The Oakland Peace Center, where we have been part of a couple mission projects, building bunk beds, doing some painting, etc, asked the congregations that support it to focus on peace and justice this Sunday. As one of those congregations, we have chosen to be part of that. In particular we’ve been encouraged to focus on the connections between peace and justice. Do you see connections between the two?
What images or ideas come to mind when you think of peace? Doves, calm, nonviolence, non-conflictive, everyone getting alone.
What images or ideas come to mind when you think of justice? Courts, laws, punishments for those who did wrong, retribution, fairness, giving people what they “deserve.”
These two can seem contradictory, or hard to reconcile. Justice brings thoughts/images of violence, wrong doing and “pay back” in equal amounts. Peace seems to exclude conflict at all.
But today’s story about the laborers shows us something very different, something that is difficult and hard for most of us to grasp, let alone for us to feel good about. You know the story. The owner hires different workers at different times. That means the workers work different amounts. Yet, at the end of the day, each worker is paid the same amount. And the laborers are upset about this. They feel this is unjust.
We can relate to this right? Parents, grandparents, guardians spend a lot of time sometimes, trying to figure out what is “fair”. To use some less serious examples: In our family, for example, Jasmyn got to go out with her grandparents for “special birthday time” starting when she turned 5 or six. The grandparents decided though that it wasn’t “fair” for the younger kids to get to go out that young so they made the decision to wait until each child turned 5 or 6 to have that “special time” with the grandparents. Does this seem fair? Well, from my thinking, the grandparents aren’t going to be able to take the kids out forever and each child should have the same amount of time with them, so I think that each child should start at the same time being able to have that special time with their grandparents. You see, it is a little complicated.
Another less serious scenario – when I was growing up, the older child always got a bigger piece of pie or cake or whatever because they were “bigger” and needed more. Does this seem fair? IN my family, it is my youngest child who needs the most calories and who eats the most despite being unusually skinny. How do we define fair?
When we lived in San Leandro, Jasmyn went to Head Royce, a private school. It was an amazing school that gave her basically a free ride. They were committed to diversity, to taking care of others and the planet. Part of their curriculum required each child to do some kind of community service, and they taught important values about caring for the world. However, most of the kids who attended this school were filthy rich. While Jasmyn got a free ride, the tuition per child was $24,000 a year. And while they taught great values, one day Jasmyn came home and said, “Why don’t we have a play castle in our back yard? Why don’t I have my own pony? Why don’t I have my own bedroom? Why didn’t we go skiing in France for our winter vacation?” It didn’t matter what the values were that were being taught. She was put in a situation where those she compared herself to made her feel poor, made her feel that life was unfair in the way that she didn’t have enough, didn’t have as much. She could have compared herself to those in our community who lived on the street. What I wanted for her was for her to realize our many, many blessing and riches and to realize that because of our blessings we have a great responsibility to care for those around us, to be as generous with others as God is with us. But instead, she had the experience of being in a place where she was the “poorest” and she left that feeling that her life was “unfair.”
I think about the times when people have offered us grace: like the time I was pulled over for running a light that changed just as I entered the intersection. I normally forget about that grace that I was offered, though, when I see people speeding in their cars and find myself wishing that they would get pulled over. I find I can make assumptions about who they are, what their motives are. I fail to see with God’s eyes, eyes of compassion and understanding and insight in those moments. I want justice for others and grace for myself. But again, my definition of justice is subjective.
A more serious example: How many of you have seen the movie, “the Gods Must be Crazy”? In it there is a native group of bush people who are filmed and who act in the film. After the film was made, an article was written by an anthropologist who had lived and worked with the bush people about the devastation that the filming had created for this bush tribe. There are rules, good rules, mostly that require that when anyone does work, he or she is paid for it. If a person isn’t paid, it is a kind of exploitation. But what happened in this particular case was that not everyone in the tribe was in the film. So before the film was made, everyone in the tribe had the exact same amount; everything was shared, everything was in common. It was very little, people had almost no material possessions before this film was made. But still, all the people in the tribe felt grateful, felt rich, felt they had more than enough. But then the filming crew paid some of the tribe members for their participation in the film. In so doing, they introduced inequity into the tribe. And that inequity led to a sense of unfairness on the part of those who weren’t paid. Now some had things that were just theirs, and others were lacking in those things. People began to feel poor, and eventually the tribe began to fight within itself and the tribal culture for this one group at least, was utterly destroyed. Ironically, the film that destroyed them included a story line that told it’s own story about this very inequity and about the dangers of “things” being introduced into these cultures.
The truth is from a personal perspective, in our definition of justice, nothing is EVER fair. When we fail to understand or have compassion or care for others, when we can only see from our own needs, our own experiences, then nothing is ever fair. We don’t get what we think we deserve. Others seem to get more than we think they deserve.
But what I call us all to focus on today is the end of today’s parable, which reads, “‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 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?’
As Rev. Sandhya Jha, the director of the Peace Center said it, “What we see in this story is a redefinition of justice. Typically, we define justice as ‘what someone deserves’ based on their actions or particular qualities….But in this story, the landowner redefines justice to mean a state in which everyone receives what is fitting to a laborer, regardless of their specific actions as a laborer. This is a radically different notion of justice form our common usage. The question of deservingness is separated from action, or personal qualities, and instead centers on identity. This means that all people, as children of God are equally deserving of the fruits of labor. In other words, it is a metaphor for God’s justice, which is a justice that gives freely to the measure that is sufficient to the needs of the person….justice or what is right is that status in which needs are met for all people equally….On God’s terms of justice, giving more to some and less to others based on merits is not right.”
So what does this mean for us? Well, first, we have a choice about how we look at life. Do we focus on what is Unfair? It is unfair that I work hard for little while others don’t work at all and are given much. It is unfair that I have to struggle with this challenge or that challenge while others seem to have charmed lives. It is unfair that I do my best and still go through painful situations. Life is unfair. Or we can look at the many blessings that fill our lives: Each of us in this room has enough to eat. Each of us has a bed to sleep in. We each have family and friends and a church that loves us and supports us. We have educations and vacations and toys for all ages. Our lives are filled with blessings and we can choose to focus on them and be grateful for God’s generosity to each one of us. We have much more than we need, after all.
But more deeply than that, God’s definition of justice does not take into account what people deserve and instead focuses solely on what people need. That is so hard for us to grasp, so hard for us to take in. But Jesus presents this definition of justice to us and expects us to also stand up for this justice, this image of what it is to be just. We are called not to award and discriminate based on what people “deserve” (and again for each of us what someone deserves will be different), but instead to care for and love all people, working hard to make sure they all have what they need. That is a justice that leads to peace. When people have what they need, there is room for peace, there is room for living.
I know this is a really hard concept. So I want to say it once more. What scripture shows us is God’s definition of justice is about giving everyone what they need. It is NOT about what people deserve. EVER. And we are called to strive for that same understanding of justice.
Next week we will be looking at judgment and God’s call to us to not judge. That fits in well here. If our understanding of justice is about giving people what they need, there is no room for judgement in that. Judgement only confuses and confounds us because it throws us back into thinking about what people deserve. This is so humanly natural that striving for a different way of looking at the world takes work. But it is what we are called to do: to look with eyes of love and care, no matter what a person has done, no matter what we think they deserve. The good news in this is that God looks at us the same way: with eyes that see past whatever we have done or failed to do that has been unloving. And God wants justice for us as well: for us to have what we need. This day and every day. Amen.