Sunday, September 21, 2014

A Generous Justice — Giving People What They Need, Not What They Deserve

Sunday, September 21, A.D. 2014
RCL, Year A, Proper 20, Track 1

Injustice at The Tournament of Roses

When I was a kid, my Mom absolutely loved watching the New Year’s Day Tournament of Roses parade on television. We watched it every year. I wasn’t as excited about it as Mom was. I got a bit more excited about it when we finally got a color TV. After all, as a kid, it isn’t particularly interesting to watch a bunch of floats go by on television decorated with flowers of various shades of gray. I became much more excited about the Rose Bowl parade when Rebekah and I moved to Pasadena, California where I pursued my masters a Fuller Theological Seminary. We lived on campus, and our apartment happened to be just two blocks away from the parade route. 
     It was either our first or second year in Pasadena, either 1997 or 1998, when we walked down to watch the parade. Now there is something you need to understand about the Rose Bowl parade. Something like a million people line up along the 6-mile parade route to watch the parade. And thousands, if not tens of thousands, camp out on the streets and sidewalks on New Year’s Eve so as to get a good spot. We arrived about an hour early, and the sidewalks were already crowded. We were on a sidewalk down one of the crossing streets, and so we were about a 100 to 150 feet away from one of the intersections of the parade. As the time neared for the first floats to pass our intersection, more and more people joined us on the sidewalk and in the gutters of the street. The police would come down the street every few minutes, and tell the people to move back and clear the streets. Some moved, but most didn’t. Instead of moving back, they would simply cram into the crowd on the sidewalk.
     Now I remember one gentleman in particular, who arrive about 5 minutes before the floats arrived. Like many others, he didn’t heed the police’s order to go back. Instead, he squeezed his way onto the sidewalk. Unfortunately, he cut in front of a family—a father, a mother, and their children—who had spent the whole night on the streets. The father said something to the man, but the man ignored him. Eventually, the father shoved the man and a minor scuffle ensued. Not long after that, the police came and took away… the father!  Rebekah and I were sick to our stomachs. It was so unfair. After that, we didn’t find the parade particularly appealing. We abandoned our spots on the sidewalk and headed for home. As we left, I stopped by and told the police officers what had led to the altercation, but I don’t think it did any good.
     Should the father have shoved the man? No. Were there other ways he could have responded? Certainly. But it still seemed unfair. The whole situation was really unjust. And, I don’t think that I am the only one who thinks so. I expect that most of us feel the same way. Why? Because in our world, justice is all about fairness; justice is all about people getting what they deserve, be it reward or punishment. And, it is this notion of justice that is at play in today’s parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.

Injustice in the Vineyard • Justice as Fairness

In this parable, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a landowner who goes out early in the morning to hire day laborers to work in his vineyard. He offers to pay them a denarius, which is the usual daily wage. The men agree to a denarius, and they head off to work in the vineyard. A few hours later at 9 a.m., the landowner goes back to the marketplace and finds others who haven’t been hired by anybody else. He sends them to his vineyard, stating, “I will pay you whatever is right, whatever is just (δίκαιος, 20:4).” Oddly enough, the landowner returns to the marketplace multiple times throughout the day to hire additional workers. He returns at noon, at 3 p.m., and even at 5 p.m., just an hour before the workday is done. And he makes the same agreement with all of them, “I will pay you whatever is just.”
     When the horn sounds at 6:00 o’clock, the owner instructs his manager to assemble the workers and to pay them beginning with those who were hired last. To everyone’s surprise, those hired last each received a denarius, a full day’s wage. And so, those who had been hired first imagine that they will receive more. After all, the vineyard owner has demonstrated himself to be a very generous man! Yet, when they come to be paid, they each receive the hitherto-promised denarius. They are put out, to say the least. They feel cheated; they feel like they got the short end of the stick. And so, they grumble, and they complain, “These last worked an hour, one single hour as the sun was setting. Yet, you have made them equal to us, we who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” We know what these workers are feeling because we know that we would feel the exact same way if we were in their shoes. So we are right with them as they demand to be treated fairly.
But then, the trap is sprung. The vineyard owner responds to their complaints with a series of questions that leaves them and us speechless:
“Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?” Silence.
“I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” No response.
And then the final question, “Are you envious because I am generous?” Or, as the question is asked in older Bible translations, “Do you begrudge my generosity?” You bet they do. You bet… they… do!
As Episcopal priest and writer, Barbara Brown Taylor, observes,
Like most human beings [these workers] have an innate sense of what is fair and what is not. Equal pay for equal work is fair; equal pay for unequal work is not fair. Rewarding those who do the most work is fair; rewarding those who do the least is not fair. Treating everyone the same is fair; treating everyone the same when they are not the same is not fair.[2]

Getting an unobstructed view of the beautiful parade floats after you spent the whole night out on the streets is right, fair, and just. Having a late-comer push his way in front of you so as to block you and your children’s view is not. Saving up for college, and then using that savings to pay for college seems fair. Not saving up for college, and then getting college paid for by the government due to financial need seems unfair. Getting hired because of your training, knowledge, and experience seems fair. Not getting hired because someone with lesser qualifications belongs to an underrepresented gender or race doesn’t seem fair. The list could go on and on.
     As I said, we believe that justice is about fairness, that justice occurs when people get what they deserve, what they have worked for. This seems so basic, so self-evidently right. Yet, it is this notion of justice that Jesus seeks to dismantle with today’s parable.

