Three little words. They are spoken in moments when our emotions run high, when our hearts race and our stomachs clench tight and our cheeks are flushed pink. Three little words. They often sort of spill out of our mouths in a rush, popping out when we least expect them. Sometimes we whisper them; sometimes we mumble them. They often sound breathy, or overly loud or…whiny. That’s right: whiny. Because I’m not talking about those three little words – not “I love you” – I’m talking about the other favorite three word combination in the English language: it’s not fair.
I don’t know why we humans always seem to look for the world to be fair. I don’t know if this is something we learn in childhood, or if we actually come out of the womb looking for the tallies to be even on either side of life’s ledger. I don’t know if the alarm that goes off in our minds when we see the scales tilted towards one side or the other (an alarm that goes off with the most enthusiasm whenever those scales seems to be tilted away from us) – I don’t know if that alarm is genetic or simply handed down by our parents. Maybe the eternal quest to find fair is simply an American thing. I just don’t know. What I do know is that the search for fair – and the crying and whining when we discover something that is not fair – begins at a very early age, and it lurks around the edges of our personalities through all of the stages of our lives. It’s not fair: Billy got two blue m-n-m’s, and I only got one. It’s not fair: Anjel got first seat in the trumpet section and he doesn’t practice nearly as much as I do. It’s not fair: Julia’s mom says that she can stay out until 1:00 instead of 12:30. It’s not fair: I’ve worked really hard in school but my parents can’t afford to send me to college. It’s not fair: all of my friends are married by now. It’s not fair: my sister can’t get pregnant when I have five children. It’s not fair: I’ve been loyal to this company through all of the takeover transition and I’m the one who’s losing my job. It’s not fair: I’ve never smoked a day in my life, and I’m the one who ends up with lung cancer. It’s not fair: you don’t love me the way that I love you. It’s not fair: I’ve lived a good life, loved long and hard, and now I end up alone and unvisited in a nursing home where no one seems to know my name.
Now sometimes when we say, “It’s not fair,” it means that there’s something in the world that needs to be changed. And so we go about trying to change it: we write “when in the course of human events” and “[bring] forth upon this continent a new nation,” we publish abolitionist newspapers and shepherd slaves on the Underground Railroad, we protest about women’s abolition outside the White House until we are thrown in prison, we board a bus with both white and black students and ride to Mississippi. Sometimes we see the scales of justice tipped so badly to one side or the other that we have to – we simply must – stand up and start pushing them back into place. We cook soup and feed it to all takers on Saturday morning; we travel to Honduras with approximately 8 tons of medication and even more love and care; we unlock the gate on a school in West Allegheny.
But most of the time, most of the time, when we say, “It’s not fair,” it doesn’t have to do with questions of true justice; we simply mean that it’s not going our way, that our life isn’t the way we envisioned it, that our expectations of the universe aren’t being met. It’s not fair. And what is it that our moms and our best friends and our work colleagues always say back to us? What is that phrase? Oh, yes. Life isn’t fair. That’s right. Life isn’t fair. Don’t expect things always to go your way. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Sometimes you get the short end of the stick. Because mostly, life doesn’t turn out like you expect it to; it isn’t fair, and it’s often not nearly as good as you’d hoped. These aren’t exactly comfortable words, but they’re intended to help us toughen up, adjust our hopes and dreams, and live in the real world.
Well, we have got two classic cases of “It’s not fair” whining in our readings this morning. First we have Jonah, this unlikely and unwilling prophet, who has finally spoken his word of warning to the people of Nineveh. And – lo and behold – they actually listened. They changed their evil ways, dressed themselves (and their animals) in ash and sackcloth and repented and returned to the Lord. And so – lo and behold – the Lord actually pardons them. And that’s when Jonah starts up with the whining. I knew this is what was going to happen; I never really liked these Ninevites anyway and then you made me come preach to them and because of me they decide to try to be good Jews for a second and a half…and you go and forgive them. It’s not fair! I’ve been living the hard life of the Torah for ever, and they put some soot on their goats’ heads and you decide to pardon the whole lot. I’m just going to go sit by myself in the corner and sulk, because you are so not fair!!
Compare that classic whining to the whining of the early workers in today’s parable from Matthew. These are the people who were recruited by the landowner to come work in his vineyard very first thing in the morning. The landowner promised to pay them a good day’s wage, and so they’ve worked hard, all day, sweating in the sun, pushing through the after-lunch drowsies, hour after hour until all the work is done. When evening comes, they go to the landowner’s manager to get their pay. But then, wait a minute – they’re told to get at the back of the line. They have to wait while all of the people who worked less than they did (some a lot less than they did) get their pay. Well, that’s not fair, they should have been paid first! But then they see that the people who worked only an hour or so got paid a full day’s wage; so they start to think that they must be getting some kind of special vineyard-laborer-of-the-week bonus. But when they get to the head of the line, they are paid exactly what the landowner said he was going to pay them, exactly the same as the slackers who didn’t start work until 5 pm. One day’s wage. It’s not fair, the early workers say, those guys over there got paid the same as we did, when they spent most of the day loitering in the Wawa parking lot and we’re going home with farmer’s tans and palms full of calluses. Not fair!
Now what’s really interesting is how the Jonah’s Lord God and Matthew’s Lord Landowner respond to these whiners. They say essentially the same thing – the same thing that our parents and friends have been telling us for years. You think I’m not being fair? Guess what. Life’s not fair. Don’t always expect life to go the way you’re expecting it to go. Life isn’t balanced; life isn’t fair. Sometimes you win and sometimes I help other people to win too. Sometimes you get the prize and sometimes I give the prize to a whole lot of other people too. Life isn’t always what you expect it to be: sometimes it’s a whole lot better than you’d hoped.
Life isn’t fair. And in the sinful, human world that we live in, this usually means that hearts will be broken. In this world, “life isn’t fair” usually means that there isn’t enough for everyone and that we need to compete for everything we have – jobs, love, security, peace, family. But Jonah and Matthew remind us that we don’t live in just this world. We also live in the kingdom of God, here and now. And if we are able to see into that kingdom, and, as today’s collect says, to hold fast those things that shall endure even as we sit here among things that are passing away, how much easier we can be. If we plant our expectation and hope in those things heavenly, how much less anxious we can be about earthly things, for in the kingdom of God, all of their brutal power fades away. Because in that heavenly kingdom, life, true life, the life given to us by God and redeemed by His only Son, is absolutely not fair. In that kingdom, we all get far better than we deserve. We get the gifts of God’s love even when we don’t love Him back. We get God’s forgiveness even when we sin repeatedly and terrifically. We get the inspiration of the Holy Spirit even when we aren’t really looking for it; we get the gifts of bread and wine even when we have little faith.
And all we have to do to receive these radical, life-changing, unfair gifts is to accept that God gives them to everyone else too – to admit that we are all made equal by God’s infinite blessings. And so if we want to receive God’s forgiveness, we have to accept that God is also forgiving corporate CEO’s who are living high on the hog while their companies lay off more and more people. If we want to receive God’s inspiration, we have to accept that God is helping other people’s creativity too. If we want to receive God’s love and healing, we have to accept that God is loving and healing those people we most dislike too. All we have to do is to accept that God will do with God’s Grace and God’s Love and God’s Mercy and God’s Patience whatever God wants to do, which is always to give generously. To you. And to me. And to everybody else. And that just isn’t fair. Thanks be to God.
Preached by Mtr. Erika Takacs
18 September 2011
St. Mark's Church, Philadelphia