What’s Fair?

Lessons: Matthew 20:1-16

Many of Jesus’ stories illustrate what he called the Kingdom of God. In Matthew’s gospel, he calls it the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s the same thing. What he was describing was a new reality, a radically different way of being in the world and being with each other. I can’t emphasize enough – I can’t put enough exclamation points around the importance of the Kingdom of God to Jesus’ ministry and message. It was the core of what he taught, what he was pointing toward. In a nutshell: The Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven is the world – this world – as it would be if we followed God’s ways instead of human ways – and as it is, here and now, around us, in us, among us, when we do. When Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, it left his listeners then just as baffled as it leaves many of us today. He invited his audience to wonder what the world would be like if, say, we loved our enemies, or did good to those who sought to harm us, gave away our possessions, or lived as though everything we are and have belongs to God. In other words, Jesus very often didn’t make sense. So he tried to help by telling stories. We call them parables. Sometimes they touched people. Sometimes they baffled people further. Sometimes they infuriated people.

This morning’s passage is one of the infuriating parables. Some would even say offensive. Jesus says that the disciples will be rewarded beyond their imagination. But, he adds, the last will be first and the first will be last. And then he tells this story to explain what that means. A landowner goes to his town’s equivalent of Marin’s Andersen Drive in San Rafael, where day laborers line the streets and wait, hoping to be hired. He hires one group at sunrise. He returns to the labor pool at 9:00, noon and 3:00 p.m., and hires three more groups. And at 5:00, not long before sunset, he hires a fifth group to help finish the job.

Given that we’re one county over from one of the world’s most important wine regions, this part of the parable makes sense to us. Every year, vineyard workers race against time to pick grapes at their peak of ripeness. This year, record heat over Labor Day weekend turned some of California’s wine grapes into raisins. With cooler temperatures, now the vintners and workers have a chance to catch their breath and let the grapes ripen a little. But soon it will be all hands on deck. High-end wines demand hand-picked grapes, so the growers need lots of extra workers for the harvest, and they need them exactly at the moment they need them, just as in the parable.

Then things get strange. At sunset, the owner begins by paying the last group hired. Now, it occurs to me that the landowner could have avoided this whole mess just by paying the first workers first. They’d get what they bargained for, leave happy and probably be none the wiser. But this landowner seems to want to provoke the workers, or, at least, Jesus wants to provoke us. The landowner lines up the workers and pays them in the reverse of the order they were hired. To their absolute delight, the workers hired last receive a full day’s pay. All the other workers are delighted, too, because surely they, who’ve worked since dawn through the blazing heat and did most of the work, have hit the jackpot. But they receive the same amount, the amount they negotiated at the beginning of the day, but no more. They complain: “You’ve made them equal to us. We worked all day. They worked one hour. That’s just not fair.” And the owner responds, “Take what you have and go,” and then he delivers the punch line: “Are you envious because I am generous?”

And then Jesus suggests the Kingdom of God is just like this. Unfair. Which is what people find offensive.

But Jesus is not making a statement about fair and unfair. He’s talking about transformation. Buckminster Fuller once said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Jesus is building a new model. He’s shedding the constructs in which you or I interact with each other. He’s opening possibilities for wholeness and generosity, for healing and relationship, that perhaps we have never considered. He is talking about learning to see the world an entirely different way.

I’ve told a few of you the story that was the light bulb moment for me about white privilege, long before people were commonly using that phrase. The backdrop to that light bulb moment was the truly extraordinary gift my father gave me and my sister, which was simply that he brought us along to all sorts of school activities when he was the principal at Edison High School in Stockton: to basketball games, plays, speech competitions, concerts. Stockton is diverse, but at Edison, the majority of the students were minorities. My sister and I got to know the Black student body president, the Filipino star of the spring musical comedy, the Black national speech competition winner, the Japanese valedictorian, the Chinese scholarship winner, the Mexican girl who adopted me and my sister on the rooters’ bus to out-of-town basketball games, and many more students who became my childhood heroes. It is not an exaggeration to call them my heroes. I still remember their names, and my father’s message that these students were our role models was abundantly clear.

