Saturday, October 11, 2014

Fair is good: but God is not fair

Proper 20-A; Sept. 20, 2014
Exodus 16:2-15
Psalm 105
Philippians 1:21-20
Matthew 20:1-16

God is the only Landlord
To whom our rents are due.
God made the earth for everyone
And not for just a few.
The four parts of creation --
Earth, water, air, and fire --
God made and ranked and stationed
For everyone's desire.[i]

The text of our prayer after communion comes from the Iona Community. In it, we ask God for the ability to live fully to the glory of God, and that we do that within the two natures of our lives in God: “both as inhabitants of earth, and citizens of the commonwealth of heaven.” In the commonwealth of heaven, God is indeed the only landlord – it is God’s earth we inhabit, and God’s earth is filled with God’s glory – God’s earth fairly sparkles with divinity. God’s blessings are freely given and available to all.

Iona is an island in Scotland, and hasn’t Scotland been all over the news this week. The vote for Scottish independence goes back to something that happened 300 years ago – around the same time the English colonies here in North American were beginning to agitate for our separation from the same imperial power. From what I can tell the pro-independence Scots (and many of the others, too) wanted their homeland to be more of a commonwealth, a place where resources were distributed more equitably, and where they had more of a say in where those resources went. It sounds like many Scots want to decide for themselves where the manna drops, and who determines just what is a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. “From each according to his ability; to each according to his need.”

But it seems like from the story from Exodus, and from the parable from Matthew, that fairness is not God’s concern. Even the mean and grumbly Israelites get all the manna they can eat. Even the shirker ne’er-do-well gets as much in his wages as the virtuous worker who has born the heat of the day. In “the commonwealth of heaven” we do not get to call the shots. We don’t get a vote for independence and income redistribution. We get what God gives us, and miraculously, it is all that we could ever want for, and more.

I think this parable of the landlord ranks right up there with the parable of the prodigal son for the teachings of Jesus that make the most people mad. This is just not fair, and for those of us for whom the world mostly works the way we want it to, we want it to be fair. Fair is good.

But: God does not give the workers, or the grumbling Israelites, what is fair. God gives them what they need. God is the only landlord – or vineyard owner. It is God’s commonwealth in which we hold our citizenship, God’s earth we inhabit, God’s house in which we dwell.

Yesterday I attended the Diocesan Anti-Racism training, the first to be held here since the General Convention voted in the year 2000 that all of us should, and would, deal with what we called “the sin of racism.” There is so much to learn about how being white privileges us in all parts of our lives, about how the very structures of “business as usual” keep the American descendants of African slaves structurally impoverished, kept in a lesser level of citizenship, always a day late and a dollar short of achieving full participation in our society. About how this is not merely “prejudice” but about disadvantage institutionalized over generations. If we play fair, by the rules, racism ensures that there will always be people late to the game, working one hour to our eleven, and it will always be wrong for them to get the same wages that we do.

It is scandalous that God, apparently, does not play fair. That God, apparently, wants to short-change us out of our hard-earned goods. Indeed, why work at all, if Mr. X down the street gets as much for an hour as I do for “bearing the burden of the day and the scorching heat?”

But there is something funny about generosity: the more you give away, the more you have. The vineyard in the parable, the manna from heaven, the love parents have for each of their 6 children: the measure of anything really important is that it is not a zero sum game. Mr. X’s gain is not my loss.

And a good thing too. Not a moment too soon. I might want to think of myself as that virtuous “bear the burden of the day” worker. But let’s be honest: aren’t there things we all forget? Connections we fail to make? Aren’t we always a day late and a dollar short to the commonwealth of heaven? And when we get there, isn’t there always enough to go around?

[i] Tune: Wir Pflugen und wir streuen "We plough the fields and scatter" (MIDI): A grand old Anglo-Catholic Socialist hymn, based on Charles Dalmon's "St George for Merrie England". Ken Leech has revised this version.