Justice isn’t Fair!

SIXTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Jonah 3:10-4:11
Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

Prayer of the Day: Almighty and eternal God, you show perpetual lovingkindness to us your servants. Because we cannot rely on our own abilities, grant us your merciful judgment, and train us to embody the generosity of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“…are you envious because I am generous?” Matthew 20:15.

“And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” Jonah 4:11.

Jonah has a problem with God. It is not that God is cruel, vengeful or capricious. Jonah’s problem is that his God is too kind, too generous and not sufficiently vindictive. There is nothing wrong with Jonah’s expression of anger against God or his desire for revenge against Nineveh, the capital of Israel’s arch enemy. The Psalms are filled with such sentiments. But however graphic and terrible the punishments called down upon their enemies, the psalmists always leave for God the responsibility of executing the justice they seek. “’Vengeance is mine,”’ says the Lord,” according to St. Paul. Romans 12:19 citing Deuteronomy 32:35.

The problem for Jonah, and perhaps for us too, is that God’s justice frequently looks different from the way we think justice ought to look. In our limited perspective, justice amounts to fashioning a punishment that fits a particular crime. From that constricted point of view, the mercy shown to Nineveh was clearly unjust. The Assyrian Empire, of which Nineveh was the capital, was notoriously brutal in its scorched earth methodology of conquest. Next to Assyria, ISIS looks like a scout troop. How can the God who brought destruction on the holy city of Jerusalem and its temple for Israel’s sins give Nineveh a pass on its centuries of violence just because its king declared a national day of prayer? Can you imagine the outrage if one of our judges were to suspend execution or imprisonment for a serial killer in exchange for a mere expression of remorse, however sincere it might be?

I suspect the same outrage is evoked by Jesus’ Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. It just doesn’t seem right that a group of workers, who have spent the better part of the day unemployed and sitting in the shade, should be paid the same wage as those who have been working from dawn to dusk. We Americans, who believe ourselves to be self made, independent and industrious, put a high premium on rewarding hard work and punishing sloth. Treating the late coming workers the same as those that have been in the field for the duration cannot help but destroy their incentive to work hard and earn their livings. Moreover, what incentive is there for the other workers to continue putting in a full day’s work once they find out they can get the same pay by showing up an hour before quitting time? In short, it just isn’t fair.

But I have to ask, is “fair” what we really want? If that is what justice requires, what is fair punishment for the serial killer? Should the same punishment be inflicted on the parents who abused him since he was a toddler? What about the neighbors who heard him scream with every lash of the belt, but simply turned up the TV and tried to ignore it because, after all, it was none of their business? What about the gym teacher who noticed the welts on the young boy’s body, but didn’t want to risk an ugly confrontation with the family? What about a community that votes consistently to defund school counseling services and other programs designed to identify and intervene on behalf of children with serious behavioral problems? None of this is to suggest that the killer is not responsible for his deeds. He surely is. But the responsibility is not his alone and perhaps not even primarily his. What would justice look like if everyone in that chain of responsibility got what they deserved?

In my reading of Jesus’ parable, I have always identified more with the workers who went into the vineyard early and worked to the end of the day. And why not? I worked hard in school (at least after my second year in high school). I worked hard in every parish I served. I worked my way through law school and practiced law for eighteen years, working my way into partnership at my firm. I was never unemployed a day in my working life. The comfortable retirement I now enjoy is nothing less than what I earned by the sweat of my brow-or so I like to think.

But is my thinking correct? Did I really pull myself up by my own bootstraps? I had the good fortune to be born in the mid fifties when the economy was friendlier to blue collar workers lacking a college education-like my father. Having been honorably discharged from the Coast Guard, Dad was able to secure an entry level job that paid a living wage. Through careful saving, numerous opportunities for on-the-job training that, in turn, led to promotions, he was able to build a small house and secure for his four children the college education he was never able to obtain. Though Dad was a diligent, hard worker, I have no doubt he would have found his course a good deal more difficult had he started out at the same place around the turn of the recent century.

As I said, I worked hard for all my life but, like my father, I had more than a few head starts. For one thing, I am a man. That means that a lot of professional opportunities were open to me that did not exist for my sisters. Even though women have made numerous advances throughout my lifetime, they still experience barriers I never had to overcome. I never had to worry about how to deal with a predatory boss or client, whether my clothing was too provocative, to severe or otherwise inappropriate. I didn’t have to worry about going into a job interview with just the right balance of respect and assertiveness so that I don’t come across as either too weak or too “bitchy.” I did not have to battle daily the presumption that some jobs are not for my sex, that people of my sex are not suited for leadership positions, that my family responsibilities would hinder my job performance or that, because I had a working husband, I could make due with less pay.

For another thing, I was white. That means I never had to think about how job interviewers might react to my skin color, my hair, facial features or my accent. I didn’t have to deal with questions trying to ferret out whether I really earned my law degree or whether I got into school and got special treatment because of some “affirmative action” program. I didn’t graduate from college, seminary or law school with a crushing load of debt. I could add to this that I was not born into abject poverty; that I was not born with physical or mental impariments making it difficult or impossible to find work; that I have not experienced any disabling accidents or injuries throughout my working life. The list could go on forever. Again, I am not saying I didn’t work hard to get where I am today. But I am compelled to admit that, without the aforementioned advantages, I would have been working a lot harder and a lot longer to get to the same place.

