Tricky Jesus 4 - God is not fair

Brenda Rockell
Sunday, 25 September 2011

I have often remembered a prayer of confession that Kimberley led us in years ago. She shared with us this idea – that she'd heard in a class with David Crawley – that life in the realm of God takes us 'beyond the norm of reciprocity.' We reflected on the ways our lives reflect the assumption of reciprocity...the Christmas card sent to the person who we know always sends one back, and the removal from the list of people who haven't reciprocated for a few years. The dinner invitation that is extended with the expectation there will be an invitation in return. The favour granted to someone who is likely to have the time or resources at some point in the future to do a favour for us.


Some might say that this reciprocal nature of generosity, care, or interest is embedded in our evolutionary history – that altruism was part of the 'survival of the fittest' provided it was limited to those who could do us good in return. Others might say it's just a sensible stewarding of our limited time and resources. But Jesus seems to say that God's ways are not like that, and therefore, neither should ours be. Jesus seems to say that 'doing the decent thing' as it's understood in our reciprocal society - and expecting to be counted righteous for it - is simply not interesting to God. 'Even the gentiles and tax collectors do that', Jesus would say. Too often, the Christian life has been co-opted by a socially acceptable commitment to 'common sense', to niceness within limits, to not being too extreme about things. But the definitions of love and grace that come through the teaching of Jesus are not at all socially acceptable. They are about overflow, abundance, undeserving, un-earnedness, and to us, often have the appearance of unfairness.


In the rich West we live in a meritocracy. In New Zealand we may reject the idea of social class or caste, but we still have notions of deserving and undeserving. This notion isn't so much tied to inherited land or wealth, but instead to whether or not someone is a 'good sort'...defined by ideas of fair play, hard work, and participation in the system of reciprocity – you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. Our notions of 'fairness' often don't have much to do with real justice. Mostly, they're to do with the kind of life that we think we deserve for playing by the rules. It offends us when things are 'unfair,' whether this is a bad reffing decision in a sports match, or when someone other than a 'good kiwi battler' wins the lottery, or when a hard worker is laid off from their job.


Let's hear a parable of Jesus.



'Now the kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner going out at daybreak to hire workers for his vineyard. He made an agreement with the workers for one denarius a day and sent them to his vineyard. Going out at about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place and said to them, "You go to my vineyard too and I will give you a fair wage." So they went. At about the sixth hour and again at about the ninth hour, he went out and did the same. Then at about the eleventh hour he went out and found more men standing around, and he said to them, "Why have you been standing here idle all day?" "Because no one has hired us," they answered. He said to them, "You go into my vineyard too."

In the evening, the owner of the vineyard said to his bailiff, "Call the workers and pay them their wages, starting with the last arrivals and ending with the first." So those who were hired at about the eleventh hour came forward and received one denarius each. When the first came, they expected to get more, but they too received one denarius each. They took it, but grumbled at the landowner saying, "The men who came last have done only one hour, and you have treated them the same as us, though we have done a heavy day's work in all the heat." He answered one of them and said, "My friend, I am not being unjust to you; did we not agree on one denarius? Take your earnings and go. I choose to pay the lastcomer as much as I pay you. Have I no right to do what I like with my own? Why should you be envious because I am generous?" Thus the last will be first, and the first, last.'

Matthew 20:1-16


It is possible to read this parable as illustrating the way God's salvation was being broadened from the elect people, the Jews, to the late-coming Gentile converts. We can imagine that the early Christian church might have had some tensions between these groups, as they struggled with this completely new experience of seeing each other as equal in God's eyes. But I also think it's reasonable to hear this parable for us as a reflection of who and how God always is, and the nature of God's economy over against human ways.


What I find particularly interesting about this parable is the question of where we identify. Do you hear this parable as an encouragement to you as someone often chosen last, someone often passed over by life's rewards, someone with a limp or a sore hand that might make you an unlikely labourer...and therefore one of those still standing in the marketplace at the end of the day expecting to go home once again with empty hands to a hungry family? Or do you hear this parable as one of those who started work early in the morning, who probably did a bit more even than what was required, who didn't stop for lunch because there was so much work to do, and then gets to the end of the day and sees someone who worked for an hour walking off with the same pay?

