(Readings for 20A: Jonah 3:10-4:11, Psalm 1451-9, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-16)
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9 (NRSV)
Some take a passage like this to argue that the ways of God are so different than ours that it is impossible to make any sense of them. When a disaster happens and thousands of people are killed they will say idiotic things like “the ways of the Lord are mysterious” somehow suggesting that God was behind that tragedy. I don’t believe that and I believe that in the beatitudes Jesus taught us that this was untrue. I think that kind of attitude is generally just a justification that’s used so we don’t really have to struggle to understand what God is about or what God is calling us to do.
In the last three weeks we’ve had these teachings from Jesus about how we are to live and think and act in regards to things like engaging in social change, loving our enemies and forgiving others. These teachings are so different from the way things are commonly done in our world that they do seem about as distant from them as the heavens are from the earth and yet, if we listen, if we are open, if we are willing to struggle with them, we will find these teachings are not inscrutable, they do make sense, they are just incredibly challenging and again and again they go against our gut instincts.
In our lesson from The Book of Jonah today, we again hear about a God who loves our enemies and calls us to do the same. Jonah has no interest in helping, much less saving, the imperialist Ninevites, but God sends him right into the belly of the beast. Worse, when they hear of their approaching destruction the Ninevites repent of their evil and avert disaster.
Jonah would have liked to seen the Ninevites destroyed so he’s pissed off and he goes off to sulk. God causes a bush to give him shade and the text says “Jonah was very happy about the bush.” Then God causes the bush to die and Jonah is left unprotected from “the sultry east wind” and the hot sun and he declares his anger at God saying “It is better for me to die then to live.”
Instead of consoling Jonah, God says to him, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And Jonah responds, “Yes, angry enough to die.” (I love that–that’s what you call an I-thou relationship with God–neither holding anything back.) And then God responds:
“You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nin’eveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
You can fee a powerful truth springing forth from those words. I suspect a new greater awareness overcame Jonah such that he was no longer blinded, but was now able to see the broad reality of others that he was not able to see before. It’s a story that tells us about the gap between what often seems just or fair to us and what really is fair and just.
Last week I talked about resentfulness as the opposite of thankfulness. Today I want to focus a bit on how resentfulness can blind us, how it can, as we see the story of Jonah, keep us focused on “just us”, rather then being able to hear the call to justice.
In Matthew’s gospel we hear that from the perspective of divine justice, if they are in need, people are to be given shelter, food and water, and loving care when they are sick or lonely or in jail. If we have this perspective we see divine justice at work when the landlord in today’s story decides to give everyone a days’ wage, even if they had only worked for an hour, because everyone needs to be able to live.
However, this seems unfair to those who had worked for many hours under the hot sun. They have apparently forgotten what it is to have to stand around worrying all day not knowing whether or not you are going to be able to provide something for your family to eat that night. Perhaps they thought it was very generous for the landlord to give a days wage for an hours work and were hoping for that same generosity to be also shown to them. The injustice that they feel seems compounded by the fact that the landlord makes them wait while he pays the latecomers first. That must have felt like salt on the wounds.
Jesus was a strange spiritual teacher. When you think of spiritual teachers you usually think of people who talk in ways that leave you feeling good, but Jesus’ stories often do the opposite as they seem designed to stir up troubling feelings and to get you to reflect on your own experience, or provoke us to collectively wrestle with the questions they pose. I think today’s story is meant to get us to wrestle with how we deal with things when our guts protest that something seems unfair, or unjust, because we cannot see a higher justice or fairness at work.
Let me give you some examples of when and where this might happen.
If you are in a large family and the food is limited–it might seem most fair to you if each person got exactly the same amount of food. But a parent can see that not all children have the same needs, a child who is sick or growing may need more food then another child. That may be true, but there is a good chance it will seem unfair to you if you are one who is getting less.
The same thing goes for time. In an ideal world parents could give each of their children all the time and attention they need. But we don’t live in that ideal world so sometimes you find yourself having to figure out whose most needing your attention. If a child has a chronic illness they may get much more of your attention throughout their childhood. The family resources are going to go towards where they seem to be most needed. That can be painful. Not to blame anyone, but that can feel pretty unfair particularly if you are unable to get your essential needs met and that can happen even if we parents are making the best decisions we can make and we know that often is not the case.
This issue of what feels fair, or just, to us sometimes being in conflict with God’s restorative justice comes up at a number of points in Jesus’ teachings.
The prodigal son treats his family shamefully, wastes vital family resources on his profligate lifestyle and what happens? Does his father punish him? No, he throws a party for him to celebrate the fact that he has come back to his senses. His older responsible brother is aghast. He won’t join in the celebration for he feels it’s unfair. He tells his father “I did everything you asked and you never killed the fatted calf for me! How’s that fair?” And then his father gently calls him on it: “Look I divided up my fortune between you and your brother. He’s wasted his half so everything I have is yours. In other words, you are no longer a child, you can have a party anytime you want, but your brother who was dead has come back to life and we should celebrate this.”
