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Why Is God Unfair?

Sermons On The Gospel Readings
Series II, Cycle A
One of my favorite courses to teach is "Introduction to Biblical Literature." It is a 200-level course, and therefore only open to upperclassmen. These are college students who have already been around the block once or twice, and they know the rules of the game for getting good grades.

Because the course is a biblical survey, there is a lot of material to cover, and little that can be pursued in depth. Yet, I want my students to think theologically, so I place before the group every year one question that I tell them will be on the final exam. I will ask them to give me some comprehensive ideas for why these writings are collected into the single book we call the Bible, and how this idea weds them together in some form of literary or theological or structural unity.

I tell them that they need to do well on this question above all, and that if they don't give a reasonably appropriate answer, they will not be able to get a high grade for the course. Furthermore, I assure them that I want everyone to pass, and that I would love for all to get an A. To that end, I will help each of them as much as I am able to. They may see me at my office, or correspond with me by way of email. But they must do the work. If they don't do the work, they cannot get the grade.

Sounds reasonable, doesn't it? "You get what you deserve," we say. "He had it coming." "She made her own bed; now she has to lie in it." These are proverbs we use to highlight the fact that ours is a moral universe, and there are causes and effects within the system. More than that, we believe that God made the world in this way, and holds it to certain measures of justice that are not arbitrary.

This Isn't The Way We Like Our Religion
So Jesus' parable at the beginning of Matthew 20 catches us by surprise. The kingdom of heaven is like people working in a vineyard. Some are hired at the crack of dawn, others mid-morning or noon or sometime in the afternoon, and some are even brought to the field just as dusk is setting in. All get paid. But to the chagrin of those who toiled all day, the wage is the same for everybody. No one gets compensated more for greater effort or longer hours. In fact, the inequity of the situation is publicly displayed, for the paymaster deliberately makes a show of giving the late-comers their big bonus in front of all the rest, and then very obviously ignores the extra toil of the strong ones who accomplished more than a dozen times the work of the new guys.

Someone ought to report Jesus to the labor relations board. He either needs to learn a lesson or two in economics, or we would like him to move to another town so he doesn't destroy our lives and livelihoods here.

We have to admit it: According to Jesus' parable, God is unfair. He gives all the same reward regardless of the hours of labor. I remember the stir caused by reports that Jeffrey Dahmer, convicted of so many murders, had become a devout Christian in his short time before execution. There was even a push by some to get his sentence commuted, since he now espoused a faith that changed his behavior and caused him to be sorry for his sins of the past.

That news was greeted with incredulity, of course. Many were suspect of a last-hour conversion. They thought Dahmer was probably trying to manipulate the system in order to save his life. Who wouldn't confess to a little religion if it kept one away from the execution chamber?

But there were others who were indignant on more confessional grounds. Dahmer was a murderer, a deliberate killer who stalked his victims, played with their bodies and their psyches, tortured many of them, and took their lives with cold-blooded calculation before going on to do it all over again. Here is a man (if we can call him that) who showed no remorse and who violated ever humane and moral principle. He does not deserve favor from us or mercy from God. If God grants Jeffrey Dahmer mercy, would we want to be covered under the same umbrella?

For most of us this discussion feels edgy and raw, but it doesn't grab us entirely. We can sit on the sidelines and watch other people debate and wrestle. But I know a family whose daughter lived three blocks from where Jeffrey Dahmer was during much of the time that he was murdering others her age. And I know one family who lost their daughter to a murderer like Dahmer. For them the mercy of God is a matter of serious mishandling if it reaches too far into these lives who brushed up against their own daughters at such a tragic price.

So if we run Jesus' scenario backward, from the point of view of deathbed conversions of criminals and the like, we find the values he espouses even more maddening. More than that, Jesus seems to reward laziness. Some of the folks in his story came early, eager for work and looking for a job. Why should so much attention be paid to the latecomers who couldn't even get up on time in the morning?

But if God is going to reward bad behavior, what is the point of trying hard? Why live as if morals and good behavior are worth anything? What is the point of teaching public piety or instilling values in the younger members of our community? Nobody benefits in the end anyway. All get the same outcome, according to Jesus.

There are some who try to mitigate the differences in lengths of times worked by saying that the latecomers labored with greater diligence than those who were brought to the vineyard early. In the Jerusalem Talmud, there is a very similar story told through the mouth of Rabbi Zeira. He was giving the funeral oration at the premature death of young Rabbi Bun who died when he was 28. This would have been around 300 BC, for Rabbi Bun's father Rabbi Hiyya can be dated to those years.

Rabbi Zeira told a parable about workers on a king's estate who were hired at different times but received the same pay. This was his way of trying to explain the young man's seemingly untimely death. He said that when the workers were presented to the king for payment at the end of the day, all were given the same wage. "We have been working hard all the day, and this one who only labored two hours receives as much salary as we do," the full-day workers complained to the king.

"It is because he has done more in two hours than you in the entire day," came the response.

