God is not fair
Peter is so reliable at asking the things everyone else just thinks but is afraid to say outloud. He’s like an adorable, feisty kindergartner who predictably shoots up his hand and waves it frantically around, brow furrowed, biting his lip, at nearly every new thing the teacher says. You want to be annoyed with him, but he’s so darn sincere and trying so hard to get it right, that you can’t help but smile. Just like last time, today's parable is an answer to a question by Peter.
Yes, Peter? What is it?
What could Peter have asked to get Jesus to tell this story?
What burning question compelled him?
Just before this Jesus has just been approached by a very wealthy man, who asked him, What good deeds must I do to have eternal life? And Jesus answered, “Why do you ask me about what is good. There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” The man asked which ones, and Jesus listed them off. I keep them all, he answered. What do I still lack? And Jesus responded, if you wish to be perfect, sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor and follow me. And in the space between paragraphs, the man disappears, never to be heard from again.
Now Peter gets anxious, again, and the questions bubble up.
If the key to winning God’s favor is not by how well you do, then it must be by how much you give up. So he waves his hand and says “Oh, oh, oh, Jesus! Jesus, look, we have left everything and followed you. What do we get?”
And Jesus answers him with comforting words of future glory – Don’t worry Peter, you will be absolutely taken care of in the end. But then Jesus throws in the zinger, again, the last will be first and the first will be last. And he follows it up with this parable, which boils down to:
The people who get picked up to work at the end of the day get paid the same as those who worked all day long.
I can feel myself get riled at the fairness factor here. It’s not fair. Not remotely. If you work longer, you get paid more. Period. Everyone gets how these rules work; we base whole societies on these things. How come this landowner can’t seem to stick with the program? And I feel utterly justified feeling that way, too, until I get to the line, “You have made them equal to us.”
And isn’t that the heart of it?
Are you envious because I am generous? The landowner asks the first workers, when they complain about being paid exactly what they were promised, but were upset because those who worked shorter than they did, didn’t make enough less money than them to make it fair.
Am I not allowed to do what I choose to with what is mine? Or are you envious because I am generous? Neither of these options are one I would want to fess up to in the moment. Obviously it’s his money, he can spend it how he wants. I’m not about to disagree with that. And yes, he did pay me just what he said he would – he’s not cheating me in any way. So then, do I admit I am envious?
What if I just want things to be fair?
If I am the first worker, is there any conceivable scenario where I would switch places with the last? In other words, given the choice, would I have preferred to have secure employment from the beginning of the day, with a clear sense of what I was earning, and get paid just what I expected, or, would I like to spend the day standing around listless, anxiously watching the hours tick by not working but wishing I was? Which would you want? Would we have wanted to wonder and worry all day long and then feel grateful to get at least an hour of work in? Even with the amazing surprise in the paycheck, would we have chosen that roller coaster over getting the same amount without a day filled with fear and apprehension?
Let me take a stab at these fictional parable people and say, with some confidence, they don’t want to switch places. They are not jealous. They are envious. Envy is not wanting what someone else has, it is not wanting them to have it. They are fine with what they have. They don’t want someone else to have it. “You have made them equal to us.” they said.
This landowner broke the rules.
The unwritten ones that we all live by in the accounting system, the way of fear.
How can we know how well we are doing unless we can look back on those we’ve passed up? How can we be assured of our own security, or our progress, if others are given a place at the table right next to us and they didn’t have to work nearly as hard as we did to get there?
The rich man walks away because Jesus took away his measuring stick.
You know all the commandments and follow them perfectly. If it was about earning your way, you’ve clearly earned your way here and everyone can see that. Now, give it all away. Have nothing left to show for your success, or your faithfulness. Just follow me, without getting any credit for it, without even knowing how to credit yourself.
And that was too much for him.
And Peter, Peter, Peter! What will we get, then, Jesus? If we have already given up everything to follow you? We must surely get more than others, right? Because we’ve sacrificed more? Followed longer? Been ready to do what that rich guy wasn’t? We should be super assured of our superior place, right Jesus? That’s only fair!
Peter keeps forgetting that the Kingdom of God is not fair.
That’s a goal of the accounting system, not the Kingdom of God.
