September 20, 2020
1 Kings 19:9-13a
Several years ago, two zoologists decided to test the idea of fairness to see if other animals respond similarly to how humans respond. So, they took two capuchin monkeys and put them in test chambers side by side. The monkeys were taught to perform a simple task. When the human handed them a rock, they were to hand it back, and then they would receive a slice of cucumber. The monkeys like cucumber, and this was a fun thing for them to do. They consistently performed the task over and over without complaint.
But then, the researcher changed things. The first monkey received a cucumber like before, and she was perfectly happy with it. She ate it and waited for the task again. But when the second monkey performed the task, she was rewarded with a grape. That’s like high-end caviar to them. The first monkey again performed the task perfectly, but this time when she received the cucumber, she looked at it, looked at her partner, and threw the cucumber back at the researcher. She shook her cage and pounded her fists and had a fit. Again, the second monkey performed the task and received a grape. And again, when the first monkey only received a cucumber, she had a tantrum and threw it back.
Since then, similar tests have been done with dogs and birds and other animals with similar results. All animals, including humans, have an ingrained sense of fairness. We want the same things everyone else has—especially if it’s better than what we’re getting. Which is why we really connect with the first group of workers in the gospel passage. They worked all day long. And even though they had negotiated their pay with the steward, as they watched the other workers get the same amount, they began to expect that they would get more. It’s only fair.
But they didn’t. They got what was negotiated. And that made them mad. People should get what they deserve—what they earn—what they’re worth, especially compared to how they view everyone else. And that, my friends, is why the theology of works-righteousness is so prevalent in the world and in many churches. And it’s why we argue and get offended at the idea of things like raising minimum wage, offering free healthcare to everyone who resides in the country, funding food programs for the unemployed, and so on. We hear arguments such as, “If they want it, they need to work for it,” and “I don’t work 60 hrs/wk so that some lazy good-for-nothing can have what I’ve earned.” It’s why we hate the idea of taxes, even (or especially?) if they go to helping those who have little to nothing, whether they deserve it or not.
It’s where we come up with concepts like ‘the deserving poor’ vs. ‘the undeserving poor.’ It’s part of why so many cringe at the idea of socialism—not to mention how that ideal has been used to hurt people. But Jesus offers a different way of being. And our challenge is to not just spiritualize the message—not just make it about our relationship with God—but to extend it to our relationships with one another.
Jesus gives us an example of salvation by grace through faith—that what we produce has nothing to do with what we are worth, let alone what we need. And God provides what we need. God values who we are. What would that look like if we actually treated each other in similar ways? Well, a whole lot different than where we are right now.
This message takes us back to last week’s focus on land Sabbath because the situation the parable assumes is a function of not practicing the Sabbath and especially the Jubilee. Jubilee was God’s command that every 50 years, land would be returned to the people, debts would be forgiven, and all would be put right again. Not fair, but just. But the imperial economy—which is what we all recognize as ‘fairness’—kept that from actually ever happening. Instead, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Those with land continued to buy it up, joining land to land and building their personal empires. They heaped debt upon debt to those who could not pay. And the landless were left to wander the marketplace seeking day jobs and living day to day on whatever pay they could rustle up. Far from being lazy, many would finish a job and return to the marketplace to try to get another. Some would go from one spot to another trying to find someone to hire them. Many, by the end of the day, had given up hope and feared returning home with nothing for their family.
In God’s economy, this would never happen. In God’s kingdom, this doesn’t happen. And, as we pray, thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Are we sure we want to pray this? Are we sure we want to live as if we’re in God’s kingdom already? Because it means a lot of things change for us and how we deal with others.
In God’s kingdom, the focus is on justice, not fairness. Which is why Christianity in its truest sense is absolutely scandalous. God dies and forgives the ones responsible—us. God offers grace when it isn’t deserved—to us. God provides comfort when WE turn away. God pursues when we run away. God restores what we break. That’s justice—especially for the ones we’ve hurt along the way. Are we ready for that justice? Because, quite frankly, given how fairness SHOULD play out, we really don’t want that, either.
Fair is the fact that after thousands of years of not caring for the land and the sea and the air and all of creation, we are now reaping the benefits. Today, we are plagued with drought in the Midwest, unprecedented hurricanes and tropical storms in the east, fires are burning up the western 13 states of our country, and the whole world is suffering from a pandemic. And this is just the consequences felt in the U.S. Not to mention droughts and famine in Africa, unprecedented warming in Siberia and the Arctic, floods and tsunamis in Asia, and so much more. But that’s what we deserve.