Depending on your answer to this question, this parable will have a very different flavour. Personally, I resonate more with this second type, the hard worker, who like the older brother in the story of the prodigal son, is more likely to struggle with resentment than the effects of marginalisation. And so I am tempted to hear this as a story about how God is manifestly unfair. This is a parable that doesn't sit easily with an Enneagram type 1!


In the past I would have interpreted this parable as a reminder that not everyone is as fortunate as me, and as a prompt to be more gracious in accepting God's generosity and care for those whom I might tend to resent. And as a reminder of God's sovereignty – who are we after all to question God's decisions? But I wonder now if this parable isn't about something more radical than that, and if it isn't asking something more radical from me. Because those former interpretations didn't change my self-perception at all. Both of them enabled me to go on seeing myself as the 'first hired', as someone essentially deserving – and, hidden within that, to still see other people as 'getting away with something,' even though the parable asks me not to feel annoyed about that.


But as I ponder that parables are like portals to an alternative world, with alternative values, I notice that this parable is inviting me to see myself and others on a completely different axis than deserving and undeserving. In this unseen yet ever-present world of God's kingdom, the very notions of deserving and undeserving, of fair and unfair, are irrelevant. This parable exposes the flawed premise that people should be judged on the basis of what they have done. God's provision and God's generosity flow continuously toward the whole of humanity, including every person regardless of their behaviour. The world we create for ourselves might be a meritocracy but God's world is not. So equal pay for equal work might be a useful idea within the narrow parameters of our human economy but it's not an idea that has any traction when it comes to who deserves love. The ways of God when judged by our human tendency to weigh and measure may seem unfair. But if I am perceiving them as unfair that probably means that I have misidentified myself as someone who has merit on my own terms. In reality, I am neither more, nor less, than any other person. The 'I' that is pleased with itself when it does good, and that is disappointed or angry when goodness is not returned in equal measure, is the ephemeral 'I' of the ego. It's not who I am in God. Who I really am is an image bearer of God, loved and enjoyed by God for no reason at all, except that this is who God is.


The teachings of Jesus depict a flow of grace, goodness, provision and forgiveness that is available to all regardless of merit. Except. There's a caution. It's possible to block the flow, and to allow our human fears and commitment to reciprocity not only to impoverish others but also to impoverish ourselves.


Here's another parable:


'And so the kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a king who decided to settle his accounts with his servants. When the reckoning began, they brought him a man who owed ten thousand talents (more than $60,000,000); he had no means of paying, so his master gave orders that he should be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, to meet the debt. At this, the servant threw himself down at his master's feet, with the words, "Be patient with me and I will pay the whole sum." And the servant's master felt so sorry for him that he let him go and cancelled the debt.

Now as this servant went out, he happened to meet a fellow-servant who owed him one hundred denarii (less than $200); and he seized him by the throat and began to throttle him, saying, "Pay what you owe me." His fellow-servant fell at his feet and appealed to him, saying, "Be patient with me and I will pay you." But the other would not agree; on the contrary, he had him thrown into prison till he should pay the debt.

His fellow-servants were deeply distressed when they saw what had happened, and they went to their master and reported the whole affair to him. Then the master sent for the man and said to him, "You wicked servant, I cancelled all that debt of yours when you appealed to me. Were you not bound, then, to have pity on your fellow-servant just as I had pity on you?" And in his anger the master handed him over to the torturers till he should pay all his debt. And that is how my heavenly Father will deal with you unless you each forgive your brother from your heart.'

Matthew 18:23-35


This principle of forgiving others as we have been forgiven is core to Jesus' teaching, and in this instance he uses quite sharp and harsh terms to get his point across. I don't think Jesus is just referring to matters of inter-personal hurt or relationship breakdown, which is how we tend to interpret forgiveness in our lives today. In the case of this parable the forgiveness is of debt – as indeed it is in Matthew's version of the Lord's Prayer. And a debt can be anything that is owed...not just money but anything that has been given to meet another's need.


