Season of Creation
Today, as we enter this fourth Sunday in the Season of Creation, we stand at the edge of a vineyard in the early evening light. We stand at the edge of a vineyard, staring in frustration and anger at the small silver coin we hold in our hands.
Life isn’t fair.
Can you imagine yourself as one of the laborers who have arrived early, preparing to work all day, looking ahead to receiving your pay for a job well done? As more and more laborers come into the field over the course of the day, do you feel yourself becoming slower, more fatigued, but assured, at least, that these extra hours among the vines will be rewarded? And as people come in even as the sun is beginning to set, and your feet are dragging and you just want to be home, do you know that at the very least you will have earned your daily wage?
And in this early evening light at the edge of the vineyard, how do you feel when you receive your pay: a small silver coin, the same as everyone else?
Life isn’t fair.
But where does this sense of unfairness come from? You have agreed, after all, to the usual daily wage—the expected, standard payment for a day’s work. It’s not any less than you’d get any other day. No, the sense of unfairness comes from anticipation—seeing others receive more, you expect to benefit likewise. You imagine a scenario in which—despite the agreement you made and despite everything you’ve come to expect in your life as a laborer—you are paid more because you deserve it.
I’m sure you can think of a time in your life when this has been true for you. You learn about a coworker who gets a bonus or raise, and you say to yourself, “I’ve been here longer than them. I deserve as much or more.” Or you spend more hours practicing your sport or instrument, or perfecting your craft, and you reassure yourself, saying, “I’ve put in more hours than them.” Or, “They didn’t do what was expected, or enough, so they doesn’t deserve that.”
I’ve been there, and I’m sure you have, too. I’m sure we’ve all been there because we live in a competitive society, a competitive world, where we are expected to fight for every advantage, for every advancement that we can. We compete for jobs, we compete for honors, we compete for attention. We don’t necessarily like it, but it’s just the way life is. And not only that. We are also surrounded by a natural world whose very beauty and diversity is the result of competition; those species that are best adapted to compete for limited resources survive. Unlike our nonhuman neighbors, though, when we face uncertainty and factors outside our control, when we strive for whatever possible advantage we can find, we tell ourselves that that effort, that labor, makes us somehow more deserving. And if our expectations are thwarted, we tell ourselves that life is unfair.
Is it any surprise, really, that Jonah feels himself so ill-used? Sent on a long and perilous journey, he arrives in Nineveh and proclaims to the citizens there, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jon 3:4). The people believe him, God is merciful, and, against Jonah’s expectations, his labor is not even rewarded with the destruction of the city! That he has been an agent of good, of the people of Nineveh’s transformation of heart, does not cross his mind; what is the point of God’s justice if God is just going to relent? I mean, is it really too much to ask that God at least just follow through? If God is always going to be “merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jon 4:2), then what is the point? What has his labor been for? How is this God fair?
God’s answer is to allow Jonah to experience the unfairness of God’s mercy. God makes a bush to grow and shade Jonah from the heat of the sun, an act of mercy that is free and undeserved. And then God makes the bush to die back, exposing Jonah to the elements: an act that is similarly free and undeserved. What right does Jonah have to be upset? “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow” (Jon 4:10). We can hear an echo of our gospel passage here: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Mt 20:15). Where does fairness enter into this?
God isn’t fair. But God’s unfairness isn’t arbitrary or abstemious. God’s unfairness is universal and prodigal. It’s the unfairness of a landowner who pays everyone the same out of his boundless generosity. It’s the unfairness of a father who welcomes back with open arms and a spread table the wayward son. It’s the unfairness of a God who, in the psalmist’s words, is “faithful in all his words and merciful in all his deeds” and who “upholds all those who fall” (Ps 145:14-15), whether they deserve it or not.
