Rev. Martha Jacobs
What Do You Want From God: Fairness or Generosity and Grace?
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45, Matthew 20:1-16
Sunday, September 24, 2017
As a child, I wanted my parents to be fair. I was the youngest and I would watch as my siblings got what I perceived to be more than I did. I didn’t understand why I got less. For example, I received less money for my allowance. It didn’t matter to me that they had more chores than I had or that they had once gotten what I was now getting. For me, it was a justice issue – yes, even back then, I could see injustices – or at least what I perceived to be injustices!
What I didn’t see, was my parents being generous in their love for me. I think I did receive more grace than my siblings because by the time I came along my parents had figured out the parenting thing. I had less oversight from them, because when I was in Third grade, my mother went back to school to become a nurse. So she could not be as watchful over me as she had been over my siblings. I know I got the better end of the deal and I am happy to admit that to you. But, I would never admit that to my brother, who still chides me for getting more from my parents than he did….his perception, of course!
Also, by the time I came along, my parents had more financial stability than they had with my siblings and so, in my siblings’ eyes, I received more from my parents than they did. And, I guess that I rubbed that in, just a bit, which, of course, made them even angrier.
So I wonder what the workers did who worked for one hour and got paid the same as those who had worked all day. Did they rub it in, even just a bit? Or did they go home and tell their family about this generous land owner who paid them a days’ wages for one hour of work? And, those who worked the full day – I wonder if they went home and grumbled about the unfairness they perceived, even though they were paid what they had agreed to.
Being paid the same amount of money whether they worked all day or only one hour, strikes us a patently unfair for those who worked more hours. But it was also generous because they worked and they earned a days’ wages. They didn’t lose out on a days’ pay, which was so important to them. But, I can imagine anticipating what I might get paid when seeing those in front of me get paid more than the hours they worked. Of course, I would assume that this seemingly generous land owner would extend that generosity to me, as well. Not receiving more than I had negotiated for, when others did, would have made me quite angry at this land owner, even though he had the right to do what he did. I would have perceived it to be unfair, especially since my hopes were crushed when he was not as generous to me.
I wonder, is it possible that we receive unexpected and unmerited generosity and grace without even realizing it? Are we so focused sometimes on what we perceive as being unfair, that we miss the generosity and grace that are there for us for the taking? At the end of the day, do we really want fairness from God or do we want generosity and grace?
Last Sunday several people commented to me that I was very brave to be so vulnerable as I told the story about my being outed in a very nasty way when I was in seminary. I have to admit that being that vulnerable is scary, but I trust God and, just as importantly, I trust each one of you. We each have places that are broken, places from where we see the world, based on what happened to us in our youth and as we grew up, both positively and negatively. We have each experienced loss and disappointment and fear as well as hope.
And yet, most of us don’t seem to be able to or to want to show those parts of us that are broken or messy, even though those places are where we experience the most human part of each other – the part that is wounded. Where our wounds touch, Jesus joins with us and is present to us, which enables us to be more compassionate with others. When we are willing to operate out of that place of hurt and brokenness, we can have more grace and generosity to give to others, especially those who are struggling.
We are more compassionate when we operate out of our vulnerability instead of our strength. Our culture encourages us to show only strength. But, if we can offer who we truly are and allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we might find others willing to do the same. Here at FCC, I have seen that kind of vulnerability and am deeply touched by it. It leads me and encourages me to be more vulnerable with you which opens us all up to more grace and more generosity from God and from each other.
It is hard to imagine a love that goes against our expectations, and against how our society functions, whether it was in Jesus’ time or in our time. After all, what kind of God would offer the same reward to those who have earned it and those who have not? There is a radical equality about God that is a reversal of our expectations, of our sense of justice.
The reversal of expectations is part of what it means to be a Christian in a community of faith, for we accept each other without judgement, without fear of being ostracized, at least at this church that is my experience. And, as I have heard from many of you, that is your experience here as well – the radical equality of God, which gives us unmerited grace and generosity, is best expressed when we open our doors to everyone, no matter their financial ability, their skin color, their sexual orientation or anything else that makes them who they are. We are continually learning and are called to be more vulnerable, to be radically generous in our love and acceptance of all.
Several months ago, we received a request from someone in the community who was in need of financial assistance. Her story was very confusing and I spent some time trying to ensure that what she was telling me was the truth, since I try to be a good steward of the resources you all so generously give. I talked with one person in the community who said to me, “Yes, it is true. Now, I am not sure that she did not bring this on herself. She made some poor decisions, so you may want to take that into consideration.” I immediately told this person that we don’t judge people based on choices they make that end up costing them dearly.
I told him that we provide support to people who are in need without judgement and that we don’t discriminate based on how they got into the trouble they are in. He was quite surprised that we would not judge this person to determine whether or not she merited the assistance. We strive to be radically generous in our giving to those who are in need, whatever their situation. And, thanks to your generosity, we can afford to do so.
This parable is about the generosity of God. God doesn’t parse out love based on our gender or on any other aspect of who we are, other than that we are a child of God. Our ideas of what is right and what is wrong, or just or unjust are not God’s ideas. We expect equality; God provides generosity. Just when we think that we have figured God out, God does something that we don’t expect – God provides us with more love and acceptance that we can even imagine, whether we work our fingers to the bone or not. We may not agree with God’s way of handling things, but, in the end, God will treat us with compassion and love and forgiveness and grace, beyond anything we can imagine. God’s gift of love is priceless.
There is one other theme that I believe is a part of this parable and we may perceive it to be the most radical part of God’s grace and generosity. And, that is that this parable tells us is that it is never too late to accept God into our hearts. We can be young or we can be an elder, we can never come to God when it is too late. It is never too late to begin to care for others as well as ourselves in a more radical and compassionate way. It is never too late for God’s grace and God’s love.
So, to answer my own question, I would much rather have God’s grace and generosity that God’s fairness. I need grace and generosity more often than I need fairness. I just need to learn not to look at anyone else and compare myself to them and to what I perceive God has given them.
My grandmother used to tell me, when I would complain to her about what I saw as the injustices of my parents, “My dear Martha, (she would say), in the end, your parents love you and that is what’s most important and will carry you through the ups and down of life.” And, knowing what I know now, I would say she was right – but not only my parents’ love has helped carry me through the ups and downs of life. God generosity and grace and love have as well. Amen.