Wednesday, September 21, 2011
It ain't fair, Lord!
Every now and then something happens when you sit back and think, "Well, that's weird." If you were listening to the Gospel for today, you may have thought to yourself, "Well, that's weird." It is certainly an odd situation. Laborers are called to work. The call goes out at different times throughout the day. Some worked the whole day and others barely worked at all. Then when it came to the pay off, the first and the last of the laborers received exactly the same wages. Who does that? What might seem fair to the first one who went to work was lavishly generous for the last worker and therefore it seems completely unfair. Who can understand such foolish generosity? Well, who can understand the grace of God?
The perspective of the laborer seeks fairness and equity. You get what you pay for and you pay the laborer what he deserves. That is the principle at work in the marketplace. In order to know if what the laborer gets for his labors is fair, you have to know what others are getting. You get what is fair with respect to your peers. You get what is agreed upon, what has been negotiated. These are the ways of the marketplace, this is the stuff of labor law, and this is why we have unions working on behalf of workers. The goal is for the worker to be treated fairly, equitably, and respectfully. We get this. We sympathize with the worker. It just does not seem fair.
Well, lets unpack this a little further. This is told by Jesus to the twelve disciples. They had been arguing about who was greatest in the kingdom of God. So Jesus speaks to them of the value of a child, of the glory of being the servant, of forgiveness offered seventy times seven to the guilty. It is as if the disciples are being reminded over and over God’s mercy is your undeserved justice.
If you look at this in more depth, the whole framework of this parable is between the master who acts justly (not quite the same as fairly) and the laborers who complain that his justice is not enough. They want more. We come to God thinking it is justice we want and Jesus is telling us that God has given us more – He has given us mercy – not what we want but what we need. The goal of faith is to be content with this – with what God gives, with just what we need – without burning with desire for more or complaining to God for more.
We seek rewards. We seek compensation commensurate with the value we have assigned to ourselves and what we do. We want to be noticed and appreciated. We want at least what we had planned on and we expect to be surprised with generosity which is more. But God deals in another currency. God gives us not justice or equity or fairness. God gives us mercy and this mercy is just enough, just what we need, whether we are first or last.
According to justice, what we deserve for our labors is death. We all remember the famous words of St. Paul. "The wages of sin is death." If God were fair, there would be no mercy, only what is fair. Only death. The fair wages for what we have thought, said, and done is death. Death plain and simple. Those who would ask for more should begin right here.
Whether we are the first of those whom God has called or the johnny come latelys who barely sneak in under the deadline. Death is our justice. But God is determined not to be just but to be merciful. God gives us what we need – mercy. He gives us what we need. He gives the guilty forgiveness, the sinful righteousness, and the dying life. As long as we look only through the eyes of fairness and equity, we will complain that God is not fair with us. But if we will look from the eyes of God we will see that His mercy is beyond expectation, lavish, extravagant, and downright unbelievable.
I am convinced that the default position of our hearts and minds is to complain. Call it sin. Call it ingratitude. Call it pride. Whatever you call it, we continue to complain that when God gives us what we need, it is not enough and not all that we deserve. It takes nothing less than the Spirit to open our eyes and hearts to see that it is not justice which we should settle for but the full measure of extravagant grace and lavish mercy that God offers. To the first, the middle and the last, it is the same – just what we need to save us.
God's generosity is a scandal to us. He continues to seek out even when He already has laborers. This is generosity. His generous Word extends the call – morning, noon, afternoon, and evening. It is a generous Word. He offers us reward – not the reward we expect but a reward beyond all expectation or comprehension. God never gives us less but always more. We show the poverty of our vision and understanding when we hold in our hand what Jesus' suffering and death has accomplished and then complain that it is not fair, not enough, or less because this sinner or that received the very same thing. We lament and begrudge God's generosity to others as if it somehow diminishes what He has given to us.
Who can understand the grace of God? No one. No one can understand it. You can’t. I can’t. His ways are not our ways. His grace is not there for our understanding. His grace is there for us to receive, rejoice, and share. Grace does not require understanding – just the little "Amen" of faith that says "Thank you, Lord. What You have given is more than I deserve but just enough to meet my need. It is just enough to relieve me of my terrible burden of sin, guilt, and death. It is all I need.”
Unfortunately, we have trouble letting go of this notion of fairness. We complain and complain and complain. We whine to God. We whine to whom ever will listen. We get ourselves all bent out of shape because we were not noticed or appreciated or thanked. It is not fair. Like the disciples of old we see only ourselves. Well, thanks be to God that He is not fair. If He were fair, we would stand condemned. But because He is merciful, the last are first, the guilty forgiven, the dying reborn. Is it enough for you? Amen.