able bodied men would be hired first. There were usually more laborers than actual jobs that needed to be done. And there was no unemployment, no welfare, no food stamps, none of the social safety net that we have worked hard to build today. If you didn't find any work you didn't get paid and your family didn't eat.

In Jesus’ parable, a landowner hires workers for his vineyard early in the morning, and then goes back to hire others at intervals during the day.

At 5:00 in the afternoon, the landowner asks the day laborers who are left
`Why are you standing here idle all day?' They said to him, `Because no one has hired us.' These men were standing out there all day, praying for work, any work. It’s not that they were lazy and refusing to work, far from it. They were willing to go and work for an hour, knowing that they would hardly get paid anything because a little was better than nothing.

The landowner in Jesus’ parable chose to pay everyone a day’s wage, regardless of when they were hired. Those who worked all day were upset that the people who worked only one hour were paid the same as them.

Jesus tells us that they “grumbled against the landowner, saying, `These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.'”

That sentence could be summarized by the three words – that’s not fair.

Would have you been upset if you were one of those day laborers who worked all day long, hard labor in the hot blistering sun? You are probably thinking that the way I've  asked this question you should say “no, I wouldn't be upset”  - but I figure most of us would be at least a little peeved to have been paid the same as those who didn't work as long or as hard as us.

I like the landowner’s response to the grumbling employees - “He replied to one of them, `Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with 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?'

The landowner was not unfair to the folks that he hired in the morning. They agreed to work for the usual daily wage, they worked a full day and were paid for it. The landowner was perfectly fair to the people hired in the morning.

The landowner, however, was exceedingly generous to the folks hired later in the day, especially to those unfortunate to have been hired only just before the end of the day. The other workers should have been happy at their neighbor’s good fortune that those hired late would be able to provide for their families, instead of being envious.

The landowner is free to be as generous with what he owns as he wishes, just as God can be as generous and as merciful as God wants to. God’s mercy is God’s alone to distribute.

We human beings are often more like those grumbling day-laborers than we should be.

There was a comedian (Louis C.K.) on the Conan O’Brian Show years ago who talked about how “everything’s amazing and nobody is happy.” He joked about all the amazing things in our lives that we are not happy with. One example was, he was on a plane and they had this brand new high-speed internet on the flight, the internet breaks down and they apologize, but the guy next to him starts cussing. It was something that they didn't know that they had a few minutes ago, but now this guy felt entitled to it and was furious when it was taken away.

This reminds me of Jonah and the bush in today’s reading. The bush grows one day and disappears the next, Jonah does nothing to cultivate or nurture this bush. And yet Jonah feels entitled to the bush and gets upset when it dies.

It’s a very different way to live, and a much better way to live I think, when you are grateful for the amazing, incredible things in the world and strive to bring that to others who don’t have it, rather than be furious because of relatively minor setbacks or because there might be someone out there with even more than us.

There is something about human nature, due to sinfulness, that we become very selfish, even when we don’t realize it. Earlier in my sermon I said that human beings are so egocentric that we end up measuring fairness with scales that are biased in our own favor and against others. When we have been wronged we cry out for justice against those who have wronged us, but when we wrong others we cry out for mercy. I learned this from reflecting on my childhood with my brother. If I did something wrong to him, then I was sorry and he should forgive me and our parents should forget all about it. But if he did something wrong to me then I wanted justice, I felt that our parents should lay down the law. Such a system won’t work – mercy for me and justice against others.

I don’t want to place any limits to God’s mercy, I don’t want to draw a line and say “step over that and you are too far gone.” I’m so glad that mere human beings do not have this power, because if you combined all the limits and all the lines that would be drawn by people you would find out that every person that has ever lived has crossed someone’s line and we’d all end up excluded from God’s mercy.

Jonah’s story and Jesus’ parable about the day-laborers are here to tell us that while we humans might try to limit our generosity and mercy in a childish notion of fairness and try to limit God’s  likewise, but that is not God’s way. These stories teach us to be grateful for what we have and to be happy in the good fortune of others, instead of envious.

God’s mercy and generosity is God’s alone, and thank God for that! Amen .

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.