We experience the unfairness of the world, but we also experience the unfairness of God’s prodigality toward us. The psalmist expresses this, “The LORD is loving to everyone and his compassion is over all his works” (Ps 145:9), but I prefer Shakespeare here: “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep; the more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite.” So says Juliet to Romeo, but it could be God saying these words to us, God revealing to us our greatest gift: that we are loved, infinitely and unconditionally, undeservedly and unfairly. And through the gift of the Spirit, the Comforter, the Advocate, we are given this love, made aware that we are loved as God’s children, and knit together into a Body. But we are not made a Body to labor for our reward. We have already been rewarded. We are knit into a Body to work is with God. We are knit into a Body to be collaborators, co-laborers with God in the ongoing miracle of Creation. “If I am to live in the flesh,” Saint Paul writes from prison, “that means fruitful labor for me” (Phil. 1:22).
And what is this work, this co-labor? If we have been given this great gift of love undeservedly, if we have been given this Spirit, this Comforter, this Advocate, what greater sign can there be than for us to do likewise? What greater confirmation that we are loved than that we can love: “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we ought to love one another” (1 Jn 4:11). Experiencing the overflowing bounty of God’s love and generosity, we too can turn toward our neighbors, human and other than human, and love them, and advocate for them, and be the Advocate for them, knitting them into our Body. We can raise up the low, the marginal, the undeserving, the forgotten in our midst; we can make the last to be first. We can respond to the unfairness of life by loving unfairly, as God unfairly loves us.
Life isn’t fair. Thank God for that.
 Romeo and Juliet, 2.2.140-42.
One of my favorite music recordings is of Arthur Rubenstein, the great Polish-American classical pianist, playing Chopin.[i] Rubenstein was known to be the greatest interpreter of Chopin in his time. This particular recording is brilliant. It’s not just the music; it’s also the jacket cover. The recording was originally made in 1965, when Rubenstein was still at his height. This newer recording is actually a remix of the 1965 recording released again in 1981, about a year before he died at age 95. The photo on the jacket cover captures the elderly Rubenstein in deep concentration, with his hands at work on the keyboard… except the keyboard and the piano are non-existent. Rubenstein is pictured, clad in his shirtsleeves, sitting in his apartment, with his hands outstretched above his coffee table, playing “in the air” what it must have been like for him to play in the great concert halls of the world. In this cover photo, Rubenstein is absolutely engrossed in the music which he no longer actually plays, but remembers and rehearses on his invisible piano. He is a man at peace. This informal portrait of Rubenstein is stunning.
One of the biggest fads to hit social media as of late is the computer ‘meme.’ A lot of you may know what I’m talking about, but for those who are less tech savvy: a ‘meme’ is a picture or video produced with a certain inspirational message that is passed on through social media such as personal blogs or Facebook. These modern day “motivational posters” might have a picture of a beautiful Robin with an earthworm hanging from its beak, and at the bottom of the picture the popular proverb: “The early bird catches the worm!” The saying seems reasonable and there is no arguing that this responsible bird and its chicks will be fed. Recently my friends started sharing a meme that had a photo of a small, rather awkward looking bird with big glaring eyes, disheveled feathers, and an oversized beak that made it look like it was frowning. The message accompanying the picture said “I woke up early…….there was no worm!”
Today seems to be “Complaining” Sunday. The lectionary gives us a choice of two readings from the Old Testament. The first is the story of the Israelites complaining against Moses and Aaron in the desert after their deliverance from the land of Egypt (Ex 16:2-15). They’re hungry and tired, and beginning to think that bondage in Egypt wasn’t so bad after all. “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread;” they lament, “for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
The second passage, which we just heard, is from the book of Jonah (3:10-4:11). You’ll remember that Jonah was the reluctant prophet chosen by God to warn the people of Nineveh to turn from their evil ways. It comes as a surprise and a disappointment to Jonah when the people actually do repent in response to his preaching, and he becomes angry — angry enough to die! he claims. The Lord then raises up a bush to provide shade for Jonah and he is consoled. But when the bush withers, Jonah’s anger returns and he starts complaining again, suggesting to God how unfair it is that God has chosen to be merciful to the Ninevites. Apparently Jonah thought they deserved to be punished!