Thank you to Peter Brown and the Team for this Week's Service
TITLE: IT’S NOT FAIR!
“Life isn’t fair!” How often have you heard these words spoken? Those who say them are simply reminding us that we live in an unfair world. It’s strange how quickly children are aware that life is not fair. Just listen into what children have to say and it’s not long before the words “It’s not fair!” can be heard. Someone has more sweets or a bigger present than another, having to go bed earlier than their older brothers or sister, their turn to wash up. Or especially if they can’t do something they want to do and of course “everybody else can!” Can we hear ourselves sometimes - saying to God, friends, ourselves, and anyone else prepared to listen “It’s not fair!” And do you know, you are probably right! It isn’t. When it comes to fairness this is something that was probably instilled into most of us by our parents. For those of you who have grown up with younger or older brothers or sisters I’m sure that you were told on many occasions, “Come on, play fair!” I am number four of six and I can tell you from experience that there were times when I felt it was not fair. By the time my youngest sister, number six was born my Dad lost the plot. He simply doted on her and she seemed to be able to get him to do anything. She got away with murder. We all shouted in unison, “It’s not fair!” In fact, one of the rites of passage from youth to adulthood is the realization that life isn’t the way our parents tried to teach us – it’s not fair. So how do we as Christians reconcile these concepts when we are faced with seemingly unjustified tragedy? How do we explain it when good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to those who seem to least deserve it? “Life isn’t fair” we say and by our human definition it isn’t. But it’s when we try to impose that same definition of fairness onto God that we run into problems. God is fair, but He is fair by His standards, not ours, and try as we might, we find it difficult, if not impossible, to understand His standards.
In Romans 2 and verse 11 we read that “God does not show favouritism.” Therefore, wouldn’t it be fair if God didn’t show favouritism, that He would make me with the same amount of talent as the next person? Yet it is demonstrably true that we are not all equal. I wish God had given me the footballing talent as Messi, Rooney, or Sterling; I can never understand the theory of relativity like Albert Einstein; I don’t have the capacity of care and compassion for others like a Mother Theresa and even, at a more mundane level, I can’t even draw someone’s face so you could recognize it, let alone call myself an artist. We are simply not all equal. Yet we are told God does not show favouritism.
I remember reflecting with a lady on the issue of gifts and graces and she said, ‘My husband knows everything – in theory.’ We have a lot of people like that. You listen to the fans and you wonder if they should be coaching the team or they should be on the pitch playing. We don’t all have the same talent and to show our disapproval we say, “If I was being paid his salary I would do better for the team.” Do you have the talent? It’s our way of saying that life is not fair, and those guys are being paid a lot of money, but they are not delivering the goods! ‘That’s not fair’ could be the title of today’s story in our Bible reading in Matthew 20:1-16. It’s the exclamation and declaration of those who have worked all day, long and hard, and get to the front of the line to receive exactly the pay they’ve been promised, likely a small amount, but the going rate that was fair for a day’s pay. If you consider just their experience, their complaint and murmuring seems odd. They came, agreed on a price, worked as agreed, and got their reward. So why are they so critical so cranky as if they have been slapped in the face? Because from the back of the pay line they have seen the landowner paying others, those who had worked far less a generous amount for a few hours work. Based on that pay, they were expecting on top of the normal pay a double bonus not just what was promised. Surely, they had earned it. And yet, they only get the original amount promised. Just like those who arrived last.
‘It’s just not fair. I’ve been here since the crack of dawn and I’ve slogged all day in the perishing heat of the sun. I have worked longer and harder and that deserves to be recognised. I deserve a more generous reward to reflect the hard work that I have done. It is not fair to give me the same wages as everybody else.’ Do they have a point? Should they have been better compensated? Let’s get the union in to get us a fair deal. It is not fair that you are giving me the exact amount as those who arrived last. And actually, that’s the point of the parable, so robustly defended in the conversation with the landowner, who reminds those labourers that he has fulfilled his promise to them in full; why are they so resentful for the graciousness shown to others?
