“Is God Fair?”
Pentecost 16A, Proper 20 – September 24, 2017
Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16.
All of us who have, or are, raising children have dealt with the ‘fairness’ issue. One child has a birthday and receives gifts, and another child also expects gifts. When you try to explain that only the child who has the birthday receives the gifts you are confronted with, “but that’s not fair.”
Or, the unfairness of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria and the disasters they created. Is it fair that entire islands, keys, cities basically cease to exist? Or, the earthquakes in Mexico City. What’s fair about that?
And, how would you like to be a “Dreamer”, brought into this country by parents who wanted the American life for their children. So, you’ve grown up in this country, English is your first language, you are working, paying taxes, maybe served in the military, but you are not a legal citizen. If you are deported you will go back to a country that you didn’t grow up in, don’t speak the language, and don’t want to be there. What’s fair about that?
I was once watching a Discovery Channel program. A scene showed a fish and, all of a sudden, a larger fish appeared and simply sucked the smaller fish into its mouth: devoured, just like that. The off-camera voice said something like, “Life in the animal kingdom is stark, harsh, and sometimes cruel. There is nothing fair about life for the little fish that has just been eaten by the larger fish.”
That one scene made some made a spiritual connection in my soul. There is a certain unfairness built into the design of creation. This inherent unfairness forces us to struggle with the fact that life is more than what we experience in this tent of flesh. The unfairness drives us to try and understand that this life is a testing ground, designed to refine our character, to push us to allow the personality traits of Jesus Christ to become our own (Eph 5:22-23). Then the abundant living begins.
And, on top of the inherited unfairness of life, sin/selfishness has made life is even more unfair. Now, in an unfair world, sin/selfishness plays a profound role resulting in destruction of lives, marriages, families, feelings of safety, and our sense of peace. So, in a selfish/sinful, unfair world
What Is The Role of God?
In today’s Psalm, verse 2 – we are instructed to “sing to him, sing praises to him, and speak of his marvelous works”. If you are aware of David’s life he was personally chosen by God to be the next King of Israel. What followed could certainly be judged as not fair for David. He was constantly involved in warfare and running for his life because of King Saul’s insane obsession with killing him. Was it fair for him to be so tested in his faithfulness to God; yet he sang praises to God and spoke of God’s marvelous works.
David learned what God is trying to teach all of us: there is power in singing praises to God, or speaking of his marvelous works because God inhabits the praises of his people. Is it fair of God to expect us to go through this life with all its trials, tribulations, and temptations singing praises to Him, and telling others of His marvelous works when our own lives are not working out too well?
So, it begs the question:
Is God Fair?
In today’s lesson from Exodus 16 we read that Moses had done exactly what God had instructed him to do, and what did he receive in turn – a complaining, grumbling, community of former slaves who were ready to return to their Egyptian slave masters?
They were saying: “God is not fair. If God were fair, we could have left Egypt and not had to suffer in this desert. And what did this unfair God do? He responded with Quail and Manna (:15). Was God unfair to bring the Israelites out of bondage, knowing they were going to have to undergo certain hardships? Or was God preparing a tough people who would be able to conquer a promised land and live in a covenant relationship with their God. Was God unfair to do that?
In his letter to the Philippians Paul describes a situation where he is discussing whether to choose death and Heaven, or to stay here to continue serving others. Was it fair of God to leave Paul in this world longer than his appointed time – only to face more hardship, suffering, and pain? Verse 22, gives the impression that Paul could have said, “I’m ready to go Father”, and like Jesus on the Cross, he could have ‘given up his spirit’ and moved out of his tent and into eternal life. It was fair because God gave Paul the choice whether to go or stay. Paul, becoming as Christ-like as he could – he already had stigmata on his body – chose to remain here in order to “continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, …(:25)”
Is it fair of God to propose that we who believe in Jesus Christ should also suffer because of that relationship? Verse 29, reads – “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, …” As Christians we are subject to spiritual attacks from Satan precisely because we belong to Jesus. Is that fair? Nope, it’s not. But the alternative is not to belong to Jesus and thereby not be worthy of the Devil’s attention.