In order fully to appreciate the 'as' part of the phrase 'forgive as you have been forgiven' it's important not to get locked into a tit for tat mentality. It's not a question of measuring out the hand we've been dealt and then making sure our own generosity is a good match. It's not a question of saying 'well, I've only been forgiven a small amount, so I only have to forgive a small amount.' Or 'nobody has treated me very well, so why should I be kind and gracious to others?' This kind of 'parcelling out' of favour goes right against Jesus' message. It's like waiting to see what kind of birthday present you get from a friend before deciding what you're going to get them on their birthday, in order to be sure you don't spend too much.


Rather, Jesus is inviting us to get into the flow of God's generosity, and to make it our life's practice to 'pass it on.' What he's saying is that we're all already on the receiving end of God's constant and ongoing giving – whether that's the basic provision of our lives and well-being, this earth and its goodness – or whether it's the more specific generosity of God in forgiving us and patiently calling us home to our senses. It is in the very nature of Christ to give: this one who came to serve us to the point of giving his life for the redemption of humanity – this Christ is still pouring out his Spirit and his love into our lives to the extent that we are open to receive it. And also to the extent that we are willing and open to let it flow out from us and on to others too. Learning to live with an open hand – open to receive love, open to give love – is what Jesus is teaching us here. And it's so easy to block that flow – just by going like this: [clenching hand] Let's look at this fist. I notice two things: firstly, now that it's closed it's not able to receive any more. And secondly, it presents a violent aspect to the world, rather than a tool of kindness that can hold, give, stroke and high-five.


What causes us to close our hands? It's the same old, same old really. It's when we are afraid that there won't be any more coming our way, that it's possible to miss out on God's favour, or lose what we have, that we have to grasp on to what we have received. This impulse to look after ourselves leaves us caring only for ourselves – unable to care for others. Of course, it doesn't look as blatant as that, because we have these culturally sanctioned safe ways of giving that enable us to keep our hand closed rather than open even while we're giving. We may still feel like we're giving and receiving love and forgiveness even though we're actually entrenched in self-protection. Because what looks like generosity can still be about personal safety, if it's working on the assumption that what we give will come back to us – not from God, but from the other person. If we give only what we can be sure of receiving in return, we are careful to give only to those we consider deserving. Which brings us back around to the parable of the workers in the vineyard.


This is exactly the opposite of what Jesus is teaching. He shows us that life in God's kingdom goes beyond reciprocity because not only does love say there no such thing as deserving and undeserving, but also there is no need to look for a return from other people if we recognise that God is giving to us all the time. And because it is in the nature of God to give, we who love God are called to be conduits of God's beneficence. In Luke 14, we have this example: “When you give a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relations or rich neighbours, in case they invite you back and so repay you. No; when you have a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; then you will be blessed, for they have no means to repay you and so you will be repaid when the upright rise again.”


Even though Jesus uses a future image of 'reward' in this instance, in other teachings it's clear that generosity or forgiveness operate much more like a river that's always flowing. The servant in parable was granted a tremendous gift – a ridiculously large debt cancelled. Had he been able to really receive that gift with thankfulness and an open hand, when confronted with the need of his fellow-servant, he would have been free to forgive and pass on the blessing that he had received. The flow of God's care and generosity would have moved through him to another, and supposing that person was also standing in that same river of receptivity, to another and another. I believe that this is how life is meant to work, and also that it's not all that hard. It's not about screwing up our will power to make large and sacrificial gestures of giving without expectation of reward. Actually it's not about focusing on the 'giving' aspect at all. It's about simply paying enough non-judgemental attention to the pattern of our lives to notice how much we are being given all the time. And I'm not talking about 'stuff' – material things – though God provides these too. But all the bounty of God's love and grace. To receive well, with thankfulness and gratitude for all of life's blessings, is the key to giving well – spontaneously and freely and without thought of reciprocity. Because when we can receive, without fear or grasping, and when we can trust that God is always giving to us, then giving to others becomes simply a matter of letting God act through us, with the energy of self-giving that is the very nature of God.


So I invite us to ponder –

How is the cultural norm of reciprocity operating in my life?

To what extent do I believe that God only gives to me when I am deserving? (And that others also need to be deserving of my care and forgiveness?)

What would it mean in practice to notice and receive the gifts of God in the reality of each day?

What causes my hand to be open or closed in relation to all that God offers me?