The issue of fairness also comes up in Jesus’ teaching that the last shall be first, which he often address to those who saw themselves as righteous and above others. To them he said: “Prostitutes and tax collectors are going to enter the kingdom of heaven before you.” It’s an oldest responsible child’s nightmare. Not only am I not going to be rewarded for being the dutiful obedient child–in some ways it feels like I’m being punished for it. And this appears not just to have been some distant future prediction. We hear that in the early church this happened: notorious sinners, poor people, people others looked down upon were filled with God’s joyous spirit, felt loved and accepted by God and those who had labored all day in the fields of trying to do the right thing and obey the law were often late coming to the feast. Life can be a gut churning experience and Jesus is challenging us to look at what’s happening with our guts and wrestle with what’s going on there.
I think the example of handicapped parking spaces is a helpful reminder of how easily we can become blinded to the needs of others as we get caught up in “just us.” Your able-bodied and driving around the parking lot and you see that the only empty parking space is reserved for people with disabilities. Where does your mind go? It tells you that if that space wasn’t a handicapped parking space you would have been able to park there. The reality is that if this was not a reserved space the likelihood is someone else would have parked there, but in that moment of feeling victimized you can’t see that. So instead of feeling grateful that our society has evolved to the point where we are going to make sure that people who can’t walk far can get to that place, and all it costs is for the rest of us to sometimes have to walk a block or two further, we get caught up in this narrative of unfairness.
One of the places we really have to wrestle with our guts and what they perceive to be fair and just is around social change movements, movements for restorative justice, and how they often conflict with what our guts or consciences tell us is fair.
In Huckleberry Finn, we see this conflict at work. Huck is helping his friend Jim escape from slavery. Then his conscience gets to him. Stealing is wrong. By helping Jim escape he’s helping to steal another man’s property. He start’s to turn Jim in but then realizes he can’t do it. He loves Jims too much so he turns back and says to himself “if conscience were an old dog I would take it out and shoot it.”
Our guts and our conscience don’t necessarily have anything to do with true justice and true fairness.
In the introduction to her autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, L Maria Child talks about why, without Susan B. Anthony’s encouragement, she would never have written this powerful book. Why? Because she was so ashamed that she had an affair with the white doctor who lived across the street as a way of keeping her master from being able to force her to have sex with him. Here you are trapped in the utmost evil, forced to survive anyway you can, and your conscience is giving you that kind of grief for having sex as a way to keep from being raped? Jesus help us.
On the other side, you can read the diaries and writings of slave owners who felt really grieved and hurt when slaves they loved chose to run away to gain their freedom. It felt to them like a betrayal. Their sense of “just us” kept them from seeing the reality of people they loved. It blocked them from being able to envision God’s justice.
I can remember my dad’s sense of unfairness when, as a result of the women’s movement in the 1960’s, my mom began to insist he do the dishes each night. He had the idea that if he worked all day he should be able to come home and rest. He had encouraged my mom to go to work, but he obviously hadn’t expected that this would mean he would have to work when he got home. That’s not how things had worked in his world. Most other men he knew were not having to do the dishes every night. When he got used to it I think my dad came to see how distorted his thinking had been–that if this woman he loved deeply had worked all day and then came home and cooked then she too needed time to rest– but in took several years of conflict before this awareness dawned.
So often “just us” has nothing to do with justice and when it comes to housework I don’t need to just talk about my dad. At an Episcopal High School Youth retreat, I read an essay called “The Politics of Housework.” It listed all the ways husbands used to get out of helping with housework: always asking their wives questions about how to do something, banging the dishes around or finding other ways to communicate their displeasure, talking about how nice things had been in the past. I felt totally convicted because I had used most of these strategies on my mom and I realized there was no more reason she should do these chores, which at the time I considered boring and demeaning, than me. It changed me. From then on I did housework without complaint.
I think it’s worth thinking about these realities because we’re now in a time in our history where we are seeing the power of the politics of resentment. Any kind of past wound, slight, or past grievance, real or imagined, can be nurtured so that we are unable to see, unable to feel, empathy for whoever is “the other”, the not us. Whether the other is poor or rich, black or white, male or female, gay, straight or transgender we find folks encouraging us to focus on “just us” not justice.
For example, much of the wealth divide between black and white Americans is about home ownership. This gap is not just about what happened under slavery, its about what happened in the 1940’s and 1950’s when Federal Government policies made cheap home loans available to whites to build nice houses in the suburbs, but black people generally could not get these loans because they were not available for people living in integrated areas. If we now addressed this past discrimination by saying we should now do for African Americans what we did for white Americans, in terms of making these cheap housing loans available to them, you know there would be an incredible outcry, the claim that this was unfair. Many white people would denounce it as another form of welfare and say that it was fostering dependency totally ignoring how their parents or grandparents received these same loans and how much of their current wealth is based on that fact.
I’m not going to argue about whether this would be a good thing to do or not. I think how we get from our current unjust unequal caste society to a society where there is much greater justice and much greater equality is complex. For now I just want us to feel how these politics of resentment and paranoia keep us from being able to empathize with one another and to see where justice is calling us.
If we are not going to let this kind of fear, anger, resentment, and paranoia keep us from moving forward, which we cannot afford to let happen, we need to be able to recognize it, address it, and work our way through it, so that the feast of God can happen, this banquet at which all are fed and satisfied can happen, this reign of God in which people feel seen, and known, and loved, and appreciated, can happen.
Let us take the time to listen to our resentfulness so that we can understand who we are hardening our hearts towards, who we are unable to listen to, who we are unwilling to try to understand, because without the spirit of listening and understanding we are not going to be able to enter into the new creation, the land of promise, that our hearts long for. But if we are willing, God is able and if we are ready, God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us. Amen