September 24, 2017, A Full Day’s Pay and Other Injustices – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000043
There is a popular saying that something is “as American as apple pie” but if there is one thing that is even more American than apple pie, it just might be the concept of justice, or fairness. Theoretically, if imperfectly, our whole Republic was founded on the principal of fairness. Way back in 1776 we rebelled against King George because it was unjust for him to levy taxes on his subjects in the colonies (us) without giving us representation back in England. Since then Americans have fought and died in the cause of justice time and time again – for the right to speak freely, for the right to own weapons, for the rights to vote and get an education and get a job with decent pay no matter what race or gender or nationality you are, for the right to organize unions so that workers are treated fairly by their employers no matter how rich and powerful those employers might be. “Liberty and justice for all” is a part of the Pledge of Allegiance that we all grew up reciting in school every day. We like things to be fair and just – and as imperfect as we still are, that is still one of the best things about being American.
So we can really relate to those hot, sweaty workers in the parable standing in line waiting for their paychecks. When they saw the manager giving the last layabouts a full day’s pay, you can just imagine how their little mental calculators started ticking away, figuring out what kind of bonus they were about to get, seeing as they had worked 12 times longer. And then, after they had worked a 12-hour shift in the hot sun, who can blame them, really, for grumbling when all they got for their day’s work was a day’s pay? It really did seem unfair, and we human beings, Americans and otherwise, really hate unfairness. Injustice (especially injustice against us) makes us angry; it grieves us down to our very souls.
And that is why, in the Old Testament reading, Jonah was so furious at God when he realized that God had decided to forgive Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrians, who were a cruel, violent, unjust people, and God had sent Jonah to Nineveh specifically to tell them that they were going to be wiped out in 40 days for their great sins. Jonah had no problems with that message. He had no qualms about watching the whole city go up in smoke – more than 120,000 people, as God pointed out, and all their critters as well. That was justice, and Jonah had no problem with that. He approved of justice. What he couldn’t bear was the idea that after he had made a fool of himself proclaiming God’s wrath and judgment, God was going to do the unthinkable, the unacceptable – and forgive them.
After all the nonsense Jonah went through to avoid doing what God told him to do (and we all know the story about the fish and everything that followed) After all that, it played out exactly as Jonah had feared it would. It turned out God was “soft on crime” after all. As soon as the King heard Jonah’s warning he proclaimed a city-wide fast (animals and slaves included). He took off his royal robes and put on sackcloth and put ashes on his head as a sign of his repentance. And God took notice of their repentance, and he turned his wrath away from Nineveh and he spared the lives of everyone, from the King down to the cattle. And Jonah could hardly bear the injustice of it.
I talked about forgiveness last week, how forgiveness is one of the Big Absolutes – maybe even THE Big Absolute – in Jesus’ teaching. But even though we all know that God commands us to forgive those who have wronged us, there is often one big thing in that gets in the way of our doing that, and that is the unfairness of it all. From our big, impersonal enemies like ISIS and North Korea and Russia to our most personal enemies like a friend who betrayed us or a parent who abused us, our efforts at forgiveness sometimes come to a big, screeching halt when they crash into the brick wall of our need for justice and fairness.
Our human hunger for justice feeds on things like the killing of Osama bin Laden or the arrest of the people who kidnapped those little Amish girls a few years ago. These things satisfy our natural craving for justice, for making sure people – the bad people – get what they deserve. In the face of real evil – and this world is full of real evil – forgiveness and grace can be a real offense to us, as they were to Jonah, who told God, “It is better for me to die than to live in a world where evil gets a pass.”
But where our understanding breaks down is that we assume justice is on our side. We have a tendency, when we consider this parable of the workers in the vineyard, to identify ourselves with the sweaty, hard-working, long-suffering workers in the vineyard – the ones watching the lazy late-comers receiving what they certainly don’t deserve. Like the outraged Jonah, standing on a hill, watching with disgust as the undeserving multitudes of Nineveh celebrate their escape from judgment, we are in the habit of thinking of ourselves as the “good guys”. It is so easy to forget what we were reminded of last week: that forgiveness began with God forgiving US. We forget, or we haven’t yet realized, that if we are really honest with ourselves the last thing in the world we really want or need is justice.
When the Son of God emptied himself and came to live among us as a servant, out of sheer love, there was no justice or fairness in that. There was nothing fair about the Passion and Crucifixion of our Lord. There is no justice in our being adopted as beloved children of God. Everything truly good, everything we have received as followers and friends of Jesus Christ, is pure unadulterated grace – just a glorious abundant free gift. And as the Master in the parable said, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what is mine? Or do you begrudge me my generosity?” This parable is much less about trying to be gracious about those “other people” who seem to be getting off easy, and much more, in fact ALL about realizing that we are the ones who owe absolutely everything, not to what we have earned by our good works, but to the infinite and incomprehensible generosity of God. The truth is, we ARE the last and the least.
In his outrage at the injustice of God’s grace, Jonah cried to God, “I knew what you were like – gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. That’s why I ran away.” With his head and his heart full of judgment and condemnation, Jonah was offended by the utter unfairness of God’s grace. But God’s grace is infinitely better than man’s justice. The best good news is that our God does NOT give us the fair wages of our labor. He does not repay us as we deserve. Paul wrote: “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works.” And Psalm 103 tells us that God “does not punish us as we deserve or repay us according to our sins and wrongs. As high as the sky is above the earth, so great is his love for those who honor him. As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our sins from us. As a father is kind to his children, so the Lord is kind to those who honor him.”
It is the highest human law to seek for justice and fairness. But the infinitely higher law of God is the law of love and grace, that gives without seeking anything in return, that forgives even seventy times seven times, that repays evil with good, that is not offended by generosity but delights in kindness and compassion, that comes not to be served, but to serve, that loves without conditions. There is a whole new way of living and thinking that comes with being citizens of the kingdom of heaven rather than citizens of the kingdom of this world. And for starters, we are blessed if we are not offended by the generosity of the King.