This, then, fueled Rabbi Zeira's eulogistic homily. "In the same manner [Rabbi Bun], although he had only studied the law up to the age of 28, knew it better than a learned man or a pious man who would have studied it up to the age of 100 years." According to his telling of the parable, the wages are earned appropriately, for the last who were hired worked harder than the first, and accomplished more.

Yet, Jesus won't give us that room for interpretation. He clearly says that the last to be hired have been "idle" all day (Matthew 20:6-7), not just preparing for harder work. No, there is no way that we can make Jesus come out resonating with justice in the telling of this tale.

Even the way in which the pay is handed out at the end of the day is infuriating. Since those who came to work most recently are told to get their reward first, everyone gets to see what it is they earned. And it far exceeds their expectations, since it is the going rate for a full day's work. Talk among the earlier hires is mixed. Some are excited, thinking that this master is incredibly generous, and that they should be making three or six or even ten times as much as these slackers, if their reckoning is correct. Others grow quickly suspicious that the owner of the vineyard is out to lunch at best, or an insensitive fool at worst, as they watch others moving ahead to take exactly what the first were paid. If the guy in charge wanted to deal in several pay scales at least he should be more discreet about it. Because of his open partiality he now has a mad mob forming. The earliest to be hired and last to be paid are ready to revolt and take by force what they believe is coming to them.

This is not a good story, Jesus. It violates our senses and sensibilities!

But maybe we need to read it again. Let's give Jesus the benefit of the doubt and assume that this parable, like his others, is on track with divine wisdom, and that there is another, better interpretation that we miss at first glance.

What Time Of The Day Were You Hired?
Indeed, if you think about it, there is a strangeness about the way that we tend to jump into Jesus' story. We assume quickly that we are part of the group of workers hired early in the day. Maybe that has to do with our years as faithful church members. Maybe we get that from the historic strength of the church in our communities or nation. Maybe we see those who have been objects of our denominational mission efforts as the newbies on the block.

But why should we view it that way? Why do we have this secret suspicion that someone else is getting a better deal than we are? Perhaps Jesus is trying to point that out to us, along with his first listeners. Maybe we need to reposition ourselves in the parable in order to appreciate the character of grace. It may well be that we are the last to arrive, that the Israelites of the Old Testament are the early workers, and that we are getting the good deal called grace.

Are You Getting What You Bargained For?
There is a second thing that is bothersome in the story, if you think about it for a while. Those who were first hired actually bargained for what they received at the end of the day. They do not agree to work for the master of the vineyard until they have put their demands on the table and have sufficiently assured themselves that they will get what they earn, what they think they deserve.

While we may have problems with the lavish graciousness of the master toward those who begin the workday late, we ought also to be a bit queasy about those who make these kinds of deals. In the work places of our lives it is a healthy thing to bargain well for fair wages. But there is something insidious and bordering on evil when other forms of relationship take on measured tones of such justice. Think, for instance, of a child who argues that she or he deserves a bigger allowance because of work done around the house. If all the expenses of that household were assigned in proportion to all the income generated by members of that family, what would a truly fair allowance for a nine-year-old be? In reality, she or he should be working 1,000 lemonade stands just to get food into the kitchen and have a place to sleep.

Once a relationship of trust and love and care is reduced to monetary value, it destroys the fiber of the bond itself. That is why divorce settlements are often so acrimonious. What was begun as a sharing of lives has suddenly devolved into the apportionment of assets. It has to be done, of course, but it violates everything that was taking place when the wedding vows were spoken.

Helmut Thielicke remembered an occasion when that came home to him. He was serving as a hospital chaplain for a time, and noticed the extraordinary care of one particular nurse. She was usually working the night shift, but never used the slower time as a means to slack or loaf. Instead, she was constantly busy, checking every patient on a very regular schedule, and often holding hands with those who were fearful of surgery, praying with the dying, and reading to those who could not sleep for pain or worry.

Thielicke stopped to thank her for her marvelous nursing care. It seemed to make such a difference for those whom he came to visit as a pastor. He asked her if she ever tired of her exhausting hours and often thankless job.

"Not at all," she told him. "In fact, every night I am adding jewels to my crown."

That took him aback, so he asked her what she meant. "Our Lord has promised to reward our good deeds," she replied. "If my tally is correct, I now have 1,374 jewels in my crown in heaven."

Suddenly, wrote Thielicke, he saw her through new eyes. The person he had admired for her inner beauty, tender care, and sacrificial service became in an instant a greedy religious ogre, choosing to locate herself in spots where more heavenly goods could be looted from her unsuspecting prey. It made him sick.

So it should. We only have to remember another story of Jesus, the one we call the prodigal son, to see this crassness reflected back to us in a similar way. There, if you recall, the older brother to the young man who left and squandered his inheritance was irate at the party given when the shiftless fellow returned home. He brazenly reminded their father that he, the more responsible son, had stayed home all these years and had slaved in the fields. Surely he deserved a bigger party and a better piece of the pie than he appeared to be getting.

