Vicar David Sivecz
Matthew 20:1-16 “Praise God for Unfairness”
One of my favorite television shows is the “Big Bang Theory”. Even though it’s been on for years I didn’t know much about this show until four years ago while I was interning at the Georgia Tech United Methodist Campus Ministry in Atlanta. Let me share with you that students who go to Georgia Tech primarily become Engineers, Mathematicians, and other Scientists. In other words, the university is made up of a bunch of geniuses. So, when I asked them if they’ve seen the “Big Band Theory” I will never forget what happened. They all looked at me with blank stares on their faces, and then one of them said, “It’s kind of like part of our freshmen orientation.”
So, if you’ve never heard of the show it is primarily centered on seven characters living in Pasadena, California. The two main characters Leonard and Sheldon are roommates and physicists at Caltech University. They have two similarly geeky and socially awkward friends and co-workers; an aerospace engineer named Howard and an astrophysicist named Raj.
Over time, two more highly intellectual characters make their appearances. The first was a microbiologist named Bernadette, who became Howard's wife. The second was a neuroscientist named Amy Farrah Fowler, who became Sheldon’s girlfriend. Lastly, there’s Penny. She’s not an intellectual; rather she’s a waitress and an aspiring actress who just so happened to live across the hall from Leonard and Sheldon. Combining the geekiness and intellect of the six intellectuals with Penny's social skills and common sense makes for a comedic effect.
Throughout the series there is a running joke that the most eccentric character, Sheldon, and his idiosyncrasies dictated the lives of the other characters. For seasons the rest of them put up with him determining what food they would eat on what day, dealing was his brash criticisms, and his constant reminders not to sit in his “spot”. His idiosyncrasies are so bad that when he wants to see Penny, he knocks on her door three times.
In one episode Penny and the three guys decide to throw Leonard a birthday party. Of course, as one might suspect, Sheldon wasn’t too thrilled. Then they proceeded to explain to Sheldon that he needed to buy Leonard a gift. This just irked Sheldon in the wrong way.
So, he went on one of his rants, which I find logically sound. As he explained, “The entire institution of gift giving makes no sense. Let's say that I go out, and I spent 50 dollars on you, it's a laborious activity because I have to imagine what you need, whereas you know what you need. Now I could simplify things, just give you the 50 dollars directly, and you could give me 50 dollars on my birthday, and so on, until one of us dies, leaving the other one old and 50 dollars richer. And I ask, is it worth it?”
Is it worth it? Is gift giving really worth it? I’m sure when we think of “gift giving” we often believe we are being generous. We are generous with our money. We are generous with our time. We are generous in thinking about the other person. To be generous means that we come from a sense of love.
Yet in reality, whether we realize it or not, how often do we follow Sheldon Cooper’s train of thought? Instead of being generous, how often do we view gift giving as an act of currency exchange or record keeping. We set a dollar amount that’s appropriate for giving a gift, then make exchanges. Or, if we give a gift we expect at minimum a thank you note. There’s always some form of expected reciprocation.
But our ability to keep records just doesn’t stop at gift giving. Think about how often we count every slighted or injury someone has done to us? Or, how many times do we keep track of every time our children or parent disappoints us? Or, how often do we hold onto the opportunities lost at work? It’s our innate nature to tally, or to log, every hurt we’ve experienced at the hands of those around us. We do this so we can keep a record of our grievances and expect reparations. We do this so we can even the playing field. We do this so everything comes out to be fair.
We live by the understanding that everything should be fair. Although most of us, if not all of us, have been told life is not fair, we still live by this belief or system. We expect fairness when it comes to exchanging gifts or opportunities. We especially expect fairness when it comes to money. It’s only fair to get educated, work hard, and be successful.
Perhaps we want everything to be fair because we are so concerned with our own wants and needs. Even in Jesus’ day people wanted everything to be as fair as possible. They also wanted to know their needs and wants were taken care of first.
Before the parable, we would hear Jesus encounter a man who asked what he had to do to have life. In other words, he was asking if he was being treated fairly. So, Jesus asked him if he kept the commandments and the man said yes. Then Jesus told him to sell everything he had, give the money to the poor, and follow him. The man left grieving because he had many possessions and it was unfair that he had to give everything away.
When Peter heard this he was disturbed. He even told Jesus that he left everything to follow him. He had done everything that Jesus asked him but still had difficulty understanding how unfair Jesus was being.
That’s what Jesus was trying to do in the parable he shared. That’s why parables can be so frustrating. They completely change our assumptions about the way God sees what’s fair. Parables upset us, especially this one, because it pushes us away from focusing on our own understanding of fairness, challenges how we understand the fairness of God’s love.