Jesus introduces this as an example of what the kingdom of heaven is like.
Heaven is going to be a wonderful place. It will also be a place of surprises. You will see a lot of people who you did not expect to see. We are going to be shocked, surprised even, at those who will be celebrated and rewarded. In the kingdom of heaven, you will see people who haven’t worked as hard or as long as you but get the same reward?” That kind of radical and reckless grace giving generosity offends our sensibilities. It turns our moral compass on its head. It blows apart our well-constructed arguments about equity, justice, and fairness. This parable offends us. It rubs us up the wrong way if we are honest. Something doesn’t seem right about it. Why? Because we’re probably most like those who worked all day, and it’s hard to reconcile and make sense of the radical and outrageous generosity of the landowner. Put yourself in the Parable: would you have been envious and grumbled at the size of your pay packet? So were many of the original listeners.
The Commentator Patrick Wilson says, and I quote: “We may be entrepreneurial enough to agree that the owner of the vineyard can run his business any way he pleases, but we cannot rest comfortably with his payroll policies…. If the master is determined to be generous, why not pay those fellows who worked all day a bonus? That also would be fair. The way generosity gets passed around in this tale abrades our sense of justice.” Let me get to the heart of this parable and point out to you that the landowner is meant to represent God and his generosity a demonstration of his grace. We might quickly conclude: God is not fair. Yes, grace is not fair. Thank God grace means that you do not get what you deserve. You get what you don’t deserve. Grace is not for the deserving but the undeserving, undesirable, unwelcomed. The Kingdom of heaven in not a meritocracy with a culture of entitlement for those who have done well. This is a kingdom of radical reversal – the last is first and the first is last. Here you learn that life is not about fairness but having the faith and fortitude to pursue the favour of God for your life. To learn to overcome not to give up; to come back against setbacks; for your anchor to hold in the storms of life and in the straits of fear. Life in this kingdom is about overcoming against all the odds.
Yes, life is not fair. The bad guys seems to get all the good breaks and bad things happen to good people. In this sin broken world one of the biggest lessons I need to learn is that life is not about fairness. Things will happen to you that are not fair. But as a Child of God you need to remember that you are blessed and highly favoured. If you make it your life’s purpose to pursue an agenda of fairness some may praise your efforts as laudable or commendable but in this world your pursuit of good intentions may bring disappointments when you find out that life is not fair and people are not fair. This is not a lesson in cynicism rather it is one of the most singular lessons that you can add to your learning and spiritual repertoire to keep you from false expectations and multiple disappointments. Life is not fair, but God is good! God is good all the time – all the time God is good!
This parable is great news to those who got hired at the end of the day, promised to be paid a fair day’s wage, and even to those who were hired midday, who got paid the same unnamed but just amount that was promised. It’s harder to hear it or see it as good news if we’ve been there all day. We take the exchange and salary for granted, not truly wrapping our heads around the gift that it is. Let me expand this and explain it in a bit more depth. QUESTION: Do we consider what we earn as part of God’s goodness and generosity towards us? Or do we assume it is our due, something we have earned, the product of our hard work, a goodness we have fabricated for ourselves, our reward for our hard work. Too many of us see grace not as daily bread but extra bread, unexpected bread. We assume or maybe we are prepared to acknowledge that the extra and the unexpected comes from God but what I do daily to put bread on the table comes from me. Let me ask you a question: who woke you up this morning? Who controls the breath you breathe? Your job is a grace and favour job. Your house is a grace and favour house. Your home is a grace and favour home. Without grace and favour, you would have none of it. It is grace that has brought you here thus far and grace will lead you home.
These workers were arguing about fairness and could not see the goodness and grace extended to others because they were wrapped up in a sense of their own entitlement and privilege. They were protesting the decision of the landowner because the workers who came later in the day were made “equal” to them, and you can imagine that word “equal” was said with a dirty taste in the mouth. What is really going on here?
