Sunday, September 21, 2008

God's Justice

Sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost
RCL, Year A, Proper 20: Jonah 3:10-4:11; Psalm 145:1-8; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

“It’s not fair!”

If we could tally how many times we’ve said, heard, or thought that, I wonder if we’d be able to count high enough.

Parents of young children in particular know what I’m talking about. Just like apples don’t fall far from the tree, our kids say the same things we did when we were their ages. “Sissy got more than me!” “But Jack has one of those and I don’t!” “I’m the only one in my class who’s never been to Burger King!” It’s almost as if a sense of justice as fairness is woven right into our DNA.

As another way of talking about fairness, many of us think of justice in terms of giving people what they deserve. If you’ve done something bad, for instance, you should be held accountable. Which often translates to mean that you should pay for it – if not in cash, then by having something bad happen to you in return. This kind of justice, notes one theologian, “is when a bully gets bullied, or when a cheater gets cheated, or when a liar is discovered.”
[1] Furthermore, if you work harder than someone else, you deserve more compensation than the other person. And if you’ve done something good and praiseworthy, you deserve to be rewarded for it.

Doing what’s fair and getting what we deserve: that’s how our society tends to think of justice. But today’s Gospel reading seems to be challenging our taken-for-granted view, at least when it comes to that fulfillment of God’s purposes Matthew calls the kingdom of heaven.

In the verses prior to today’s reading, Peter asks Jesus a question. He’s noted that he and the other disciples have left everything to follow Jesus. And he wants to know what sort of compensation they will receive for the sacrifices they’ve made. “We’ve left everything to follow you,” Peter says. “What do we get out of it?” (Mt. 19:27, The Message). That’s a question of justice. And in response, Jesus tells the parable of the kingdom we hear today.

Early one morning, a landowner hires laborers to work in his vineyard for “the usual daily wage” (Mt. 20:2, NRSV). The landowner does the same for other idle but willing laborers at 9:00, 12 noon, 3:00, 5:00, and right up to closing time. Everybody who wants to work gets a job with the promise of a living wage.

But things go sour at pay time. Those who worked all day long receive the same pay as those who worked for only one hour. To those who worked long hours in the heat of the day, equal pay for unequal work seems blatantly unjust. In our society, those angry workers might haul the landowner into court, suing for fair compensation. And could we really blame them? Doesn’t it seem right that those who work the hardest deserve the greatest reward for their labors? Doesn’t it seem fair that if you work for only 1 hour you don’t deserve the same pay as someone who’s worked for 12 hours?

And yet, in response to the angry workers who feel unjustly treated, the landowner replies: “I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Mt. 20:14-15, NRSV).

According to Jesus, the generosity of the landowner best exemplifies justice in the kingdom of God’s sovereign, saving rule. And so Peter’s concern for what he and his fellow disciples are going to get out of following Jesus misses the point. It’s not about what we do and what we get in exchange for what we do. It’s about what God does. And what God does can’t always be squared with our merely human conceptions of justice.

Could it be that God cares more about being generous and merciful than about giving people what’s coming to them? Is it possible that there’s more to the Gospel than insuring that people get what they deserve? A couple of examples from other parts of scripture suggest that the answer to these questions is “yes.”

In the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, Jesus touches on the impartiality, generosity, and mercy of God’s justice when he says: "This is what God does. He gives his best – the sun to warm and the rain to nourish – to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty" (Mt 5:45, The Message). And so Jesus counsels his disciples to “Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you” (Mt 5:48, The Message).

And then there’s God’s response to enemies. Surely it’s only fair that they get the retribution and condemnation they deserve. Jonah certainly thinks so. How dare God forgive those pagan Ninevites! But instead of responding by cursing or killing them, the apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that God responds to enemies by sending Jesus to die for them (cf. Romans 5:8-10).

Seen in the life and death of Jesus, God’s kingdom justice turns our taken-for-granted understanding of justice on its head. God’s kingdom justice doesn’t always seem fair because it means giving people precisely what they do not deserve. And that, my friends, is called grace. We can’t earn it, we never deserve it, but it’s there for us all the same. And why? Because the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ looks upon each and every one of us with tender mercy and compassion.

God’s justice is not about fire and brimstone. It’s not about whisking the elect to the safety of heaven while the rest of humanity and creation get
left behind to suffer the tribulation of chaos and violence. God’s justice is gracious and merciful. God’s justice is about mending what is broken, healing the sick and wounded, overcoming despair with hope, reconciling the estranged, and consummating the marriage of heaven and earth. That is God’s gracious will for you and for me and for all of creation

God reveals this gracious will to us most fully in Jesus. For in Jesus, we see that no matter how far down into the pit we may have fallen – no matter what we’ve done or left undone – we get the same response from God as the most virtuous of the saints: an invitation to a place at the table in God’s kingdom, a place where we belong, a place where our wounds are healed and our relationships restored.

We can’t earn it or do anything to deserve it, but the invitation is there all the same. And if we accept and act upon that invitation, it will transform our lives.

So regardless of how little or how much we’ve done in giving of our time, talents, and treasure for the spread of God’s kingdom; regardless of what kinds of sins we’ve committed in thought, word, or deed; regardless of whether we’ve been in church on Sundays for most of our lives or are showing up for the first time in a long, long time – we’re all in the same boat. We’re all in desperate need of God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness. In Jesus, God invites us all to receive that love, mercy, and forgiveness, and to let the truth sink deep into our hearts and into the marrow of our bones that each and every one of us is precious in God’s sight. Indeed, God invites us to dare to believe that we are worthy enough for Jesus to give his life so that we may live.