We forget that those laborers who were hired last were also searching for work. People didn’t have contracts. Instead, they searched for work every day. Each person who went out to be hired was just looking for enough to feed their family. In modern day terms, it’s as though they were living paycheck to paycheck. At the end of their shift, they would get paid and then do the same thing the next day.
Sometimes they didn’t get hired and would go home empty-handed. Let’s not forget there wasn’t any social security or welfare. So to be hired at the end of the day, even if it was for an hour, imagine just the profound joy the laborers would’ve experienced. They presumed that they would get paid what was fair. It might not have been for a whole day but it was something.
As we heard at the end of the parable when it came time for the landowner to pay everyone he started with the last. He could’ve easily started with the first. If he did they wouldn’t have known how much the others were paid, but he didn’t. When the people who were hired first heard how much those who were hired last were paid they assumed they would get paid what was fair. They did more work so they would get paid more. It makes sense to us. They were probably overjoyed on how much they would make.
But, soon their expectations were turned upside down when their assumption didn’t happen. Then they began to start to compare themselves to the rest of the laborers. They started to get insecure. How often do we become insecure when we compare ourselves to others?
Think about how we might be content in our relationships but wonder if the couple just down the street is happier. Or, we feel good about our grades until we hear about the classmate who has aced all his or her classes. Or, we might enjoy the car we drive until we see a neighbor with a nicer or newer one. There are plenty of places where we compare ourselves to other people.
I’m not any different when it comes to comparing myself to others, especially with people who are in a similar life stage. I’ve seen how classmates of mine are being called to congregations. It only took them four years of seminary training, while I’m going into my ninth year. Instead of looking at all the experiences I’ve had, the relationships I’ve made, the education I’ve received, I end up comparing myself to someone else.
That’s one of the reasons I don’t really use social media anymore. It’s been about a decade since I last had a Facebook profile. Now, I have to explicitly state I’m not trying to discredit social media. It’s a way to connect with long lost friends and family that are across the country and inform people about events. Many of us use it more than making a phone call, text, or even email. It can be a helpful tool.
However, over the course of the last few months, I’ve read articles about how social media can be a cause for anxiety and depression. Since we’ve become more connected through Facebook, Snapchat, or Instagram, it’s easier to compare ourselves to others than ever before. When many of us look at other people’s posts we might feel like our life isn’t together. We don’t have similar accomplishments or our lives aren’t as exciting. I once told four friends that social media is, “A place where people can post to boast.” Three of the four them said it wasn’t funny. The other person understood the sentiment and realized that what I meant was it’s a way for us to compare ourselves to others.
Unfortunately, when we become insecure and compare ourselves to others we focus on what we don’t have. We focus and operate out of scarcity. When we act out of scarcity we focus on how unfair we are being treated. We focus on only ourselves. It goes back to that unholy trinity of “Me, Myself, and I.”
Although I try to eliminate areas where I might compare myself to others there are times where I can’t avoid it. One time I discovered something that was truly painful. As I normally do, I reached out to some close friends for support. Each of them said they were sorry for my pain. Except for a mentor/friend of mine. What he said was like adding fuel to fire. All he said was, “Nice.” I was flabbergasted. How could he say such a thing? I’m in such pain yet he was happy.
So I asked him why he said that. He said that I should be happy that the other person gets to experience that joy. I was so wrapped up in my own pain, my own comparison, that I didn’t want to hear what he said. I was so into myself that it hurt to think about rejoicing for the other person. Yet the more I thought about the other person the more it hurt. That, by definition, was literally “hell on earth.” I couldn’t be grateful for the people who listened. I couldn’t be grateful for being home. I couldn’t be grateful that someone else was happy. All I was doing was reacting out of what I didn’t have, or out of scarcity.
You see, God, like the landowner, doesn’t operate out of scarcity; rather God operates out of an abundance. Not an abundance of money but an abundance of love. This is so counter to our culture. Let’s face it, our culture, our standards, are based on self-interest. Our scarcity creates a hierarchy in which some people are better than others. Our standards, our understanding of fairness, doesn’t take into consideration God’s gracious will.
Because if God was truly fair, according to our standard, we would endure the pain of our sins, of our broken relationships, of being separated from God and one another. We, who have sinned, have been selfish, have acted out of self-interest, would pay the price for everything. Fortunately, the way God see’s what’s fair and righteous is different from how we see what’s fair and righteous.
As a result, God’s abundant gracious love surpasses and transcends our standards. So, we can be grateful for the blessings that we’ve received. It means we get to be joyful for what God has given us. It even means that we get to rejoice that others receive blessings from God. I know it not easy. It’s difficult to rejoice when we feel we’ve been treated unfairly. But, that unfairness is the same unfairness God chose for us to mend our relationships on the cross. That unfairness is the same unfairness God chose to bring us everlasting abundant life. For that, we should praise God for being unfair.