We are creating a wilderness from which there is no turning back. And that’s fair—we sinned and now suffer the consequences. What isn’t fair is the damage being done to the other living organisms all over the planet. They cry out as they die out. The whole creation is groaning for justice—not just fairness.
What would justice look like for creation? If we were the ones suffering at the hands of another, wouldn’t we want retribution? What kind of retribution do we deserve for the horrendous damage we have done?
But Richard Rohr says that justice is not about retribution and the penal system but about restoration (thank God). Rohr continues, “[Jesus] became the forgiving victim so we would stop creating victims…Punishment relies on enforcement and compliance but it does not change the soul or the heart.” Think about how our world is responding to police brutality and black lives matter. Some are targeting cops. Some are rioting. Some are going to protests with the intent and means to kill. That’s not fairness or justice. It’s just plain evil. Think about how creation could—and perhaps—does respond to the pandemic of humanity heaped upon it. There is no restoration here.
And yet, we find ourselves disappointed when things don’t meet our ideas of fairness. We’d rather have the good we’ve earned than be restored to right relationship andto forgive. I guess that’s what faith often does to us—disappoints us and convicts us so that we can learn something about God and ourselves. Because God is not about punishing but about transforming and changing us. But sometimes (most times?) God has to shake us loose from ourselves and our comforts in order to get that into our thick skulls. Sometimes, God has to disappoint and convict us before we actually ‘get’ grace—before we ‘get’ forgiveness.
Take Elijah the prophet. He was sent to preach against the king of Israel—a corrupt king who married outside the faith. Queen Jezebel used her position to turn the people against God in order to worship Baal and Asherah—the gods of her people. She brought in 450 of her own prophets, too—and proceeded to kill all the prophets of the God of Israel, except Elijah. So Elijah challenged the false prophets to a duel of gods. On top of a mountain, they built their altars and placed their sacrifices and called upon their gods to rain fire to burn it up.
The prophets of Baal worked themselves up into a frenzy all day, but nothing happened. When Elijah’s turn came, he doused the altar and sacrifice in water and called on God who burned it all up instantly. Elijah thought he had won—but Jezebel went after him, seeking his life. He ran to Mt. Sinai and hid. And God said, “What are you doing here?” Really? Elijah responds, “It’s not fair. I’ve done everything for you. I was zealous and proclaimed you and fought against the false prophets. But I’m alone now. Nothing I did made any difference. It didn’t change anything. I’m done. You didn’t show up to protect me when my life was on the line.” He was disappointed. Time for conviction. Time for transformation.
God sent him out to witness God’s presence. But, as we know, God didn’t show up in the ways one would expect—God came in the silence. God isn’t always in the bombastic elements of life, raining God’s judgment upon the world. We often have to shut up and listen. To stop and wait. To be still and know. And from that point, God sent Elijah back. God shook Elijah up, changed how he saw his situation, gave him hope, and turned him around.
It took a wilderness to restore Elijah’s spirit. We tend to think that nothing can live or survive in the wilderness. But it is actually an incredibly delicate and developed biome of plant and animal life. Its beauty is in its starkness. And sometimes we need the vast expanse of what seems like nothingness—like silence and disappointment, like hitting the bottom—to hear and understand that God’s ways are so much different than our ways. God is so much bigger in heart and generosity than we expect—than we want—than we deserve. God has the capacity to provide for the needs of the Arctic dessert in its frigid icescape and the tropical desert with its expanse of sand. God provides for the rainforest and the plains alike. God provides for the mountains and the rivers and the oceans and the canyons. God doesn’t ask whether they deserve this provision—whether they’re worthy, whether they’ve produced what they should. Their value is in their existence, in simply being what God has created.
It’s like what Jesus tells the crowds on the mountain in chapter 6 of Matthew: “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”
Bottom line is that God’s not fair. And God doesn’t waste time worrying about fairness. God concerns God’s self with our well-being—with what we need more than what we want. We need to experience justice. We need to know God’s presence. And, as Pastor Christopher Davis puts it, “Where we fail to discern God in our health, God comes in sickness. When we fail to discern God in our prosperity, God comes in adversity. When we fail to discern God in the [storm], God comes in the [stillness].” God comes in the wilderness, if necessary.
So be still—stop working for your worth and trust that God is not fair— but God is just because God is God.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church