“It’s Not Fair! But Is It Just?” (Matthew 20:1-16), 9/24/23
So I know I’ve told this one before, but it’s a classic. A man dies and goes to heaven where St. Peter meets him at the Pearly Gates. St. Peter says, "Here's how it works. You need 100 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all the good things you've done, and I’ll give you a certain number of points for each item, depending on how good it was. When you reach 100 points, you get in. "Okay," the man says, "I was married for 50 years and was always a faithful husband." That's wonderful," says St. Peter, "that's worth three points." Only three points? The man thinks, this is going to be tough.
He goes on, "Well, I attended church all my life and supported its ministry with my time, talents and treasures." Terrific!" says St. Peter. "That's certainly worth a point." One point? This is impossible! But he plows on. I started a soup kitchen in my city and worked in a shelter for homeless veterans. Fantastic, says St. Peter, that's good for two more points." The man is getting desperate now. He says, "At this rate the only way to get into heaven is by the grace of God!" St. Peter smiled. "There's your 100 points! Come on in!"
We get it, right? We like the concept. None of us can earn our way into heaven. It’s all by the grace of God. We get it, but still it’s really hard to live it out. We were watching Johnny Carson the other night, and I remembered hearing that Johnny Carson, one night years ago, as a joke, told people on his show that there was a toilet paper shortage in NYC. He was kidding, but guess what happened? His joke actually created a toilet paper shortage in NYC because the day after his show aired, everybody in NYC who had watched it went out and bought as much toilet paper as they could. Of course we know a much more recent example of this. 2020, right? Yup.
We want to believe in our heart of hearts that there is enough for everyone. And yet we also know that’s often not true. And we are afraid of being left out in the cold. And it’s not only we humans who think this way. There was an experiment done with monkeys by a professor at Emory University where some monkeys were all asked to do the same task, but when rewards were handed out, one group received a better reward than the other group. Both groups of monkeys were then asked to do the task again. Except, the group who had received the lesser reward refused to work. Asimilar experiment was done at the University of Atlanta. The monkeys were asked to pick up a small stone and bring it to the researcher within a minute. If they did this successfully, they got a slice of cucumber. Things went along fine until the researchers began giving some of the monkeys grapes, instead of cucumbers. The ones who hadn’t gotten the grapes got angry and refused to carry the stones again. Then it escalated even more and they began throwing the stones and the cucumbers. Those monkeys were smart and they understood what was going on. They knew it wasn’t fair. But could they have debated the idea of justice versus fairness?
So we have all these workers. You see them there on the front of your bulletin, standing in line waiting to get paid. We’re told that the ones at the beginning of the line are the ones who got hired last. So the ones at the end of the line who had been working since early that morning, get to watch their fellow workers get paid first. But they had only been their fellow workers for an hour. You see the guy in the back of the line there? Look at the expression on his face. If you could put a cartoon bubble over his head that says what he’s thinking, what would it say? “Hey, what’s going on up there? How much is that guy getting paid? I want my fair share!” Grumble, grumble, grumble. But the landowner didn’t do anything wrong. He says to the workers, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
I am guessing we still would say to the landowner, “it’s not fair.” And it’s really not. But is it just? That’s the important question. The rules of our world are more focused on fairness than justice. How can the world ever be just when we’re all born into different circumstances? We don’t start off on equal footing. Some people are born in countries like Libya and Morocco where life hangs by a thread. All it takes is an earthquake or a bad storm to destroy thousands of people’s lives completely. If that happened in this country, yes it would be terrible, but at least there are some safety measures in place, like standards for buildings to withstand earthquakes, and flood insurance. In this country, fewer people would lose their lives and there would be more people available to help. Life at its core is unfair.
Yet God doesn’t seem too concerned with fairness. God is more concerned with justice. Think about it this way, in this small story of one family’s life. The storyteller is reflecting on his childhood. He writes about canning apples on his family’s farm. When the apples ripened, his whole family did the job together. He remembers sitting down in the kitchen with his six brothers and sisters, and his dad for the annual canning of the apples. Mom would sit them all down at the long table, with pans and paring knives and barrels full of apples. Their job was to fill all the canning jars with apple slices. Yet, he says, Mom never bothered keeping track of how many each of us filled. He was somewhere in the middle of the pack, with a couple of younger siblings and a couple of older ones. The younger ones of course were often more of a nuisance than a help; with cut fingers, and squabbles over who got which pan, and apple cores flung at each other. But when the job was done, the reward for everyone was the same. They all piled into the car together for a trip to the general store in town, where they knew what was waiting for them: the largest ice cream cone money could buy. He says, if I’d been overly concerned with fairness, I might have complained that we older kids peeled a lot more apples than the younger ones. But he can’t remember anyone complaining about it.
That story makes sense to us, doesn’t it? No one wants to deprive a 3-year-old of an ice cream cone because they didn’t do their fair share of the work. That doesn’t make sense. But grown-ups are not 3-year-olds, so the parable today is a bit different. But how different, really? One person suggests that because we all fall short of God’s glory, we are all lateday laborers. We’ve all arrived late to work in God’s kin-dom. So let’s just recognize that and move on. But move on in what way?
I’m guessing the reason that the reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians was paired with the parable of the workers in the vineyard is because Paul writes, “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me.” Paul believes so strongly in Jesus’ promise of eternal life, that he’s having a hard time deciding if he’d rather die and go to heaven to be with Christ, or stay on earth to keep supporting the churches. What is fruitful labor for Paul and for all of us at this point in our lives? Obviously, it changes as we get older and hopefully wiser.
We really can’t talk about this parable without talking about what’s going on around the world in all these countries that are in crisis, and as a result the people who are arriving at our borders in very large numbers. The Dayton Daily News had a long piece in the paper yesterday about immigration and what’s different today versus in the past. In the past people tended to blend in quicker and easier, whereas now all the busloads of people arriving in New York City, Boston and other places far from the border make for conversations that weren’t happening previously. People are trying to do the right thing and take care of these new arrivals, but it’s a huge challenge. In the past mostly single people made the long journey to the United States and they had family and support systems in place before they got here, but now many more families are coming with no support system in place. Children need to go to school, and many school systems are overwhelmed with not enough space or teachers. I was interested to know the top countries that immigrants here in Dayton come from. The top five are #5, Vietnam, #4, the Philippines, #3, China, #2 Mexico, and #1, India.
The good news today and always is that it’s never too late to help. It just so happens that our Peace and Global Witness Special Offering is next Sunday. 25% of the money collected goes to a place that we choose. This year the Mission & Outreach Committee has once again chosen Homefull, right here in Dayton, to receive our 25%. Homefull is an organization that works with people needing housing, food and jobs. This year they are celebrating their 35th anniversary with a “Back to the 80s” Party in November. I can relate to that decade for sure!
So what’s the difference between justice and fairness? Here’s how one person put it. “Fairness is a human construct that attempts to substitute for and masquerade as justice. Fairness pretends to treat everyone the same while justice attempts to make everyone whole.” If we try to treat everyone the same, we will fail because we’re not the same. But if our goal is to join God in the work of making people whole, that is something we can all get on board with. Let’s end today with the words of Teresa of Avila. You can follow along in the special offering insert. “You Are with Me”…