It seems that we, and the workers, rely on systems of inequality in order to maintain our own sense of self-worth and value. We started as a different time therefore our worth and value must be higher. The truth is we see work as more than just earning a daily wage; it determines whether or not we are considered successful or a failure, superior or inferior. It is a source of division and competition. Can I put my finger on the system of Caste and Class; that invisible enemy that often’ dominates the Church which is the antithesis of the culture of the Kingdom of God?
STORY: CONVERSATION WITH MAN FROM ASIA.
I had a conversation years ago with a well-connected, well-to-do gentleman from Asia. His children were all Oxbridge educated. We covered many areas of interest and there was much common ground between us but when I raised the subject of giving others a fair break so that they could socially advance he strongly disagreed with me. He said, “Why would I educate my servant’s children to let them compete with mine? And who then would be the servants?” My friend, like the workers in the parable protested because they had a vested interest to protect. The landowner upset the apple cart and overturned this comfortable social convention we call the “pecking order” by being generous to everyone. These workers are crying, “It’s not fair” when the truth is they want to be the favourites. They want to be on top. We want to be God’s favourite children. Here is the truth – we are all favourites.
In showing generosity to the other workers, the landowner wasn’t taking away from the first workers. The point Jesus is making is that in God’s kingdom all are blessed whether you are stalwart or new saint. It’s not like God was giving out one pie and dividing it into smaller and smaller pieces of pie because more people were there. Everyone got their share of the pie. What the parable of the feeding of the five thousand teaches us is that in God’s economy there is more than enough – that’s what the twelve baskets of leftovers represents. But the darker side of our natures demands special status, special concession, and special recognition for what we have done. God says, ‘I see you’ ‘I see what you have done and everyone who labours in my kingdom will be rewarded.
In this world of unfairness God sees you. He sees when you play by the rules and get shafted. He understands when you cry in frustration, ‘it’s not fair.” Is it fair that we have to go back into single unit lock-down when those who have broken the rules, who don’t seem to care get away with it? You know what, you are probably right! It isn’t fair. Ask Jesus – He knows.
THIS IS AN UNFAIR WORLD
Jesus lived a perfect life, harmed no-one, healed countless, fed the hungry, preached good news to the poor, performed marvellous miracles - yet He was falsely arrested, on trumped up charges, and one gets the feeling the verdict had already been agreed before the evidence had even been put together. Yet He was innocent of any wrongdoing. Life seemed most unfair. I don’t know about you, but I would have strongly protested my innocence for been questioned or put on trial for things I haven’t done. It makes you feel unloved, persecuted, isolated, and alone. For Jesus Life was unfair.
JESUS UNDERSTANDS OUR SUFFERING
Jesus can completely identify with those who are suffering injustice, pain, loneliness, hate and needless violence. Why - because it unfairly happened to Him. Hebrews 4:15 “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are –yet was without sin”.
When unfairness threatens our peace or undermines our sense of worth and dignity remember we have a High Priest who understands because He is our suffering Saviour, our Man of Sorrows, our Burden Bearer, our Pain Shearer, who is full acquainted with our situation and suffering. He understands the highs and the lows, and he cares when you pass through those seasons of life when there are more lows than highs, more valleys of the shadows than mountain tops of sunshine. He sees you. He knows exactly what you are going through at this very moment in time. Whatever the trouble is he knows. Trouble doesn’t schedule an appointment with you before it comes. It happens. I am here to remind you that he sees you and he is watching over you. He is Jehovah Roi – the God who sees. He see you and he’s got your back.
Are you are feeling unseen, unsafe, and insignificant and sucked in by the pressures of life? There is something you need to know: God sees you. In your weak place, broken place, empty place, desert place, God sees you. When others look past you, God sees you. When you feel hopeless, helpless, hapless, and stuck, God sees you. He comes with redeeming and restoring grace where you are. He comes in that place of desolation where the odds are insurmountable and stacked against you to change the landscape and bring you out of your desert place. He is not just the God who sees you. He is the God who is able to do exceeding, abundantly more than you can ask or even imagine, Amen.