Untitled: It’s Not Fair
It’s Not Fair September 20, 2020 Laura Merrill
Ms. Laura has already said it — “It’s not fair.” I didn’t title this sermon, but that would likely be the title first in line —”it’s not fair.” We see the unfairness immediately as Jesus takes us through this parable, which is of course the genius of his stories. They resonate nearly automatically, even across all the centuries since they were written.
There actually is something about this parable that reminds me of kids, or maybe myself as a kid. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way about children. But kids, especially siblings or classmates in close relationship, often have a keen, innate sense that calculates the relative value of certain favors or treats or gifts, and then keeps score of those values. I’m not sure when it is that we learn that what you get should be no more and no better than what I get, but we sure do learn it early.
I had an aunt, my father’s sister, who was both eccentric and tough. She was trained as a nurse and worked for years in a mental health ward, where more than once she had to use her big arm muscles to wrestle a patient who was out of control. She would bring her own Tupperware to Thanksgiving dinner, just to make it easier to take home leftovers. She was an artist and painted fanciful creatures of her own imagination. She suffered neither fools nor bullies, and I was a tiny bit scared of her when I was a little girl.
But she was also a gift-giver, generous to a fault. This aunt of mine died several years ago, and I had the privilege of leading a service to celebrate her life. I knew that she had given me some of the most beautiful items in my home, things she had collected from travels or garage sales or created at her own easel. What I didn’t know was that she had done the same for everybody else. The people gathered at her service testified to one another that if you told her you liked something of hers, she found a way to give it to you. She’d say she had been planning on getting rid of that anyway, and a vintage mirror would end up in the back seat of your car. A red leather chair, gold jewelry, a $20 bill snuck into the pocket of somebody she had just met—she wasn’t rich by any means, but she gave stuff away like crazy.
I think about what her reaction would have been if any of us kids when I was little had ever remarked on the fairness of her behavior, if we had thought it appropriate to comment on which of us had received more from her, or if we had perhaps tried to assert that we had somehow earned or deserved what she gave to us. First, she’d have taken all our heads off in one fell swoop. Then it would have been something about how life isn’t fair, and who do you think you’re talking to, and I can do what I want with what belongs to me. My Aunt Pat, sounding very much like the landowner in Matthew, chapter 20.
One difference between my aunt and the parable is that the parable includes this dynamic of working and bargaining and a fair wage. But you see, that’s just what catches us—the thought that we, by our own merits, can expect some particular compensation out of this life, something that’s due to us, as a result of our virtue or faithfulness or industriousness. Pretty much all of us, when we read this passage, see ourselves as the ones who got hired first. We’re the responsible ones, the hard-working ones, the long-suffering ones, the ones who have earned our way.
This is such a tempting, comforting thought. It makes us feel powerful and in control and right. It keeps us from feeling vulnerable and out of control. I’ll tell you that as I wrestled with this text this week, I felt I was wrestling with the ugliest part of the human character. Not the sensitivity to fairness—we can understand that innate gift for math, as the laborers calculate how much per hour the different groups are earning, ahead of them in the line. It’s the same way five-year-olds would notice somebody got an extra popsicle. It’s not fair; we can grant them that. As a side note, I need to say that it’s a whole ‘nother day’s conversation to address the lived experience of workers who line up after a day’s work and don’t receive a fair wage — that’s a different sermon — about those who truly do battle intentional unfairness, day in and day out.
But what caught me this time in that text, was that the workers hired first speak a line that goes beyond a childhood sense of unfairness and instead rings of something darker: “You have made them equal to us.” A chill runs down my spine as I consider how dangerous this statement can be and has been in our societies, for a host of marginalized people to be sure, but especially as it relates to race. In our experience of what we call Western civilization, we see centuries of insistence of light-skinned people on what is correctly described as white supremacy. We all know that this doctrine has flipped fairness on its head. It starts from an assumption of difference of superiority, based on nothing I might add, which creates unfairness. Then it manufactures stories and data and reasons for outrage any time anyone tries to fix the unfairness. “You are making them equal to us.”
I hope you either know our national history, or that you’re reading books to learn it. From before the founding of the nation, to prior to the Civil War and afterward, throughout the twentieth century, and now into the twenty-first, White America has used brutal violence in many different forms, over and over, to keep our arrangement in place. From the beginning, that violence has always been met by the deeply courageous and creative resistance of Black and hispanic and indigenous and other people of color. But that shouldn’t have to be our story.
I am going to trust today that no one listening to my voice, whatever your background or identity, wants to live in that world. It is not our intention, not our desire; we desire and we pray and we yearn instead for the remedy. I hardly know what to do with that part of my heritage as a descendant and citizen of white American culture, how to make my peace with that part of it. So instead of making peace with what is reprehensible to us, we must seek to make our peace another way. For we can intend and hope all we want, but only new action will change our world. As a first step, many of us white folks need to get in touch with what we don’t seem to know we carry—our own sense of entitlement; our quickness to afford ourselves the benefit of the doubt and our slowness to afford it to others; our assumption that we have worked hard and faithfully to earn the relative good favor of the world—all generally unintentional and unnoticed by us. Until we become willing to recognize and begin to dismantle these notions, the suffering and unfairness they create for others will continue.
“You have made them equal to us.” What a rich and complex statement these workers spoke, believing themselves aggrieved, hired first and paid last, the same as everybody else. They spoke the truth though, without knowing it, for indeed it is so. The Giver of every good gift has made us equal, as different as we are. We differ in our need, and in the perspectives we both lack and possess. We differ beautifully in our colors, in our bodies and songs, our talents and dreams, our voices and energies. We do differ in how hard we have worked, and to what end. Those hired at the final hour may have been doubling up on jobs to support a family. Another may have worked under a difficult handicap or conditions we cannot imagine. Yet the One who made us has made us equal. And you know that that equalizing force is love.
It’s the love my Aunt Pat poured out onto the world—autonomous, surprising, capricious, in the very best sense of the word. It’s the love that gives shape and nature to the kingdom of heaven, Jesus says. It’s likely to be disturbing and not what we expected. Most definitely the roles are not what we expected, for you and I are neither boss, nor rule-maker, nor math-calculator, as qualified as we may think we are. Those jobs are covered, thank you. Our job is to answer the call to labor in the vineyard of love, and to put our whole trust in the goodness of the One who has called us. Our job is to keep very close in our minds and hearts that the provision of our good God is not something we have earned. Our job is to believe that God’s generous gifts will be enough to sustain us, however they come, and then to act accordingly.
So might we live for that day when we stand in line with our fellow workers, our fellow citizens and siblings, when we view one another with the eyes of new math, eyes of grace, eyes that seek fairness first for the life of the other and then for ourselves, as Jesus has done for us. May we labor together and wait upon the good gifts of that gracious God, in a community where the last will be first, and the first will be last. May God grant a blessing on us as we pray, as we act, as we love. Amen.