There is a story that comes out of the life of John Wesley, whom God had chosen to be the agent for revival in England. He was a Priest in the Church of England who became a street preacher because no Bishop would appoint him to a parish. As such he traveled from town to town preaching in the town squares, at the entrances to mines, in cemeteries, wherever he could. Always there was a crowd of people hungry to hear about God because most of their parish priests in those days didn’t care if they ever saw them in church. At most gatherings were also people motivated by Satan who did everything possible to break up the assemblies, including physically assaulting Wesley. He was, at different times, punched in the face, spat upon, cursed, had garbage thrown on him, and sometimes dragged through the streets by his hair. He records in his journal that he was riding one day praying and came to the realization that he had not been cursed or assaulted for a couple of weeks. Immediately he stopped his horse and got on his knees asking God’s forgiveness for not having been faithful enough to be worthy of Satan’s attacks. Was it fair for him to suffer physically as a cost for telling people about Jesus?
In today’s gospel lesson from Matthew 20, Jesus presents a parable that uses workers’ wages to teach about receiving the rewards of Heaven. Different day-workers were hired at different hours of the day to enter the vineyard and harvest the grapes; yet all received the same wages at the end of the day. Those who had been working all day thought the owner was being unfair with them. They worked longer hours therefore they should have received more money than those who worked less hours. That seems fair, doesn’t it? But the owner said: “I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a day’s wages? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous? (:13-15).
Ultimately, the most serious fairness issue will be, “who deserves to go to heaven?” If it were left up to us to decide then we would have to develop a whole set of standards by which we could ‘fairly’ evaluate each person’s life. And then we would have to convene some sort of court to ‘fairly’ judge each person. And of course picking people to judge others would involve a whole other set of issues. Then once everyone agreed to what actions are so horrendous that no one would want those people in heaven, someone would raise the issue of mitigating circumstances. Did he commit grievous sins because of grievous sins committed against him as a child that permanently scared his soul? How would we fairly weigh that evidence or would it be simpler and fairer to not look into one’s past, just judge their adult actions?
I think we would discover that judging someone is pretty easy. Being ‘fair’ about our judgments is another issue. So, if our task was simply to judge someone worthy of going to heaven, we could probably do that. But, to do it in a ‘fair’ manner, would prove our undoing. I think we would get so bogged down that we would have to invite God into the proceedings. But that brings us back to the initial question, “Is God Fair?” I suspect the answer is,
God Is Not Fair.
But God is holy, and righteous, and merciful. Little children complain that life is not fair because they are simpler and purer souls. They instinctively know that life should be fair. But sin/selfishness has so complicated life that fairness is not even the issue anymore. Life, with selfishness as part of it, is not fair and can never be fair. Sin has corrupted the fabric of life, even the DNA code by which life is handed down. Otherwise, how could people inherit diseases and deformities of the body, or mental disorders? Sin renders the question of fairness irrelevant.
That is why God says, 9 Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, my thoughts and my ways are higher than yours (Isaiah 55:9). Only God is able to judge sin and be merciful to the sinner. Only God can rightly evaluate who should go to heaven. God is not fair, and I’m glad because that is my only hope of ending up in heaven and not hell. When I stand before God on judgment day I don’t want justice. Justice should be fair. That’s why our symbol for justice is the balanced scale. If I get a just and fair decision from God I have no hope of going to heaven. However, if I get a decision that contains mercy, then there is hope.
And God, in a wisdom that is not human, offered himself as the one who would take the punishment each of us deserves for our own selfishness/sin. Jesus, on the Cross, took our sin and paid for it with His life and death. Because of His action on our behalf, our sin is removed from us and God can justly pronounce that we are thereby fit to enter Heaven. There Mercy and Justice kiss because Heaven is fair, and God is holy and just. And none of this will ever make sense apart from the joy of having a relationship with the living Jesus Christ. Because, only in Him is life fair.
The very Communion we receive today is a reminder that Jesus acted justly on our behalf. He paid the price for our disobedience; and it is evidence of how merciful God is and how much Grace Jesus is ready to bestow – if we just ask Him.