I think I have mentioned on this here blog that I serve on the churchwide Standing Commission for Structure, Governance, Constitution, and Canons. (Previously, I served on the group when we were just dedicated to the Constitution and Canons, but this is also fun.) While it may not sound like a lot of fun, let me assure you that it is one of the most enjoyable church meetings I go to each year. It’s a group of thoughtful, funny, and dedicated people, who all really want to get things done–a rarity in any institution, and therefore a delight to be around. Also, many of them are lawyers, or otherwise lawyerly-minded, so they indulge my proclivity for rules and good order. (Also my proclivity to crack jokes, so a blessing be upon all their heads.)
So this sermon, given right before our final in-person meeting, is quietly dedicated to the good people like my Canon Comrades, who pursue justice in all its forms.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
September 24, 2017
Ordinary Time, Proper 20
When I was a small child, and my mother was still a fundamentalist, and my brother would be given a better seat in the car, or an adult’s menu at a restaurant, or a bigger slice of cake, I would complain that it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that I got a smaller piece of cake, or the kids menu at Red Robin when I was 13. It wasn’t fair.
My mother would always respond the same way: Life isn’t fair. If life were fair, Jesus wouldn’t have died on the cross.
That….is technically accurate. But it is also a heck of a thing to say to a small kid. I did not want to meditate on salvation or the atonement right then–I wanted more cake.
What I wanted was the same slice of cake as my brother’s. I wanted the same seat as he had, the same menu. I saw what he had, and I wanted the same. My brother has always, since the age of about 6, been much taller and bigger than me, which led to a lot of these situations. When I didn’t get it, I got mad. I wanted fairness. ***
Fairness is this concept wherein we compare what we have to what someone else has, and we think we should have either less or more, depending. The workers, in today’s parable, are upset, because their sense of fairness was upset. They had worked so hard, for so long. Some since the start of the day, others for a solid half the day, and they believed that based on the fact that they had worked longer, they should be paid more than the people who showed up and only did one hour of work. Fair is fair! And comparatively, sure. That makes sense.
Jonah, likewise, is irked because Nineveh has been horrible up until now; invading other places, ignoring justice, oppressing the poor, slaughtering the innocent, and now, at the 11th hour, they repent. You could at least punish them a LITTLE, he argues at God. Israel, for context, had just suffered through a massive invasion again, and they had ALWAYS followed God. But here Nineveh was getting off scot free. No fair. And again, he’s right. It’s not fair.
Fairness, by the by, is different from justice. Fairness is judged when we measure what we have vs what someone else has. Justice, on the other hand, doesn’t require another person. Justice is about when we get what we need. So the workers on that farm got justice–they got the wage they needed, the wage they were promised. Even the workers who had been standing around waiting all day, sure that they wouldn’t be able to work enough to earn enough for their families–they ended up with enough too. They got justice.
Nineveh got justice too. God interceded for them, and they were spared because of their repentance. They got another chance to grow and flourish and do the right thing. Even the cattle, as God points out.
God, as it turns out, doesn’t give us fairness; God gives us justice. God doesn’t give us all the same thing–God gives us each what we need. God gives each what will help us grow into the creatures God made us to be. Gifts and resources intended for us to use on our individual journeys.
The workers didn’t get the same; but they got enough to make ends meet for each of their families
Nineveh didn’t get the same as Israel, but they got what they needed to become a city of justice and peace.
The problem we have is that we confuse justice for fairness. We don’t keep our eyes on our own work, so to speak. We look at what someone else has, and want THE SAME THING. Or we want more or less depending on how we’ve judged them. The problem is, that actually doesn’t work out so well.
No one else is on the same journey as you. No one else has the same circumstances; the same gifts and talents and strengths, weaknesses as you. And God is just as invested in everyone else’s flourishing and abundant life as God is ours. Christ came for their life abundant as he came for ours. So, harsh as it may sound, God is less interested in making sure everyone has the same, as God is making sure everyone has life abundant. God is about justice.
So then, what would it look like if we also pursued justice? What would our world look like if we also held justice to be a higher virtue than fairness? If we paid more attention to what each person needed, rather than how what they got compared with what we got? If we strove to treat each person as a beloved Child of God with specific needs, context, and a right to a life just as fulfilling and abundant as ours.
How would the world change?
Because, at no point in our baptismal covenant do we promise to promote fairness in the world. We do, however, promise to pursue justice. We follow in the footsteps of a God and a Christ who was most unfair, loving humanity when we least deserved it. So we, too, are called to be gloriously unfair, spreading the justice of a generous love far and wide.
So go forth this week, and be unfair. Be just. And be abundantly loving.
***A dear friend pointed out that this sermon read to him like I was defending unjust treatment in my childhood. I can see that; I don’t think I worded this section quite well enough. What I wanted to communicate was the childhood sense of unfairness that is nearly universal–whether or not it is justified by a sense of injustice behind it. If I ever revisit this topic, I promise to choose a different anecdote!