It’s not fair

Pentecost 14

Matthew 20:1-16

Marian Free

 In the name of God who loves us all and desires that we might be saved. Amen.

I don’t know if any one does this anymore. When I was a child there was a clear rule about sharing food. If there was one banana and two children – one child was allowed to cut it in two and the other was allowed to choose which of the halves they would take to eat. As you might imagine, the process was taken very seriously. The child who made the division went to a considerable amount of trouble to ensure that the banana was indeed cut into halves and the one who made the choice between the two pieces went to an equal amount of trouble to discern if one piece was bigger than the other. This method had two advantages, not only did the person with the knife try very hard to ensure that the division was equitable, but both children had an opportunity to determine what half a banana looked like. No one could say that the process was not fair.

It seems that we are born with an innate sense of fairness. I wonder if there is anyone here who has never said: “It’s not fair!” We have such a concern with equity, that it can come as a surprise to discover that not only is the gospel NOT about God being fair, but just the opposite. The gospel consistently reminds us that God is blatantly unfair.

In simple terms we think like this – those who are good will get to heaven and those who are bad will not.  Those who obey the law will find themselves in God’s good books and those who do not obey will find themselves on God’s bad side. The problem with this point of view is that God does not have a bad side! God does not measure out God’s love according to a pre-determined principle. God cannot restrict God’s love only to those who reach some pre-determined standard.

This point is so important that Jesus hammers it out in the gospels – people who behave badly do not get their just desserts and those who are good according to the law are not always rewarded in the way that they expect. Over and over again, in story and parable, Jesus reminds us that contrary to expectation, the kingdom of God is simply not fair. The prodigal son wastes his inheritance and yet the father welcomes him home and kills the fatted calf. It’s not fair. The Pharisee who invites Jesus to supper obeys all the commandments, and yet Jesus commends not him, but the woman (a known sinner) who washes his feet. It’s not fair. Ninety-nine sheep do the right thing and stay together, but does the farmer care? No he seeks out the one who has wandered away holds a party when it is found. It’s not fair. More than once Jesus says: “The last will be first and the first will be last.” It’s not fair!

The fact that God is unfair is so contrary to our sense of justice and our notion of fairness that Jesus wants to be absolutely sure that we understand – that we see that the values of the kingdom are completely different from the values of this world. Justice in the kingdom is God’s justice which is not limited by human ideas of equity or fairness– if they were, we would have been abandoned long ago for our ingratitude, our failure to trust in God, our propensity to worship other gods and our failure to heed the warnings of the prophets. However, instead of rejecting us, God sent Jesus to save us.

The problem with believing that God will be just according to our understanding of justice is that there are not grades of salvation. One is either saved or one is not. It is impossible to be more saved than someone else. For that reason there is no point measuring oneself against someone else and determining that because you are more honest, or more generous that God will favour you above that person because there will always be someone more honest, more generous than you and by your own standards you will be found wanting.

God’s kingdom does not fit with our sense of justice because there is only one reward and only one way to achieve it. The reward is eternal life and the way to gain that reward is simply to believe in Jesus Christ. Let me say that again. There is only one reward and only one way to achieve it. That means that everyone who believes in Jesus will inherit eternal life. God will not be measuring us against each other according to how good we have been, or how bad we have been – because there is only one criteria – faith.

Of course that makes sense if we think about it. If the measure relates to our goodness or lack of it, where would the cut off mark be? Would only the absolutely perfect pass the test or would those who had only been a little bit bad slip through? How much is too bad? Is goodness enough or does it have to be accompanied by humility and love? If only the perfect can enter heaven, we are all in trouble because only Jesus is perfect. On the other hand if the imperfect (and that includes us) can enter heaven – where does it all stop? At what point is someone too imperfect to have eternal life?

Today’s parable is a perfect example of the problem of God’s justice. I imagine that all of us can relate to the attitude of those who have worked all day in the hot sun. When they see those who have only worked an hour being paid a full day’s wage, they naturally expect that their work will be more amply rewarded. If some get a day’s wage for only one hour’s work, then perhaps those who have worked all day will get 12 days wages for 12 hours work. That’s only fair!  No wonder they are disappointed – despite working all day they only get paid the same as the other workers. “It’s not fair!”

It’s not fair. That’s the point – it’s not fair. It’s not fair because there is no hierarchy in heaven. The extra-good don’t get better treatment or a more comfortable spot than the not quite so good. The not quite so good don’t get better treatment or a more comfortable spot than the good enough. The good enough don’t get better treatment or a more comfortable spot than the nearly good enough and so on. If heaven is the reward of those who believe, then those who believe must expect to be mixed up with all those who believe – the very good, the not good, and perhaps even the bad. It is a challenging thought – that those whom we consider less deserving than ourselves may well be spending eternity with us. At the same time, it is humbling to consider that the saints of every age will have to share eternity with those who are as imperfect as us.

God is not fair and that is good news. Our sense of justice might see many excluded from the kingdom, but if we relied on our own efforts, the very standards we set might exclude even us. It is because God is unfair that we can be assured that we will be saved and if God should choose to save us, why should we begrudge that salvation to others?

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