Sunday, September 11, 2011

It ain't fair: Year A, Ordinary 25

This Week's Lectionary Texts:
Exodus 16:2-15 or Jonah 3:10-4:11
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 or Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:20-30
Matthew 20:1-16

This Week's Reflection:
Ever since my kids could talk whenever one of them would utter those words that all kids repeat again and again, "But it's not fair!," I have responded with all my motherly comfort and understanding, "Well, life isn't fair! Get used to it!"

The texts this week seem to be crying out with my kids on this one. (And, if I'm being honest, with myself as well.) The story in Exodus has the Israelites wondering why in the world they have followed Moses out there to the wilderness only to starve to death. I can imagine there were lots of "It ain't fair!" being thrown around as their bellies growled with hunger. And, don't we have to agree? How fair is it to be taken out of one kind of slavery only to find themselves enslaved by hunger and fear?
Jonah's story has always fascinated me. Again, if I'm being honest, this is probably because I relate so much to his sentiment in this passage. He has been through hell. Sorry, no other way to describe finding oneself in the deep, dark depths of the sea INSIDE a big fish! He tried to get out of the job in the first place, then followed God's will and did what was asked - proclaimed that destruction was coming for their wicked ways - and now God has decided to forgive the city of Nineveh and nothing happened. Jonah is so upset that he goes to sit under a tree and pout. "It ain't fair, God," he says, "I went through a lot to do what you asked and now nothing?"

The writer of Philippians points out the classic question that we all have asked at some point or another, the same question that the Israelites and Jonah asked, "Wouldn't it be better to just go on and die than to live this unfair life?" And, this passage reminds us that all is not suddenly hunky dory just because we follow Jesus. In fact, much the opposite - "For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well." It is that suffering thing that always gets me. How is that fair?

And, then there is the gospel. No other story of the Bible elicits cries of "But that ain't fair!" more than the parable of the workers in the vineyard. This owner goes out to hire day workers at the nearest spot where folks hang out to find that kind of work. He drives up in his pickup truck and says, "Come on and work for me." Five times throughout the day he did this, going out and finding those who had not found work anywhere else, loading them up and taking them so they can receive a day's pay. The last time was about five minutes from quitting time, but he took them anyway. And, here is where it gets really crazy. Everyone was paid the same amount. The ones who had worked five minutes receive the exact same amount as the ones who had been out there working since dawn. That ain't fair by any stretch of the imagination.

So, what is Holy Spirit saying to us preachers and teachers this week through these texts? Is Spirit responding with a smart alec tone like I do to my children, "Life isn't fair! Get used to it!" I like to think not. Though, life isn't fair and we do have to live with that reality. No, what I think is more likely is that God is saying, "Life isn't fair. If it were, wouldn't you be in a mess?"

Jonah got all kinds of second chances to do what was right, but didn't understand when God did the same for the people of Nineveh. The Israelites found it difficult to see the big picture from all that they had been through to God providing them with miraculous amounts of food even in the midst of their whining and complaining. When Paul reflects on life in Christ and all the suffering that comes with it, he honestly admits that going on through death to the other side would probably be better. And, when Jesus uses this absurd story of workers who worked unequal amounts but received the same pay, he is practically yelling in our faces, "It ain't fair! Isn't that wonderful?"

If the way that God works was fair, we would be in a heap of trouble. If the way God works was fair, we would find ourselves lost and alone with no clear direction of where to go. If the way God works was fair, we wouldn't have a Christ who was executed though innocent. It ain't fair. And, I, for one, am so very thankful that it isn't.

This Week's Artwork (in order of appearance in reflection):
Pouting by Shante Slagle
In the Vineyard by Jean Francois Millet
Jonah Awaiting Destruction of Ninevah by Trenet Worlds
Day Laborers Napa Valley by Dave Getzschman
The Late Comers by Jesus Mafa
Justice vs. Greed
Shelter Solution with Fence and Sign