“Or are you envious because I am generous?” Matthew 20:1-16
Pentecost XIX September 21, 2008
the Episcopal Church of St. Paul
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton,
rector and pastor
It’s not fair! I mean, really! It’s totally not fair!
Be honest. As you heard this gospel story read about the laborers in the field, how many of you shook your heads and said, “That’s just not fair!”
If you work for a full day, you should get a full days pay, right? And, if you only work part of the day, your pay should be prorated so that your wages equal the amount of work you have done.
It’s not fair that someone who only worked a couple of hours should get the same pay as someone who labored under the hot sun all day, right?
Not only is it not fair, it’s outrageous! Why, it’s downright un-American! We believe in the rugged individuality of the Marlboro Man (remember him?). We’re a pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps kind of people.
But, hey, if someone needs a helping hand, we’re the first on the scene. We are a generous and compassionate people, we Americans. We always respond to disaster-relief efforts.
But THIS . . . this gospel. . . is just Jesus being WAAAAAY off the mark.
It’s just not fair!
I hear you. I hear you because I know you, and I know myself. I’ve gotten a pretty good appreciation for the human condition over the years. I don’t always understand it, but I appreciate its complexity as well as its universality.
There have been times, from time to time, when I see myself in this morning’s story about Jonah. Remember the story? God had sent Jonah to Nineveh – a place where people - 120,000 of them - “didn’t know their right hand from their left, and also many animals” – to preach a word of repentance and conversion.
Jonah didn’t want that assignment, so he fled from Nineveh in the opposite direction to Tarshish and ended up in a shipwreck and found himself in the belly of the whale. By the grace of God, he finally did end up in Nineveh and, to his astonishment, the people headed the warning, and turned from their evil ways. God had a change of heart about the calamity God had promised and did not do it. And, Jonah got very, very angry with God.
Indeed, he was so angry that God didn’t punish the people of Nineveh who had been so disobedient to the word of God for so long (conveniently forgetting his own disobedience), that he stormed out to a place east of the City and sat down to see what God might do to Nineveh.
There he sat, under a bush, which at least gave him some shelter from the hot sun, until a worm infected the bush and it shriveled up and died. That made Jonah so angry, he wanted to die rather than live in this unjust and unfair world. “It’s just not fair!”
Even St. Paul seems to struggle with the dilemma. He is writing this letter to the people of Philippi from a jail cell. Life or death, for him, is a daily question, the answer to which may not necessarily be in his hands. He wonders, as he writes, whether it might be better to simply surrender to death and be with Jesus, or fight like hell for the living to continue to do the work of the Gospel.
I have spoken with many people this week – and overheard many other conversations in the grocery store and on the train – who have felt boxed into a similar situation.
The economic situation is quite alarming – even for the most fiscally conservative people in what they thought to be secure jobs. People are wondering out loud about their future. Their pensions. Their savings. Their investments. One of my brother clergy reported that he had taken all of his substantial investments out of the stock market and the bank.
That old saying by Edmund Burke was never more true, “Desperate people in desperate times do desperate things.” Anxiety can often spill into a sort of miserliness, with the potential to make us all like Scrooge. People clutch even more tightly to what they have – or think they might lose.
Prepare yourselves to hear a lot more people say a lot more often, “That’s not fair!”
And, it isn’t. But, here’s the thing: fair isn’t part of God’s vocabulary. That’s the language of the world. . In a sense, we are all envious of God’s generosity and abundance.
God has another language, one we once spoke and one we will speak once again, when we all get back to Paradise. I don’t know this for certain, of course, but my hunch is that “fair’ won’t be one of the words we’ll use in heaven.
And, you know, that’s the point.
Let me try to explain it this way: When I was a kid, my favorite textbooks were the ones that had the answers in the back. I don’t know if they still make textbooks that way, but I loved it. I also love that you can find the answers to the NY Times Crossword Puzzle. And, even People Magazine provides the answers to their idiot puzzles in the next edition.
No, it’s not because I figured I could cheat. It was because knowing that the answers were somewhere gave me a sense of confidence. I knew, even if I got the answer wrong, that the right answer was somewhere and that, if need be, I could find the right answer myself. It took a great deal of anxiety and frustration out of the exercise of learning.
It gave me confidence.
Confidence. That’s what it takes. That’s the antidote to the toxins that arise when we make that all too human cry, “It’s not fair.” It is a cry from the human condition which has fed too much of the Bread of Anxiety.
And, it's not the kind of confidence that is the parody of the Monty Python movie, "Life of Brian." I'm not whistling, "Always look on the bright side of life," while we hang from our cross.
For the Christian, confidence comes from knowing how the story ends – how all the stories of all our lives will end when we eat the Bread of Life and not the Bread of Anxiety.
You’ve heard me say it before: We are all going to heaven. That’s what this parable is about: It’s not about the fairness of the world, but the glory of heaven. It’s about seeing the present situation in the context of the bigger picture.
We’re all going to get to heaven Those who are wealthy and those who are poor. Those who are beautiful and those who are not so beautiful. Those who are wise and those who have been foolish. Those who are too young and haven’t lived long enough and those who are old and perhaps stayed too long in this life. Because God made us and loves us, each individual one of us, unconditionally and beyond our wildest imaginings.
I understand. That doesn’t change the unfairness of life. Life will often seem hard and unfair. What I have found is that living a gospel-centered life, like having the text book with the answers in the back, gives you a sense of confidence. That confidence will carry you through whatever goes wrong in this life, no matter how unfair it may occasionally – or often – seem to you.
No matter how anxious you are tempted to be, I pray that, because you have seen the ‘big picture’ and know how the story ends, you will face into the situation with the kind of confidence that allows you to display a certain sense of generosity and graciousness and kindness.
Because, you know, generosity and graciousness and kindness are just as infectious as anxiety and anger and resentment.
You can decide to choose how it is you will respond. You can choose to be envious of God’s generosity which will turn you into a miserly Scrooge, or you can choose to embrace God’s generosity to everyone and become more confident of your ultimate destination in life.
Indeed, generosity and graciousness and kindness are often mistaken for someone who is “fair”. And, maybe that’s so in this life. But, those are the qualities of all the angels in heaven. So, you might as well practice them a bit while you’re here – for as long as you’re here – so you’ll know how to behave once you get to heaven.
Or, as St. Paul says, “Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ . . . standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents.”
No, there’s not a great deal about the present economy that gives us confidence. You still have a choice, however, in terms of how you respond to it. If you face into this present economic crisis with a sense of confidence that, no matter what happens in this life, you’re still going to heaven, your perspective will change.
When the cloud of anxiety lifts from your eyes, you’ll be able to see new things. New opportunities. New ways of saying ‘no’ to the greed that got us into this mess in the first place and ‘yes’ to the confidence and graciousness and generosity that comes from knowing that all things – every thing – is of God. We are just the stewards of this life which God has given us.
And, we know how the story ends.
We’re all going to heaven. Let that give you confidence and set you free from anxiety so that you may turn to practicing generosity and graciousness. Even though that may sound unfair in this life, it’s nonetheless true in the next: We’re all going to heaven.
And, as they say, you can take THAT to the bank.