Genesis 15:1-6, Luke 3:8, Matthew 20:1-16
You know the story. The owner hires different workers at different times. That means the workers work different amounts. Yet, at the end of the day, each worker is paid the same amount. And the laborers are upset about this. They feel this is unjust. They feel that those who have worked for longer should be paid more. And they are angry.
We can relate to this right? We want life to be fair, we struggle when it isn’t. And, as people who have control sometimes over what others have or received, I think we spend a lot of time trying to figure out what is fair. As parents, grandparents, and guardians, especially, we work to be fair. To use some less serious examples: In our family, for example, Jasmyn got to go out with her grandparents for “special birthday time” starting when she turned 5 or six. The grandparents felt that it wasn’t “fair” for the younger kids to get to go out that young so they made the decision to wait until each child turned 5 or 6 to have that “special time” with the grandparents. Does this seem fair? Well, from a different perspective, the grandparents aren’t going to be able to take the kids out forever and each child should have the same amount of time with them, so perhaps it is more fair if each child should start at the same time being able to have that special time with their grandparents. Even with simple things, what is “fair” can be complicated.
Another less serious scenario – when I was growing up, the older child always got a bigger piece of pie or cake or whatever because they were “bigger” and needed more. Does this seem fair? With my own kids, it is my youngest child who needs the most calories and who eats the most despite being unusually skinny. How do we define fair?
When we lived in San Leandro, Jasmyn went to Head Royce, a private school. It was an amazing school that gave her basically a free ride. They were committed to diversity, to taking care of others and the planet. Part of their curriculum required each child to do some kind of community service, and they taught important values about caring for the world. However, most of the kids who attended this school were filthy rich. While Jasmyn got a free ride, fifteen years ago the tuition per child for kindergarten alone was $24,000 a year. And while they taught great values, one day Jasmyn came home and said, “Why don’t we have a play castle in our back yard? Why don’t I have my own pony? Why don’t I have my own bedroom? Why didn’t we go skiing in France for our winter vacation?” It didn’t matter what the values were that were being taught. She was put in a situation where those she compared herself to made her feel poor, made her feel that life was unfair in the way that told her that she didn’t have enough, didn’t have as much. She could have compared herself to those in our community who lived on the street. What I wanted for her was for her to realize our many, many blessing and riches and to realize that because of our blessings we have a great responsibility to care for those around us, to be as generous with others as God is with us. But instead, she had the experience of being in a place where she was the “poorest” and she left that feeling that her life was “unfair.”
But it’s not just children who experience that. I remember talking with a person who was a choir director at a large church during the time when I was the Associate pastor of music and family ministries at Bethel. He was sharing with me about the Associate pastor at the church where he was working complaining because she was being paid about 3/5 of what the senior pastor was being paid though she believed she was working much harder than he was. She was upset, but this choir director with whom I was speaking was even more upset because he said while she was complaining to him about her salary being much less than the senior pastor, her salary was much MORE than the choir director’s salary. And as I listened to him I realized that I was also feeling that it was unfair because I was working for a small, poorer congregation at the time that was paying ME much less than HE was making though I was not only the choir director, but the pianist, and the Associate Pastor in charge of all the education and family programs, as well as music programs at my church. Levels and levels of people feeling that life was unfair, unjust.
I think about the times when people have offered us grace: like the time I was pulled over for running a light that changed just as I entered the intersection, but was let off with a warning rather than being given a ticket. I normally forget about that grace that I was offered, though, when I see people speeding in their cars and find myself wishing that they would get pulled over. I find I can make assumptions about who they are, what their motives are. I fail to see with God’s eyes, eyes of compassion and understanding and insight in those moments. I want “justice” for others, by which I usually mean them having to pay, and grace for myself. I don’t think I’m alone in this.
A more serious example: How many of you have seen the movie, “the Gods Must be Crazy”? In it there is a native group of bush people who are filmed and who act in the film. After the film was made, an article was written by an anthropologist who had lived and worked with the bush people about the devastation that the filming had created for this bush tribe. There are rules, good rules, mostly that require that when anyone does work, he or she is paid for it. If a person isn’t paid, it is a kind of exploitation. But what happened in this particular case was that not everyone in the tribe was in the film. So before the film was made, everyone in the tribe had the exact same amount; everything was shared, everything was in common. It was very little, people had almost no material possessions before this film was made. But still, all the people in the tribe felt grateful, felt rich, felt they had more than enough. But then the filming crew paid some of the tribe members for their participation in the film. In so doing, they introduced inequity into the tribe. And that inequity led to a sense of unfairness on the part of those who weren’t paid. Now some had things that were just theirs, and others were lacking in those things. People began to feel poor, and eventually the tribe began to fight within itself and the tribal culture for this one group at least, was utterly destroyed. Ironically, the film that destroyed them included a story line that told its own story about this very inequity and about the dangers of “things” being introduced into these cultures.
To take this to a more serious level, we tend to say that it is unfair when people are getting unemployment. Even though the amount of money most people get through unemployment is not living wages, we still feel it is somehow “unfair” if they have not worked for that money, have not earned it. We get so upset we call them names, “welfare moms”, being one example.
The truth is from a personal perspective, in our definition of justice, nothing is EVER fair. When we fail to understand or have compassion or care for others, when we can only see from our own desires for more, from our greed, then nothing is ever fair. We don’t get what we think we deserve. Others seem to get more than we think they deserve.