Justice in the Vineyard • Justice as Generosity

In the parable, the landowner did not treat all the workers the same. While he paid them all the same wage,… he was clearly more generous with those he hired last than with those he hired first. No, the owner did not treat them all the same. He treated them differently, and in so doing, he made them all equal. Of course, those hired first cried foul (as would we) because they are operating with a notion of justice defined primarily as fairness.
     Jesus, however, advocates a very different notion of justice. In the kingdom of God, justice is not rooted in fairness; justice is grounded in generosity—in love, mercy, and compassion. Why? Because under the kingly rule of God, justice has a different goal and purpose than human notions of justice. God’s justice is not about maintaining order or the status quo, God’s justice is about the renewal and restoration of all creation. God’s justice is about the reordering of human lives and human societies, not so that things will be fair, but so that things will be transformed. In the kingdom of God, generosity, compassion, and mercy, are not opposed to justice. Rather, they make justice possible. Justice is, in fact, what results when the actions of God and God’s people are motivated and energized by love, mercy, and compassion.
     Think about it. The workers in today’s parable are essentially migrant workers. They are day laborers, and a denarius a day was just enough money to get by on. It was not a living wage, only a subsistence wage. If all the workers had been paid on the basis of how long they had worked in the vineyard, then only those hired first would have been able to put enough food on the table for their families to survive. If the owner had only been concerned with fairness (or with justice-as-fairness), then lots of people would have gone hungry that night. Instead, lots of people went to bed satisfied, because the owner acted with a generous justice. And so, this parable of the Workers in the Vineyard subverts all of our notions of fairness-as-justice for in the kingdom of God, justice is not about people getting what they deserve; it is about people getting what they need.

The Parable of Merciful Master

As an example of generosity-as-justice, consider the parable of the Merciful Master, that we heard in last week’s gospel lesson. Peter asks if he should forgive a person up to seven times, and Jesus responds, “not seven times but seventy times seven.” Jesus then launches into a parable wherein he compares the kingdom of God to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. As the story goes, the king calls before him a servant who owes him 10,000 talents, which is roughly equivalent to 4 billion dollars.[3] The servant cannot pay back his debt so the king orders him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all of their possessions. In desperation, the servant begs for mercy. “Have patience with me,” he cries, “and I will pay you everything.” The king relents. And instead of refinancing the debt or setting up an extended repayment plan, the king simply cancels the debt in full.
     Clearly the king acted with mercy, compassion, and generosity. But here’s my question: In forgiving the debt, did the king acting justly? Well, it all depends on what we mean by justice, doesn’t it? If justice is primarily a matter of people getting what they deserve, then the king did not act justly. A debt was owed, and it was forgiven. Some would argue, therefore, that the king was generous, but not just. But I wonder. How can two divine qualities such as justice and generosity be at such odds with one another? If we believe that acts of mercy or compassion are somehow a violation of or an exception to justice, that indicates that our notion of justice is flawed. It reveals the inadequacy of the easy equation of fairness as justice
     In the parable of the Merciful Master, the king freed his servant from a crushing debt, and in so doing, he gave his servant a whole new life, a whole new future. Was it fair? Was it treating everybody exactly the same? No. But was it just? Absolutely, according to Jesus, justice is not about giving people what they deserve, it is about giving people what they need to live healthy, dignified, sustainable lives. God’s justice is not based on quid pro quo, this for that. God’s justice is based on grace. God’s justice is not retributive; it is restorative. And restorative justice is established and maintained through acts of generosity, through acts of love, mercy, and compassion.

Seeking Ye First God’s Justice

You have no doubt heard Jesus’ command, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Yet, a better translation that brings the fuller meaning, would be, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his justice.” Yet, we live in a very broken world, a world filled with sin, violence, and injustice. A world where more and more people are not getting what they need to live, and therefore, a world where cries for justice are heard more and more.
     As Christians, Jesus’ calls and equips us to strive for God’s kingdom, to strive for God’s justice. And so, as citizens of that kingdom, our thoughts and actions need to be informed and shaped by Jesus’ notion of justice, justice that is the fruit of mercy, compassion, and generosity. This means that when we listen to the news, when we debate in the public square, when we go to the voting booths in November, as Christians, we are not allowed to ask the question, “What is fair?” because fairness does not establish or maintain God’s brand of justice. Instead, Jesus calls us to ask a different question, “What is needed? What acts of love and generosity will create a state of affairs in which everybody’s needs are acknowledged and honored? What policies of mercy and compassion will create a system that addresses and responds to those needs? Because once again, God’s justice is not about us getting what we deserve, but is about getting everybody what they need.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Delivered on Sunday, September 21st, a.d. 2014
at St. John's Episcopal Church (Wichita, Kansas)

[1] And that’s how we get sucked into the parable.
[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Beginning at the End: Matthew 20:1–16,” in The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox: 2004), 103.
[3] If one talent is equivalent to 15 years of wages (see note in nrsv), then based on an annual salary of $25,000, the debt would be 3.75 billion dollars (25,000 × 15 × 10,000). 

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