Sunday, September 20, 2020

Sermon: “It’s Not (Supposed to Be) Fair”, Matthew 20:1-15 (September 20, 2020)


Are you ever surprised by how many scripture passages remind you of parental lessons from your childhood, or is it just me? It’s almost as if…our parents knew what they were talking about. Weird, huh? When I read this week’s passage, all I could hear was my mom’s voice saying, “You and your sister have different needs, so you get treated differently. It’s not about being fair; it’s about doing what’s best for each of you.” Interestingly, I remember being most incensed about this argument when my sister was allowed to get her ears pierced much earlier than I’d been allowed to, but I digress. The point is that, regardless of what my childish sense of justice perceived as fair, it was my parents’ job and prerogative to distribute resources (and ear piercings) based on what they determined each of us needed to survive and thrive. If that meant that one of us got a better “deal” than the other, well, that was their call. I think that most of us adults would agree that this is the right and proper way for such decisions to be made: not based on what’s objectively “fair”, but what the guardian believes is best.

Funny, though, how as soon as this lesson leaves the context of children and their caretakers, it suddenly sounds outrageous to us. Even though it’s his right as the boss, the idea that a landowner would pay his employees a full wage regardless of how long they worked is, frankly, offensive to our understanding of how the world is supposed to operate. I get that the roles of a parental figure and a business owner are different in our society: a guardian’s job is to provide for another person regardless of what they get in return, while a business owner’s job is to pay employees a wage based on the amount of work they do. An unconditional nurturing role versus a transactional economic one. And yet, Jesus chose an economic illustration for this parable intended to undermine the concept of “fairness”. It just doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

We’re not the first to find all this difficult to comprehend. Imagine the early Church’s Jewish audience hearing this parable for the first time. They weren’t a somehow more benevolent society than we are; they were human. They, too, had well-established ideas of fairness and entitlement. In fact, they might have been even MORE scandalized by this parable than we are. See, the Jewish faith is built around God’s covenant with Abraham, and while we often talk about it in terms of a promise, the Abrahamic Covenant is actually based on something called a Suzerainty Treaty.

A Suzerainty Treaty is a legally binding contract between two parties of unequal power. The covenant between Abraham and God follows a nearly identical form and uses the same type of language. This wasn’t just a friendly agreement; it was a legally binding pact. The expectations of each party were clearly delineated, and there were consequences for failing to fulfill one’s obligations. (This is why groups like the Pharisees and Sadducees were so concerned with orthopraxy—it was their attempt to uphold their end of the contract.) From the perspective of the very first Christians, their entire faith was founded on a legal transaction between the people and God. After all, it’s the only way to make sure that everything’s fair, and God’s nothing if not fair, right?

But they shouldn’t have been surprised to find out that God doesn’t work this way—and we shouldn’t be, either. The Jewish faith was indeed founded on a legal agreement…which the Israelites broke with astounding regularity. Even though the terms of the agreement were laid out clearly, the people continually turned to other gods, broke faith with the Lord, and disobeyed the laws given to them for their own good. And lest we fall into the trap of looking down our noses at the “poor, faithless Israelites,” we do this, too—all of it—and with equally astounding regularity. We worship the gods of money and nationalism; we abandon the Lord when we find God’s values inconvenient; we disobey even the simplest command to love our neighbor.

And yet, God doesn’t repay us with what’s “fair”. If God did, we’d be in big trouble. But God doesn’t stop providing for us; God doesn’t withdraw the Good News from us; God doesn’t abandon us. God persists in “paying [us] what is right”…because to God, “what is right” doesn’t mean what’s fair, but what’s righteous. Fairness doesn’t have a place in God’s world. And that’s really good news to sinners like all of us.

But notice that Jesus didn’t say, “This is what God is like,” (even though it is). He said, “This is what the [whole] kingdom of heaven is like.” It’s difficult for us to conceptualize an entire society, an entire existence centered around empathy and generosity instead of fairness. I wonder if, maybe, Jesus is deliberately trying to push our buttons here. Most of us spend our lives moving between multiple spheres of being that we keep largely separate: our work, our families, our friends, and so on. We have one set of expectations in our familial relationship, and another in our professional ones.

But that’s not what the kingdom of heaven is like. There aren’t different departments with different rules of behavior in the kingdom of heaven; there aren’t different standards depending on who you’re interacting with. It’s God’s Kingdom, with one set of values and one set of rules that everyone lives by at all times: God’s. And it’s pretty clear, from this parable and from every word out of Jesus’ mouth, that God’s Kingdom is ruled by abundant mercy and extravagant generosity. Not towards some people, not under certain circumstances, but always. None of us have earned it, but ALL of us receive it…because it’s what we need.

Think about what that really means. It means that in the kingdom of heaven, people who never cry out to God until their very last breath get the same salvation as people with lifelong faith. It means that those who only help others when it benefits them are fed just as much as those who spend every spare moment of their life doing volunteer work. It means that the ones who rarely give God a second thought are loved and cared for exactly as much as the ones who devote their entire lives to studying theology. It means that in the kingdom of heaven, every effort is equally celebrated and every need is met, regardless of what was (or wasn’t) done to earn it. Our “yes” is far more important to God than what comes after it. This isn’t hyperbole or some sort of metaphor; this is literally how the kingdom of heaven actually operates.

If you’re thinking that this sort of society, one where everyone gets what they need regardless of what they’ve done to earn it, is great in theory but unrealistic for human society, you should go ahead and let God know. Because God apparently hasn’t gotten the memo. All the way back in Genesis, God set aside the children of Abraham for this very work: to bless all of creation by bringing God’s kingdom here “on earth as it is in heaven”. It’s not just something for us to look forward to when we die or when Jesus returns. It’s something that we’re supposed to be creating here, with the lives that we’ve been given now. Not only does God reject the idea that this kingdom is unrealistic for humanity, but God insists that it’s OUR JOB to make it happen.

This work has been ongoing for thousands of years, so we’re not going to be able to make it happen all at once. We’re not expected to overthrow the global government and proclaim Jesus as king of the world over a long weekend, but we ARE supposed to orient our whole selves—our minds, our actions, our votes, our gifts, our voices—towards transforming this world into the kingdom of heaven. Even when it seems like an impossible task, we’re still called to work towards it stubbornly and uncompromisingly, fairness be darned.

When it finally arrives in full glory, this kingdom that we’re building will be like a landowner paying every worker a living wage, regardless of how much work they’d done. It’ll be like a society whose members are more concerned with what others need than with what they themselves deserve. It’ll be like a mother assuring her daughters that everyone’s ears will be pierced when it’s the right time for them. Actually, scratch that. That’s not what the kingdom of heaven will be like. It’s what the kingdom of heaven on earth will be.

The kingdom is at hand. Can you feel it? It may seem far away, but the more we act as if it’s already here, the more and more it will naturally begin to unfold in front of our eyes. I have faith in God’s promise. I believe that we can bring about the kingdom of heaven. The question is…when will we leave behind the idol of fairness in order to make room for it? May today be that day. Amen.

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