Sunday, October 02, 2011

God's Not Fair!

Jonah 3.10 - 4.11, Philippians 1.21-30, Matthew 20.1-16

All Age version


Have you ever said, ‘It’s not fair’?


I’m sure you have because none of us would be human if at some time in our lives we hadn’t said, ‘It’s not fair!’

  • Why do I always get the smaller half?
  • Why do you only get cross with me and never with her?
  • Why do you let him play with my toys, or sit on my chair, or annoy me?
  • Why can’t we have a dog, or a cat, or a rabbit, or a guinea pig? All my friends have got one!
  • Why do I always have to lose?
  • It’s not fair!
But then life isn’t fair. We don’t all get exactly the same chances. Sometimes we just have to make the best of what we’ve got. If we envy other people or allow ourselves to feel bitter and hard done by, we won’t be able to enjoy life and get the best out of it.

And God’s not fair. He likes to give people a helping hand, an extra chance, all the help that they need in order to make something of their lives. Sometimes that means he wants to help us, but sometimes it means that he wants us to make an extra effort to help other people less fortunate than ourselves.

That’s the message of the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. God’s not fair!

Adult Version

God's not fair! The people of Nineveh were notorious for their wickedness and cruelty. The Assyrian Empire, which had conquered most of the Middle East from its base in Nineveh, did not believe in avoiding collateral damage. Its invading armies burned down all the towns and cities which resisted them, enslaved all their women and children and beheaded all the men. Whole nations were deported in an attempt to erase their identity. Then the Assyrians carved monuments depicting and celebrating their war crimes.

Contrast that with the approach of the Persian ruler Cyrus, not long afterwards. He still dealt sternly with people who stood in his way but he was magnanimous in victory. When some of his opponents decided to negotiate surrender terms he spared them and the towns they were defending. Famously, Cyrus was tolerant of, and even encouraged, different faiths and cultures and celebrated his magnanimity in allowing thousands of exiles to return home to the lands from which they had been taken.

The Book of Jonah is a story written long after these events to illustrate the breadth of God's love and acceptance, and the point of the story is that God's not fair. He forgives people even when they do not deserve to be forgiven, even when their wealth and their lifestyle have been built on systematic cruelty, vindictiveness and intolerance of difference and dissent.

God's unfairness made Jonah very upset. He had travelled hundreds of miles to warn the Ninevites that their city would soon be overthrown. It wasn't something he wanted to do. It was something he felt impelled to do by God, so he was appalled when God forgave the Ninevites. To him it was an example of cheap grace.

It's not that Jonah was ignorant of God's true nature. He knew already that God was merciful, slow to anger and ready to forgive. That's why he had been so reluctant to travel to Nineveh in the first place. He had feared right from the outset that it would be a wasted journey, that the destruction of Nineveh would not go ahead and that the Ninevites would be let off too lightly.

Of course, if we look back to the beginning of the story we shall find that Jonah had misunderstood his call. Jonah had assumed that God was calling him to preach to the Ninevites about their impending doom, so that they could make their peace with God and prepare to meet their maker, but as the story unfolds God shows him that his real mission was always to invite the Ninevites to change direction and alter their destiny.

This is demonstrated by the parable with which the story ends. If Jonah can regret the senseless destruction of a plant he should be able to understand God's generous impulse to spare hundreds of thousands of people and give them another chance.

Nonetheless, of course, God is unfair. I've already described the notoriety of the Assyrians but perhaps it's easier to get a handle on the unfairness of God's grace and mercy if we bring it bang up to date, because the meaning of the story of Jonah for us is that God loves and wants to save all of the people whom we really don't like.

He loves the Taliban, and Muslim extremists in general. And at the other end of the political spectrum he loves Colonel Gaddafi's dwindling band of supporters.

He loves rioters. He loves people on Anti-Social Behaviour orders. He loves squatters. He loves people who break the planning laws by establishing encampments for gypsies and travellers on greenbelt land. But, at the other end of the spectrum, he loves merchant bankers as well.

He loves all the people who have deliberately dropped out of the formal economy, the so-called feral under class or illegal migrant workers, but he also loves members of the BNP and the English Defence League. He loves fox hunters, but he also loves hunt saboteurs.

Last week at synod we were introduced to a hymn from Singing the Faith, the new hymn book of the Methodist Church which will be published later this month. In the middle it contained a verse with some even more startling things to say about God’s unfairness:

For just and unjust, a place at the table,

Abuser, abused, with need to forgive,

in anger, in hurt, a mindset of mercy,

for just and unjust a new way to live.


The hymn writer is saying that God even loves people who are found guilty of abuse, and that the victims of the abuser need to be able to find it in their hearts to forgive too - making an almost superhuman effort to overcome their anger and hurt, an effort which really we have almost no right to ask of them. But this is not just the writer’s own opinion, because the words are now included in an official hymn book of the Methodist Church.