Jesus doesn’t care one tiny bit about fairness. If you want fair, you’re looking in absolutely the wrong place. And Thank God for that, actually.
Because as noble a goal as it seems, it’s a farce. “ Fair” is an unachievable illusion. And the idea that we can somehow earn our security permanently – whether here or in eternity – is an utter lie as well.
Putting our trust in the rules is a dangerous mind game.
Like the rich man trusting his wealth, and Peter trusting his sacrifice – it’s thinking that something we do can make or keep ourselves secure, or worthy, or good, or safe, or somehow other than vulnerable human in it alongside everyone else.
We may not be wondering today where our food will come from, but we may be wondering how long our health will hold out. We may not be stuck waiting to be hired for work, but we may be stuck waiting for test results, or word that our child is out of harm's way.
Sometimes we invest our money wisely, and financial markets crash.
Sometimes we work for 30 years for the same company and get pink slipped without warning. Sometimes we follow all the advice and steps for a good marriage and end up divorced.
We like to feel in control of our own destinies. But we’re not in control of our own destinies. We like to think we are the first workers, and always will be, the ones with choice, the ones who “deserve it.” Longer work equals higher reward. Simple. We can sign on to that and then work hard, right? That’s fair.
But the kingdom of God, shows that illusion for what it is. No matter how fair we may try to make things, they are never really fair. It’s easier to do well and go far, for example, if you’re raised with enough resources, with tons of people who believe in you, in a culture where you speak the dominant language and look like the majority. It doesn’t hurt at all to have an extra dose of math skill in your genes, or the good looks and athleticism that opens doors, or to know someone who knows someone. On top of that, it’s handy to avoid any genetic conditions, serious illnesses, unforeseen accidents or devastating natural disasters in your lifetime, not to mention personal mistakes or failures on your part. And, if you can at all help it, try to never, ever, get old or die.
And for those times we happen to be in the first shift, for the times when we are lucky and the system is working well for us, it is easier to delude ourselves that we are somehow earning our worth or securing our lives. But the truth is, that while life is a lot of things, fair is not actually one of them. Not even when that’s what we are aiming for as the goal.
Life is precious, and scary, and holy, and messy, and precarious, and no matter how we feel about the matter, according to this parable, God actually doesn’t care at all about being – or even appearing to be – fair.
Instead, “God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” (Psalm 145:8) God is a dangerous affront to our idea of fairness.
And Jesus’ parables are designed to peel back the surface and step into something deeper, something troubling, something that is risky and life-giving, but at first it is going to feel like dying.
He says following him is going to feel like losing your life instead of saving it. It is going to be like letting go of all your security and measuring tools. It will feel like being last instead of being assured you are first. The kingdom of heaven is like this, Jesus says.
It always confronts the kingdom of earth. It always dismantles the accounting system. It always strips away illusions and false security.
God’s kingdom welcomes us only when we are our most basic, human selves, quite apart from any earnings or deservings we may or may not have. The Kingdom of God is much easier for the last to recognize than it is for those who’ve gotten used to being first.
The day is coming when Peter wont be so confident, in fact, he will be crushed completely. He will let himself down in the worst way he can imagine: he will fail Jesus. It doesn’t matter how much he’s given up, or how much he’s done, or how well he follows, he will lose forever any shot he had at earning his way or proving his worth as a disciple when, despite being warned--three times!--he denies even knowing Jesus to save his own skin. Three times he will betray the one he said he was more committed to than anyone else was.
And then the risen Jesus will find Peter in the depths of his despair, in his own personal death, and welcome him close, and say to him, If you love me, feed my sheep.
The kingdom of God is not an accounting system.
God doesn’t keep track like we do.
God is not interested in fairness; God is interested in life.
When you are beyond hope, God is there. When you have wandered so far that you can’t find your way back, God will rescue you and nurse you back to strength. When you have squandered all that God has given you and you limp home ashamed and miserable, God will run to you with open arms and embrace you as his beloved child. When all that your luck, or bad choices, or poor planning, or the hand you’ve been dealt, allows for is one measly hour of work at the tail end of a long day, you are not paid by what you have earned, but by the generosity of our God, who makes the last first, and the first last, and every last one of us: beloved.