So, in reality, I am more like the eleventh hour workers than I like to admit. For that reason, I am reluctant to insist that justice be based solely on fairness. I shudder to think where that might leave me. Perhaps that is the point of Jesus’ parable. Justice-God’s justice-is not a matter of giving everyone their just desserts. It is about giving all of us together what we need to thrive. Why are we so resentful about that? Why, when God has provided so richly for our needs, do we look with a resentful eye at God’s goodness toward someone we deem undeserving? Why are so many religious people outraged at the very thought that God might not punish the wicked in this life or the next as they seemingly deserve? Is it so hard to see that if God were to execute our kind of justice, no one “could stand?” Psalm 130:3. The good news of the gospel is that God does not exercise against us the kind of justice we would exercise if we were God.

Part of our problem is that our thinking about justice is based on our own Anglo European notion of what justice entails. In a typical criminal case, the jury renders a verdict and the judge sentences the defendant. In civil matters, the jury decides between the contending parties and the judge enters an order reflecting the jury’s determination. After that, the judge moves on to the next case. The judge is no longer concerned with what happens to the parties after that. God, however, continues to be concerned about the fate of the parties post judgment. That is because God’s justice does not end in retribution or compensation, but in restoration. Judgment is not the end of, but the means to justice. God desires restoration of relationships. That, of course, includes compensation for injuries inflicted and assumption of responsibility for wrongdoing. Beyond that, however, divine justice means reconciliation and peace. God’s exercise of God’s sole prerogative to punish, forgive or excuse wrongdoing is therefore not tied to any supposed measure of sin’s severity, but to God’s determination to achieve the perfect justice that is “God in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” II Corinthians 5:19.

Here is a poem/prayer by Alexander Pope that reflects an attitude of humility and respect for the mystery of God’s just and gentle reign to which Jesus calls us.

Universal Prayer  

Father of all! In every age,
In every clime adored,
By saint, by savage, and by sage,
Jehovah, Jove, or Lord!

Thou Great First Cause, least understood
Who all my sense confined
To know but this, that Thou art good
And that myself am blind.

Yet gave me, in this dark estate,
To see the good from ill;
And, binding Nature fast in fate,
Left free the human will.

What conscience dictates to be done,
Or warns me not to do,
This teach me more than Hell to shun,
That more than Heaven pursue.

What blessings Thy free bounty gives
Let me not cast away;
For God is paid when man receives:
To enjoy is to obey.

Yet not to earth’s contracted span
Thy goodness let me bound.
Or think Thee Lord alone of man,
When thousand worlds are round.

Let not this weak, unknowing hand
Presume Thy bolts to throw,
And teach damnation round the land
On each I judge Thy foe.

If I am right, Thy grace import
Still in the right to stay;
If I am wrong, oh teach my heart
To find that better way!

Save me alike from foolish pride,
Or impious discontent,
At aught Thy wisdom has denied,
Or aught that goodness lent.

Teach me to feel another’s woe,
To right the fault I see;
That mercy I to others show,
That mercy show to me.

Mean though I am, not wholely so,
Since quickened by Thy breath;
Oh, lead me wheresoe’er I go,
Through this day’s life or death.

This day be bread and peace my lot;
All else beneath the sun
Though know’st if best bestowed or not,
And let Thy will be done!

To Thee Whose temple is of space,—
Whose alter earth, sea, skies,—
One chorus let all beings raise!
All Nature’s incense rise.

Source: The Norton Anthology of Poetry (4th Ed.), Edit. Ferguson, Margaret, Salter, Mary Jo and Stallworthy, Jon, (c. 1970 Norton & Company, Inc.) p.574. Alexander Pope (1688 –1744) is regarded as the foremost English poet of the early eighteenth century. He is best known for his satirical and discursive works as well as for his translation of Homer. Pope was born in London. He was taught to read by his aunt and went to Twyford School. From there, he went on to two Roman Catholic schools in London. While illegal, such schools were tolerated in some areas. In 1700, however, Pope’s family moved to Berkshire due to strong anti-Catholic sentiment and a law preventing Catholics from living within ten miles of London or Westminster. Pope made his share of enemies as fellow critics, politicians, and several other prominent figures felt the sting of his satires. So hostile were some of these enemies that Pope feared for his life. Pope was known to carry a pistol on his evening walks for self protection.

Pope suffered numerous health problems from the age of twelve, including tuberculosis. His illnesses deformed his spine and stunted his growth, leaving him with a hunchback. Throughout his life he struggled with respiratory difficulties, high fevers, inflamed eyes and abdominal pain. He grew to a height of just a little over four feet. Although he never married, Pope had many female friends to whom he wrote witty letters. You can learn more about Alexander Pope and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

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