But his self-centeredness and mercenary spirit were clearly at odds with the character of the Father and the values of the kingdom. So, too, the bargaining that takes place at the beginning of the day in this parable, and then again at the end. "Didn't you bargain for what you got?" the early hires are asked. "Why do you think that is unfair? You are only getting what you thought you were worth." And maybe that is the problem. When we try to mark a service with some value, invariably the price tags never fit.

Who Are You Working For?
There is one other almost deceptively hidden odd point about the story as Jesus tells it. Where is the landowner throughout the tale? It is his estate, his vineyard, and his work that is being done. Yet, he seems to spend most of his time out in the marketplace looking for people. There is a strangeness about his priorities that is at odds with the values driving at least some of the workers. The owner is interested in people and their well-being to a degree not found among the rest. They are good workers, or they are mercenary hires, but they do not have the same care for one another as the master of the estate exhibits.

It is a sobering thought in our consumerist age. Christians are often willing to be classified merely as "church goers," and congregational life in our world is caught up with worship wars and herd-like rushes to the newest and latest and most experiential fads in the next "prevailing" ministry on the block. Church attendance follows value of presentation, so that there is often a direct link between what is given and what is received.

But where is the master of the house in all of this bargaining for better church conditions and greater rewards for service? According to Jesus' tale, he is out in the marketplace looking for those who don't have what it takes to be fully human or fully alive. Maybe it is not so important to God whether we get much out of worship services; maybe we ought to be renegotiating the values of our hearts to see whether our "needs" are tracking with that of the master.

There is something terribly shocking about this parable that alerts us again to the radical meaning of grace. After the initial wonder of our salvation wears off we quickly become merely religious. And in that devolution there is great danger.

No Longer Surprised By Grace?
One college professor presented his class syllabus on the first day of the new semester. He pointed out that there were three papers to be written during the term, and he showed on which days those assignments had to be handed in. He said that these dates were firmly fixed, and that no student should presume that the deadline did not apply to her or him. He asked if the students were clear about this, and all heads nodded.

When the first deadline arrived, all but one student turned in their papers. The one student went to the professor's office and pleaded for more time -- just a single day! The student spoke of illness and hardships that had prevented him from completing the assignment, but all the research was finished, and a few more hours would allow the paper to be ready. The professor relented, and granted a one-day extension without penalty. The student was extremely grateful, and sent a note thanking the professor profusely.

When the second deadline arrived, three papers were missing from the pile of student productions. The student who had previously asked for an extension was back, and so were two others with him. As before, all the reasons expressed for failure to complete the assignment were touching and moving and tear-jerking, and the professor again allowed some latitude. The deadline was set aside, and the papers were required by the end of the week. A veritable chorus of praise filled the professor's small office, and blessings were heaped upon him.

When the third due date arrived, the professor was inundated with requests for extensions. Nearly a quarter of the class begged for more time -- so many other assignments and tests were due, so many books still needed to be read, so much work was required this late in the semester. But this time the professor held firm. No extensions were to be given. Grades would be marked lower for tardiness. Stunned silence filled the classroom.

The large delegation that met the professor in the hallway near his office was very vocal in their anger. "You can't do this to us! It isn't fair!"

"What isn't fair?" asked the professor. "At the beginning of the term you knew the due date of each paper and you agreed to turn in your work at those times."

"But you let so-and-so have extensions. You can't tell us now that we can't have a few extra days."

"Maybe you are right," said the professor. He opened his grade book and made a rather public subtraction from the grades given to the four former late papers. Each of those students, now also in this group, protested loudly. "You can't do that, Professor! That's not fair!"

"What's not fair?" asked the professor. "Justice or mercy?" The question blanketed them heavily as each student silently slipped away. And the professor? When he reported the incident to others, he simply concluded (paraphrasing Henry Higgins from My Fair Lady), "They'd grown accustomed to my grace!"

We grow easily accustomed to God's grace. We need to become "Wow!"ed again by the amazing thing that happens when God chooses to start over in love toward us, even after the "Great Syllabus" demands a divine reckoning.

In her wonderful collection of poetry called, The Awful Rowing Toward God, Anne Sexton examines her life like someone in a canoe rowing against the stream of life, encountering hazards along the way, and finally docking at the island of God's home. The concluding poem in the book is called "The Rowing Endeth." In it she sees herself called by God's great laughter to join him for a game of poker. When the cards are dealt, she is surprised and thrilled. She has a royal straight flush. She will trounce God and win for herself whatever prizes God has brought to the table. In great excitement she slaps down her cards, claiming her winnings. Nothing can beat this hand!

But God only laughs, a great, rolling, joyful exuberance that energizes everything around. In rich good humor, with no malice at all, God throws down his cards. Five aces! That's impossible! But there it is. And when Anne loses to God, she knows that really she wins. For God is not stingy with his wealth or his earnings. There are never any losers when they sit at table with God. God's laughter is always without malice or one-upmanship.

This is the gospel according to Jesus' parable. In spite of our good fortunes or savvy playing skills or sheer hard work, we never really win at the game of life when we play it by our own rules. But if God is bending them in the direction of grace, something wonderful always happens. Amen.
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