Everyone who has ever had children will be familiar with the cry: ‘it’s not fair.’ A friend of mine who had 3 daughters and was constantly subject to grumbles about a lack of fairness would simply tell them that nothing in life is fair so they might as well get used to the idea.
I think he was right. As we go through life, we come across things all the time that are not fair either for us or for someone close to us. We have our clear idea in our minds of what’s fair and what’s not, but how did it get there? How do we measure what is fair and what is not?
Todays society is keen to promote fairness and equality; to eliminate discrimination. That must be a good thing. Everyone should have the same opportunities and access to goods and services as everyone else regardless of gender, the colour of their skin, their ethnic background. Jesus gives women a voice in a male dominated society and Paul proclaims that there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3.28) Over the years, Christians have been at the forefront of many campaigns for a more equal and fair society.
Yet, absolute fairness is not easy to achieve. There is currently much controversy over the use of male and female facilities by transexual people. Providing expensive drug treatments and medical interventions based on need rather than ability to pay creates many anomalies. Trying to keep the present pandemic under control seems to adversely affect the young with their education and their wish to socialise even though they are at least risk from the virus. When we see a good hard-working person struck down with a serious cancer while someone who has made a living on dogy deals lives a long and prosperous retirement, we cry out: ‘it’s not fair!’
Two of our readings this morning challenge our ideas of fairness. The old testament is the closing passage of the book of Jonah, a fascinating short read tucked away in the minor prophets towards the end of the old testament. The story is familiar to most Sunday school scholars. Jonah is sent by God to Nineveh, modern day Mosel in Iraq. It’s a large city full of sin. Jonah was told to speak against the people there. Jonah took fright and set off in a boat in the opposite direction, but God caused a great storm to blow. The sailors who were not Jewish quickly worked out that the storm was result of Jonah not obeying God, so they flung him overboard. God was not done with Jonah. He survives inside a fish until he is spat out on dry land. Now he does God’s bidding and the mission to Nineveh is successful. The Ninevites repent and turn to the Lord. He forgives them and spares them a calamity he had promised.
This is where our reading comes in. Jonah is not happy. It’s not fair. Nineveh should have perished for its sin. Jonah wanted justice for such a wicked people not mercy. As the sad inquiry into the Manchester bombings gets underway, it’s justice that people want to see done. That’s only fair, surely?
God allows Jonah to sulk and provides a nice shady plant to stop him getting sun stroke. But God organises a worm to nibble the root of the plant so that it dies, and Jonah is cross again. It’s not fair because the bush has gone.
So, God gently reminds Jonah that he had done nothing to cultivate the bush. He should receive it as a gift and accept when it has gone. He should see God’s hand and providence in that provision. In the same way, God as creator is free to show his concern and mercy on Nineveh, giving them an opportunity for repentance and faith. Like the brother of the prodigal or lost son in Jesus’ story, Jonah should rejoice that he knows the Lord and have concern and pity for those who do not. God’s magnanimous love may not always look fair in worldly terms, but as people of faith we are called to go with it.
Todays gospel reading (Matthew 20.1-6) is a story told by Jesus in similar vein. All the zero hours contract workers in the vineyard agreed to work for the living wage. The ones who worked all day received the agreed wage and were able to feed their families. Those who arrived later for whatever reason and worked less hours still receive a day’s pay. They too can feed their families. It was in the gift of the vineyard owner to do that, even though it would have looked unfair to the unions.
No explanation of this parable is necessary. We know that it is a picture of the kingdom of heaven and that entry to that kingdom is not based upon our ability to do good works all our lives. It is rather open to all believers in Christ even some are a bit late in the day. Jesus told it particularly against his own people who were so often sniffy about gentiles, non-Jews, sharing in God’s love. It’s vital that as a church, we do not behave in the same way.
So how is our view of fairness shaped? Is it just determined by the received wisdom of the world or can we begin to grasp something of God’s perspective here, the message of Jesus? Our worldly view often sees the sin in others, the speck of sawdust their eyes while being blind to the plank in our own. (Matthew 7.4) We are keen to see justice for others while ignoring the sin in our own hearts.
Sure, God is a God of justice. He is utterly holy, and no sin can have a place in the heaven he is preparing and invites us to share with him. We can rest secure in the knowledge that none who hold onto to their sins of violence, theft, sexual perversion, or abuse will have a place in the kingdom of heaven. (1 Corinthians 6.9) But God is also the God of mercy. He knows the heart and will of each human individual. For those regret their sin, who are truly repentant he offers mercy and forgiveness through the death of Jesus on the cross. That truth applies to all humanity equally as the bible affirms on many occasions.
Human justice, the justice of the courts, of disciplinary procedures is a necessary part of life in a fallen world but its fairness is patchy at best. Its greatest miscarriage happened in Jerusalem around 30 AD when hastily convened early morning sittings of both Roman and Jewish courts sentenced the Son of God to death by crucifixion. But in the mystery of the upside-down God, that profound unfairness becomes the very ground of the hope of glory for each of us here this morning.
Trinity 15 20.09.2020