God’s Not Fair (Matthew 20.1-16)

I’m English, so when I was growing up, I learned what was fair and what was not. And being English, I became very cross at any violation of the accepted rules of fair play. But figuring the rules out wasn’t always easy. I remember sobbing when my big brother would get bigger portions of cake or a bigger bike or the bigger bedroom when we moved to our new house.

“But he’s older than you Rachael,” my parents would say. “It’s only fair.” This was a tough lesson to learn, but hey if the reason was for fairness’ sake, then so be it. Fair’s fair.

My life at school was governed by rules. The teachers and dinner ladies would always be watching out for anyone not following them; play fair, take your turn, don’t take what’s not yours, you can’t have more than your fair share, don’t jump the dinner queue.

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Fairness is very important in our culture. Our love of rules and regulations is perhaps why we, the English, invented so many sports: football, baseball, tennis and rugby to name a few. And if we didn’t invent the game itself, we were certainly the first to lay down proper rules for it, to ensure fair play: hockey, horseracing, polo, swimming, rowing, boxing and even skiing.[1]

We’re known throughout the world as being obsessed with queuing: a prime example of fair play. Where our German, French or Hungarian cousins would make their way as close to the front as they could, so they had a better chance of being served first, we English much prefer the order of a neat line. We’ll all be served, when it’s our turn, according to when we arrived. We think this is fair.

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We even self-impose the queuing system in situations where there aren’t any actual queues. In pubs across the country, the customers all have a sense of who got there first, even though drinkers all stand side by side and the bar. Pushing in is frowned upon. The person pushing in jolly well knows they arrived after the lady holding a fiver out. The bar tender relies on their own sense of fairness and the honesty of their customers to ensure everyone’s served in the right and proper order.

The system of fair play only problematic when we find we’re both English and a Christian at the same time.

Here’s an example from a church council meeting I attended. They were discussing Parish Share. Parish Share is the sum of money each parish contributes to the central diocesan pot. This communal pot, funds various things to help our local churches. Like running training events or courses so lay people can develop their skills, or funding children’s and youth ministry advisers, a missioner, a professional safeguarding adviser, having someone to give local churches expert legal advice on the use of church buildings, and of course, funding our clergy, their training, their housing and their pensions so that they can minister. All these things and many more come from money in this communal diocesan pot that each church contribute towards.

But how much each church contributes is where it gets tricky. Because this decision lies with each and every parish. It’s up to them.

At the PCC meeting I went to, a heated debate broke out between members. One wanted to contribute more to the communal diocesan pot this year, in line with inflation, and also because they had plenty in reserve and could afford to. He felt it was only fair. But another person wanted to contribute less, in line with what other parishes in the deanery gave. She wasn’t happy that their church was giving the lion’s share, whilst, she believed, others weren’t pulling their weight. Why should her church give more this year when other churches were giving less? It’s not like her church benefitted more from the extra they gave, yet those that gave less still seemed to get a vicar. She just didn’t think it was fair.

Hmmm… so what’s actually fair?

Well…brace yourselves…because Jesus is about to weigh into the argument.

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In Matthew 20.1-16 Jesus is explaining to his disciples what the Heavenly Kingdom is like, which, it turns out, is nothing at all like the United Kingdom.

God’s version of fair play goes like this:

“I’ll pay all my labourers the same, no matter what time they show up looking for work. If they do a full shift they’ll get £100 quid. If they turn up at ten to 5 and get stuck in for ten minutes, they’ll get a hundred quid.”

But that’s not fair!

No. It’s not.

God doesn’t play by our cultural understanding of fairness.

Our version of fair, our rules, our orderliness, our queues at the bus stop…it’s all for nothing compared to God’s massive heart and generosity.

God doesn’t care if a criminal nailed to a cross has lived a most sinful and terrible life up until now. It’s the fact he recognises that the man nailed to the cross next to him is Jesus, and the fact he accepts that he’s the Son of God, that matters. And because of this recognition and acceptance, he is forgiven and redeemed, even in his last remaining moments of earth. He had no chance to live a better life or make up for all he’d done wrong, but in his dying moments, he accepted Jesus, and that was enough for God. God’s that generous. (Luke 23.40-43)

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So what might God have to say about the debate at the PCC meeting? What’s fair?

Well, all I know is the kingdom of heaven is unlike anything we could construct or write a rulebook for. So our own sense of fair might have to go out of the window. Instead we might have to base the answer purely on what we know about God’s character through what we read in the Bible, what we come to understand through a lived faith, and what we learn through prayer.

I think it might go like this: God would want each church in Durham Diocese to give as generously as it was able, holding nothing back, giving joyfully, not grumbling, giving more than they have to. Giving, in fact, not just according to the need, but giving generously and faithfully as a response to God’s generosity. Disregarding what they thought a fair proportion, based on what neighbouring churches were up to, and instead giving according to whatever God had been blessed it with.

And if each church did that, there’d be enough in the common fund, the communal pot, to cover lower amounts given by the much poorer communities elsewhere in the diocese. Churches whose congregations are extremely poor, and who can’t come close to covering the cost of their vicar, or much else for that matter. They’d still benefit from all the central pot could provide, including their vicar’s stipend. Mission and ministry can happen in even the poorest corners of the diocese because of the generosity of the whole diocese. Of all churches working together as a team.

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This is giving according to what’s generous, not giving according to whatever someone calculates is fair based on perceptions and a sense of self-determined sense of fair.

Our rules of fair play limit us. We’re are only human and we only see with human eyes, and with our human imagination. It’s limiting. We don’t see the bigger picture when we only rely on our own rules and instincts.

But there’s another way. When we take away our culturally inherited ideas about fair play, and instead we turn our faces towards God, when we study God, seek God, ask questions about God, when we grow in our own faith and when we build others up in theirs… we will come to learn a whole new set of rules.

When we give like God, we’ll see that so much more can be achieved. Prayers are answered. Miracles happen. Generosity flows and flows from the least likely quarters.

But from time to time, when we’re challenged- which does happen because generosity is tough- when we struggle to do what’s generous and instead we want to do what’s fair according to our inherited English customs, let’s remember who our maker is.

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Let’s remember our God is so generous that no matter how much we have sinned, Jesus paid the price for us, that no matter how little we knew we needed help, Jesus saved us anyway, and no matter how far from the path we wander, our Father will always welcome us home with open arms. Not because he’s fair, because he’s God.

So at the next opportunity when we leave this church today, let’s not give fairly. Let’s give generously.

Amen.

[1] From Kate Fox’s “Watching the English”… a brilliant book.

2 replies »

  1. Interesting read, even for an agnostic. although id suggest the bar example needs some work. In my experience of working in licensed venues bar tenders only rely on customers to show who “deserves” to be served next based on the way they are interacting with the bar tender rather than the order they arrived at the bar. the lady waving a Fiver around like a golden ticket is going to be served after the polite lady stood behind her who tipped on the previous round. there must be a proverb along the lines of, those who treat people well will be treated better them selves. 🙂

    Like

    • Fair point! But even so, I think your example also leads us to what’s fair and accepted. And yes, I do believe the Bible mentions something about how we treat our neighbours, in a few places 😊 Thanks for taking the time to read it and comment. Always appreciated 🖒

      Like

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