In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
“That’s not fair!” How often have you said that, how even more often felt it, this basic visceral reaction to perceived inequity we learnt so young it seems innate?
“It’s not fair!” What a powerful rallying cry this has proved throughout history, not just in the revival of Les Miserables at the Kennedy Center – what wrongs this cry has righted, what injustices corrected (at least temporarily). Surely this instinct for fairness is a noble human trait… and yet, if we try to apply this human criterion to judge God, we mislead ourselves and may miss Him altogether.
Because, you see, God is not fair – thank God! – because if “fair” means “even-handed, equitable, quid pro quo, giving a correct and impartial accounting,” then if God were “fair” we would all be doomed – as Hamlet accurately observed, “Give every man his just desserts and who would ‘scape a whipping?” – but, thanks be to God, because God is not fair but instead is incredibly extravagantly generous, then even we sinners can hope for His healing mercy now, and Heaven to come.
Does this sound odd? Don’t feel like the Lone Ranger: it sounded odd to Jesus’ disciples too. In today’s Gospel from Matthew 20 Jesus spends 16 verses spelling out to them that the generous, loving, grace/ious goodness of God goes so far beyond our human ideas of ‘fairness’ as to be of another dimension. As we sing, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy… broader than the measure of man’s mind…”
In Jesus’ parable, when they saw those who worked only one hour being given a full-day’s pay, the laborers who had borne the heat and the burden of the day all the long day long complained that “It’s not fair!” We identify with their grievance, just as we understand the elder brother of the prodigal son in Luke 15:9-30 who complained to his father that “Lo, these many years have I served you, and I never disobeyed your command: yet you never gave me a little goat that I might make merry with my friends – But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots (the self-righteous often have dirty minds), you killed for him the fatted calf!”
Certainly Jesus knew that in these parables the father of the two sons, the owner of the vineyard, weren’t being ‘fair’ by human standards. That’s precisely why he told them, trying to get across to His followers [including us] that (Isaiah 55:8) “’My ways are not your ways,’ saith the Lord.” Jesus, who alone in human history fully understood both man and God, knew that we humans can never form any clear idea of God as long as we persist in thinking that He is like us. God is not like us – thank God! – so we dare not presume to judge Him by our criteria.
That’s part of why Jesus came, to tell us about God and to be God in our midst. Jesus came to rich and to poor, to leaders and to outcastes, to religious and irreligious, to the ‘righteous’ and to sinners – and, guess what? The poor and the outcasts/outcastes, irreligious and sinners, flocked to Him, rejoiced at His teachings, worshiped Him -- and the righteous religious leaders had Him killed.
D’you know why? Because He taught the Love as well as the Justice of God: Justice, certainly, for those who reject Him or wrong others; but for all who humbly accept His love and His commandments [John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments”], to these He gives a love without limit or – this parable’s point – fairness!
Time and again Jesus demonstrated, in word and parable and by His own actions that [Luke 15:7] “There is more joy in Heaven over one sinner who repenteth, than over ninety-and-nine ‘just’ men who ‘need’ no repentance.” (Surely He chuckled a bit over that latter category.) Is this fair?
No wonder the righteous people had Him crucified! In equivalent modern terms they were cradle Episcopalians, descended from a long line of priests and bishops, perfect attendance throughout Sunday School, never missed services, always gave 10% off the top before taxes, with fine productive lives and families and good works and charities – and then some uneducated radical from the boondocks of Galilee (Virginians would say, ‘West Virginia’) proclaims that 11th-hour converts and prodigal sons, that drug-addicted AIDS-ridden muggers if they will turn to Him even in the 11th hour, will receive the same reward as they, and be equally beloved of and accepted by God!?! Impossible – Crucify Him!
And indeed they did, those soul-brothers of the elder brother and the all-day laborers, the righteous religious who felt they’d earned God’s favor – as if… as if ten lifetimes of all our labors of good-works could ever earn or merit love, much less the love of God! Think about it: If I think so well of myself that I feel I deserve, have earned, am entitled to be loved, then heaven help anyone close to me… If you’ve involved with anyone who thinks they ‘deserve’ your love, don’t walk, run.
Remember that Jesus told this parable in direct response to Peter’s self-seeking question in Matthew 19:27, “Lo, we have left everything and followed thee – what then shall we have?” What’s in it for us!? Jesus’ answer to this question, through this parable, is “You will have exactly the same as the worst life-long sinner who’s a very last-minute believer.”
We good church-going people had better get the point here, that whatever good we may do is because God of His own free love has chosen to put His love into our hearts – it’s not that we are good, but that God is good, and God is good to us, and God does good through us – and that if we ever are welcomed into Heaven, it will not be of our own merits, our own deserving, we “who can do no good thing without Thee,” but because of the radical ‘un-fairness’ of God’s own great forgiving healing and quite undeserved love for us: whatever good we do is not of our own earning, First John 4:19, “We love, because He first loved us.”
We need to have this priority clear: God comes first, we don’t. In the very first Collect for the joyous celebration of Easter Day “we humbly beseech thee that, as by thy special grace preceding us thou dost put into our minds good desires, so by thy continual help we may bring the same to good effect …”
in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.