This year the Church also adopted new policies on safeguarding children, young people and vulnerable adults from harm. Conference takes this very seriously and expects us to protect everyone from abuse. But the inclusion of this hymn in our new hymn book shows that we’re not supposed to share the sort of vindictive and unforgiving attitude which tabloid newspapers encourage. We’re called to adopt a mindset of mercy, because God loves and wants to save even those people whom the rest of society chooses to detest and condemn.

And the same goes for the unjust. God loves employers who stretch the law to the very limit in order to exploit and mistreat their work force, sacking members of staff just before they qualify for legal protection from unfair dismissal or denying them their rights in other ways. He loves unscrupulous landlords who charge extortionate rents for damp and dilapidated property. In fact he loves people whom we might think do not deserve any love, because, you see, God simply isn’t fair!

However, the words of the hymn also remind us that there is a caveat, a crucial qualification or limitation to God’s mercy and generosity. To be forgiven and accepted we have to embrace God’s new way to live. That’s why the Ninevites were spared. They weren’t forgiven in spite of their terrible crimes. They weren’t given a free hand to carry on as before. God showed mercy to them only because they repented - because they changed their ways and went in a radical new direction. They accepted that they needed a new way to live.

The parable from Matthew’s Gospel continues the theme of God’s unfairness but develops it in a different way. The Book of Jonah shines the spotlight on God’s love for people who had a notorious reputation for depravity and callousness whereas Jesus shines the spotlight on God’s willingness to forgive people even when they leave it to the very last moment to turn over a new leaf.

Matthew is wrong. It’s not that the last shall be first, and the first last. That saying doesn’t really belong with this parable. Its true meaning is that there’s no hierarchy at all in the kingdom of God, no pecking order. Everyone who turns to God for forgiveness is equally loved and equally rewarded. People who have spent a lifetime burnishing their halos are on the same footing as those who repented only after doing the most terrible things, or after doing nothing at all to make their lives worthwhile. Leading a good life, or a just life, is not something which we do in order to win favour with God. It has to be its own reward.

The parable is clearly not a guide to good labour relations. Despite what I said earlier about bad employers who mistreat their staff, the owner of the vineyard certainly hasn’t got the right approach to getting the best from his work force. How demoralising to find that if you work hard all day you won’t get any more reward than someone who has only just tumbled out of bed.

However, if hard work is its own reward then there is at least one practical lesson in the story. It’s best to get one of the ten happiest jobs, then you won’t mind if you end up working harder than other people, because you’ll just be happier than they are.

According to a survey in the United States the happiest job is being a clergyperson closely followed by being a firefighter, a physiotherapist and a special needs’ teacher. All of these people don’t mind how hard they have to work because it makes them feel happy.

Being an author is also in the top ten, presumably because you get to sit down all day just writing down whatever comes into your head. Artists of all kinds are also pretty happy. Psychologists may not be able to make other people feel happy, but they’re pretty pleased with themselves. And people who get to drive giant bull-dozers, diggers and JCBs also have fun at work.

The oddest job in the happiest top ten is people who sell financial services, presumably because they have somehow avoided all the misselling scandals that have dogged the financial services industry in the UK, but most of the other jobs in the list seem to make people feel happier because they also make them feel that their work is worthwhile. Up to a point, at least, the more work they do, the more meaningful their lives seem to be.

Contrast the happiest workers with the ten most unhappy careers in America, which are things like director of information technology, director of sales and marketing, product manager, senior web designer, technical specialist and marketing manager. In theory these are high status jobs with fancy titles, but people complained that they couldn’t really see the point of what they were doing.

So if the parable has a practical message it must be that employers need to make their work force feel so good about their work that they would feel motivated to do it, and do it well, no matter long the job took and whatever the other rewards might be.

It’s no wonder that clergy people are the happiest workers in America. We only have to look at St Paul to see a happy person at work. ‘It is my joy to suffer for you,’ he tells the congregation at Philippi. He feels he has a really strong sense of vocation. He is doing the task ‘assigned to him by God’. He is helping to complete the work which Jesus Christ began by ‘putting God’s word into effect.’ He is ‘teaching and instructing everyone in all the ways of wisdom.’ No wonder, then, that he feels like ‘toiling strenuously with all the energy and power of Christ.’

The tragedy of worklessness is that it denies people the opportunity to feel useful, valued and worthwhile, that their lives have a sense of purpose and that they are making a useful contribution to society. That’s also the tragedy of people who feel their work is pointless and doesn’t really make a useful contribution to the general good.

That’s why God acts unfairly. It’s not because he’s an immature teenager - like the petulant God depicted in a recent novel by the author Meg Rossoff, nor because he’s simply fickle and erratic in his dealings with the human race. It’s because he wants to give everyone the best possible chance to make something of their lives, to find their vocation, to share in the work of creating a better world.

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