The light bulb moment occurred when I was working as a law student intern at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Houston, Texas in the 1970’s. One day in the law library, a fellow intern, Anthony, who was Black, announced that everybody is racist. I bristled. I was all of about 23 years old and I was very sure I wasn’t racist, especially with my Stockton and Edison High background, which Anthony knew nothing about. Then Anthony explained that if people saw me running through the crowds on the sidewalk in downtown Houston, they’d assume I was trying to catch a bus. But if they saw him doing the same thing, they’d assume he’d just stolen someone’s purse, or worse. Light bulb. Suddenly I saw things in a completely different way. I saw something that had been right there in front of me, but I hadn’t seen it. Does that make me racist? I don’t know. But it surely means there are things I don’t know or see or experience because I haven’t lived in the skin of a person of color. Things that, for instance, might mean that taking a knee during the national anthem makes all the sense in the world.

What might we not see in this parable? It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the workers complain about equality? That being equal isn’t enough; they want to be better than? Isn’t that at the root of white supremacy?

It’s interesting, too, that pretty much everyone who hears this parable identifies with the workers who worked longer and harder. Apparently when Pope John XXIII was asked how many people work at the Vatican, he answered, “Oh, about half.” Nevertheless we all identify with the first-hired workers, the ones who spent more time in the glaring sun, who did the most backbreaking work. Have we done the backbreaking work of the Kingdom of God, really? We also tend not to see the things we didn’t exactly work for in life, things that make a monumental difference. Like the color of our skin, or like being raised in a family that had enough to eat, or that valued education, or even more fundamentally, that valued us.

Or the systemic unfairness all around us that we just put up with, like that professional athletes earn more than teachers, or that there are plenty of folks in this country who do work very hard, who do backbreaking work for long hours, and still don’t get paid enough to support themselves or their families.

But again, Jesus didn’t tell the parable to help us figure out what’s fair and what isn’t. He told it as an invitation to see our lives and our world in a different way. There’s a scene in “A Charlie Brown’s Christmas” in which Charlie Brown’s sister Sally is writing a letter to Santa Claus. She makes an enormous list of the toys she wants but then concludes, “But if that is too much to carry, just send cash.” When Charlie Brown despairs over his sister’s greed, Sally indignantly responds, “All I want is my fair share. All I want is what I have coming to me.” That’s the attitude of the workers, and most everybody else. But instead of that, instead of asking what’s mine, what do I get, Jesus introduces a surprising alternative – God’s economy. Lavish grace. Unmerited favor for everybody who deserves it, and for everybody who doesn’t. Someone described God’s economy as “Grace spread out on a chaise lounge with a bottle of champagne.” It’s that lavish, and it is that unfair and it is that wonderful and it is that offensive.

What would happen if we were to look around and realize that the old model is obsolete, that God has introduced a different model? What if we had a light bulb moment and saw God’s kingdom of abundance instead of our own kingdom of grasping scarcity? What if instead of worrying about who has more and that’s unfair, and I didn’t get as much, we saw this planet, this breathtaking planet, and that everything we are and everything we have is grace, grace upon grace, filled to overflowing?

What if we could change the way we see God’s world and God’s people? The recent natural disasters – the hurricanes, fires, earthquakes – are shocking and horrific but they demonstrate one thing. When people rescue people from a house flooded to the ceiling or from under a pile of rubble, they don’t stop and say, “Does this person deserve this? Should we save this person or move on to someone actually worthy?” No, they do not. They see human beings who need to be rescued because they are human beings.

What if we could bring that largesse to everything we do? Health care, the economy, our relationships within own families? Because, my friends, if I’ve learned anything in 20 years as a pastor it’s that everybody – absolutely everybody – needs to be rescued in one way or another. In the early sixties there was a TV police drama called “The Naked City” that concluded each week with the iconic line, “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” There are seven and a half billion stories in this world and they all need rescue. If we could see that, bring that recognition and the compassion that goes with it to the way we live, perhaps we could usher in God’s kingdom here and now. We could become agents of transformation. Instead of building systems that hurt and oppress, we could fix them. Instead of perpetrators, greedy consumers who destroy the earth, we could heal the planet. Instead of angry grasping people, we could be people who forgive, heal, come together to create lavish generous communities who invite everyone into God’s generous love.

Everything we have is grace, grace upon grace. Filled to overflowing. If only we could see what’s right there in front of us.

May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2017 all rights reserved.

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