May we respond by accepting that invitation, and then by living as generously and graciously toward others as God lives toward us.

Justo L. Gonzalez, The Apostles’ Creed for Today (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), p. 67.


Sally said...

I was touched by this sermon, Fr Bryan but at the end, I couldn't help hearing Homer Simpson: "Why can’t I worship the Lord in my own way, by praying like hell on my death bed" ?1

Any suggestions for an answer to Homer's question?

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for your comment, Sally. You raise a good and important question. If all of this grace business is true, then what difference does it make whether or not I live a good life? Why not just do my own thing knowing that I can always - at the last minute, even - repent and be saved?

I think this is related to the issue the apostle Paul raises in his letter to the Romans. He's talked about how Jesus' sacrifice has brought the free gift of justification and life in chp. 5. And at the opening of chp. 6, he asks: "What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?" (v. 1). And again: "Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace?" (v. 15).

Paul W. Meyer's comments on this in the Harper's Bible Commentary are worth noting:

"But the theological importance of the question 'Why not sin?' lies in the fact that it is inevitably and regularly raised whenever the claim is made, as here, that human perversity cannot decisively frustrate God's benevolent purpose. Such a claim has always seemed to deny the reality and seriousness of sin, as Rom. 3:5-7 exemplifies. Throughout Christian history, the universal scope that Paul has clearly attributed to grace by pitting it against the worldwide grip of sin and death in 5:12-21 has seemed to undermine ... human accountability to God for moral behavior. Every radical message of grace stirs the ghost of libertinism to life. For just that reason, in Rom. 6:1-7:6 Paul does not simply turn aside from his main argument ... [but rather] turns the argument ... by showing that God's grace involves for its recipients a new righteousness, a reordering and integrity that preclude an undisturbed condition of life's previous patterns" [p. 1146].

At one level, I think the question you're raising, and that Paul grapples with, defies an easy answer in any given case. It could be that someone is resisting the invitation of God's grace. Or perhaps that someone is using God's grace as a cover for sin (which our Prayer Book defines as "the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation"). But if Meyer's interpretation of Paul is correct - that receiving God's grace entails "a reordering and integrity that preclude an undisturbed condition of life's previous patterns" - then the kind of posture towards God so humorously articulated by Homer would suggest that such a person has, in fact, not accepted the invitation of God's grace in the first place. To accept it is to be transformed by it - at least enough to where one is no longer content with "life's previous patterns," even if one has not fully transcended them (but perhaps continues to struggle).

I don't know if I'm making any sense. This is deep stuff, but important, too. In the end, I would not be comfortable with standing in judgment on Homer or anyone else who appears to be using or taking God's grace in vain. We mortals cannot see the heart, but God can.

Jendi said...

How does this vision of grace-over-fairness fit with an oppressed person's need for vindication by God--not necessarily retribution but at least validation, which he may not have received on earth?

Bryan Owen said...

That's an excellent question, Jendi. Part of the difficulty of giving it a satisfactory answer is that we tend to confuse vindication with vindictiveness.

Perhaps the example of Jesus is instructive. Part of the reason that the early Christians came to believe that Jesus was really the Messiah (because, by definition, a crucified Messiah is no Messiah at all) is the resurrection. It was seen as God's vindication of Jesus over his enemies and over the oppressive powers of evil in that time. That vindication did not, however, mean that the risen Jesus gloated it over his enemies or stuck it to folks like Peter who so dismally failed him. On the contrary, the risen Jesus was kind, gracious, and merciful, inviting the Peters back into the fold and commissioning the disciples to preach the Gospel to the ends of the world. (There's an interesting chapter about this that picks up on some of the ideas of Rene Girard in Rowan Williams' book Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel.)

I think this tell us something about the connection between God's justice and God's judgment. God's judgment is just (in the sense of Kingdom justice) because it's not the same thing as punishment. Punishment is about retribution, revenge, and inflicting pain and suffering. Judgment is about correction, restoration, and healing. Karl Barth put it well: "In the Biblical world of thought the judge is not primarily the one who rewards some and punishes others; he is the man who creates order and restores what has been destroyed" (Dogmatics in Outline, 1949). That, I believe, is a rather comforting thought if one believes (as I do) in the Creed's affirmation that "he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead."

I don't know if I've actually answered your question or danced around it! But like I said in response to Sally about my discomfort with affirming a human right to sit in judgment on the response of others to God's grace, I would also want to hold back from telling someone who has been been oppressed and brutalized by others how he or she must act, think, and feel - largely out of pastoral sensitivity and because I don't really know what that's like "from the inside." I trust that God is generous enough to handle that, too.

Bryan Owen said...

Perhaps I should add - at the risk of sounding trite and dismissive of the suffering of others - that part of the Christian hope is that, in the end, the vindication of Jesus will be a shared vindication of all who have suffered evil. That runs the risk of sounding trite and dismissive for many reasons, but more so if it becomes a recipe for passive resignation in the face of oppression and evil in this life. But if properly understood (and I think that many theologians, including N. T. Wright in his recent work on the Christian hope, do understand this), it provides an incentive for actively resisting oppression and evil in the name of Jesus in the here and now. The question, then, is how we resist.