But what I call us all to focus on today is the end of today’s parable, which reads, “‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
The amount that each person was paid, a denarius, was basically just enough to feed one’s family for that day. Each person was given what they needed. It is not about “deservingness”. It is about what is needed. This is a story about God’s justice which, once again, does not care about what a person has earned, does not care about how hard you’ve worked or how deserving you are or even WHO you are. God’s justice is about each person having enough. “Justice” or “fairness” is based on sufficiency of need, not all the things that we would say it’s based on.
The truth is that in our world God has given us enough. As a world, we have enough for every person, EVERY single person, to have what they need. But because of greed, some people have much, much more than they need which means there are others who do not have enough. Let me be very clear: It is completely anti-God, immoral, unethical to have more than we need when other people are starving to death. There just isn’t another way to say that. But because we know that some take more than they need, that as a result there are others who do not have enough, we become fearful people and we worry and fret about what is “fair” out of fear that we will not have enough, or we will not have what we want, or we will not have what we believe we deserve more than others. We have a mindset of scarcity. But again, this leads to unkind and unbiblical behavior. As a result of that mindset, we begrudge people even enough to feed their families, as the workers in today’s story did. They were not given less because others were given enough to eat for the day. And yet they still were grumbling, still begrudged the fact that others were given enough for the day. And that begrudging of others having enough to live another day – that is sin.
This ties directly into the biblical story of Manna in the wilderness. As Exodus 16:4- 8 says: Then the Lord said to Moses, “I’m going to make bread rain down from the sky for you. The people will go out each day and gather just enough for that day. In this way, I’ll test them to see whether or not they follow my Instruction. On the sixth day, when they measure out what they have collected, it will be twice as much as they collected on other days.” We know this story. The people in the wilderness did not have enough. So God provided for them. But what God provided was just enough for that day. If they took more than they needed, it would spoil. When we take more than we need, it spoils our hearts, it spoils our knowledge of our connections to one another, to all things, it spoils our sense of the brother and sisterhood of all life. Exodus continues, “Moses said to them, “This is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Collect as much of it as each of you can eat, one omer per person. You may collect for the number of people in your household.’ The Israelites did as Moses said, some collecting more, some less. But when they measured it out by the omer, the ones who had collected more had nothing left over, and the ones who had collected less had no shortage. Everyone collected just as much as they could eat. Moses said to them, “Don’t keep any of it until morning.” But they didn’t listen to Moses. Some kept part of it until morning, but it became infested with worms and stank. Moses got angry with them. Every morning they gathered it, as much as each person could eat. But when the sun grew hot, it melted away.” This, too, shows the justice of God. A justice that is based solely on what people need, without any reference to what people “deserve.”
We also see this in the Old Testament commandment to leave enough in our fields for the poor to glean. People were required by biblical law to leave enough produce for those who could not buy food to be able to eat each day. It is biblical law. As Deuteronomy 24:19 says: “Whenever you are reaping the harvest of your field, leave some grain in the field. Do not go back and get it. Let it go to the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows so that the Lord your God blesses you in all that you do.”
As Rev. Sandhya Jha, the director of the Peace Center said it, “What we see in this story is a redefinition of justice. Typically, we define justice as ‘what someone deserves’ based on their actions or particular qualities….But in this story, the landowner redefines justice to mean a state in which everyone receives what is fitting to a laborer, regardless of their specific actions as a laborer. This is a radically different notion of justice form our common usage. The question of deservingness is separated from action, or personal qualities, and instead centers on identity. This means that all people, as children of God, are equally deserving of the fruits of labor. In other words, it is a metaphor for God’s justice, which is a justice that gives freely to the measure that is sufficient to the needs of the person….justice or what is right is that status in which needs are met for all people equally….On God’s terms of justice, giving more to some and less to others based on merits is not right.”
What does this mean for us? Well, first, we have a choice about how we look at life. Do we focus on what is unfair? It is unfair when we work hard for little while others don’t work at all and are given much. It is unfair that we have to struggle with this challenge or that challenge while others seem to have charmed lives. It is unfair that we do our best and still go through painful situations. Life is unfair. Or we can look at the many blessings that fill our lives: Each of us seeing this, reading this, has more than enough to eat. Each of us has a bed to sleep in. We each have family and friends and a church that loves us and supports us. We have educations and vacations and toys for all ages. Our lives are filled with blessings and we can choose to focus on them and be grateful for God’s generosity to each one of us. We have much more than we need, after all.
But more deeply than that, God’s definition of justice does not take into account what people deserve and instead focuses solely on what people need. That is so hard for us to grasp, so hard for us to take in. But Jesus presents this definition of justice to us and expects us to also stand up for this justice, this image of what it is to be just. We are called not to award and discriminate based on what people “deserve” (and again for each of us what someone deserves will be different), but instead to care for and love all people, working hard to make sure they all have what they need. That is a justice that leads to peace. When people have what they need, there is room for peace, there is room for living.
I know this is a really hard concept. So I want to say it once more. What scripture shows us is God’s definition of justice is about giving everyone what they need. It is NOT about what people deserve. EVER. And we are called to strive for that same understanding of justice. I again, understand that this is hard. The good news in this is that God’s love for each of us is that we will have enough. And if we work for a world in which everyone has enough, all of us will be richer for it. God’s love is bigger than we can imagine. And we are extensions of that love to one another. Thanks be to God. Amen.