Sunday, January 23, 2011

Give Me My Just Deserts - Matthew 20:1-16

“Give me my just deserts”

Zechariah 7:10-11; Psalm 146:7-9
Matthew 20:1-16

Westminster Presbyterian Church, Santa Fe

(In addition to the Biblical Texts, this sermon was inspired by the book/ lecture series: Justice: What is the right thing to do? by Michael Sandel.  It is part of a four part series on understanding biblical justice.)

Last April, some of you may remember me telling about Ruby Gene’s surprising display of generosity.  We were sitting in a restaurant, she in a high chair, when a youngster her age, she was 16 months, was seated in a high chair a few booths down.  She noticed the child, and after looking over there several times, asked to get down, and once down, she squeezed a chunk of bread in her fist and walked over to her little neighbor holding her hand out toward him, like some kind of love offering.

Well, that was then.  This is now.  We were eating dinner this week and a piece of bread was on the table in front of her.  I made a move like I was going to grab it; she saw my move toward the bread and she reached out and snagged it and said, “My pan,” “My bread.”  I pleaded, “me das un poco?”  “Will you give me a little?
“No.  It’s mine.”  (like her Spanglish?).
“Por favor?” I persisted.
After going on like this for a while, she pinched almost a microscopic crumb from the bread and enthusiastically handed that crumb to me, “Aquí papa.” “Here dad.”  
That was my share of the bread.

Many would say that Ruby’s tendencies are instinctive and natural. Survival skills.  We all are this way.  Even though we grow up, do our cravings and desires to possess go away?  Do we shake our childhood reluctance to share as we get older and more mature? Or does it get worse? And we echo the sentiment:  “What’s mine is mine what’s yours is mine.”

We may come by this tendency—to get what we think we deserve, and hold onto it for dear life—honestly.  But, for thousands of years, there has been a competing message.  One in which we are to move past our animal instincts and show compassion and love toward others.  One which inspires sharing, but even more than sharing.

Justice: it’s what God wants from us.

The passage of Zechariah says that God wants God's people to administer true justice, and by doing so to not oppress the widow or the orphan, the immigrant or the poor.  Four groups who had no social power: who only lived at subsistence levels and were only days from starvation if there was any famine, invasion, or social unrest.  Today, who else might we lump within the group of the most vulnerable?
refugees, migrant workers, homeless, many single mothers; many elderly people.

This morning’s passage from Matthew takes us down a particular road in our third week of our exploration of biblical justice. It revolves around the concept of distribution.  Distributive Justice. How should income and wealth and resources be shared or distributed?  Ready? We’re going to talk about money. Isn’t distribution what’s at stake in this story Jesus tells.  

The kingdom of God is like the owner of the vineyard who pays everyone who works for him the same, no matter how long they have been working out in the field.  Not the same per hour, like $80 to the guy who’d been out there for 8 hours, and $10 to the guy who’d been out there for an hour, but they both made $80 entire days wages.  Is that fair?
I asked Carly Brugger if she thought it was fair; and she said…yes. Then I said, “Well what if you were the one who was out there all day, all sweaty and tired, and your sister Dira works for just an hour and she gets the same pay as you.”  
“Now that would make me mad,” she said.

This parable is so loaded, I am not going to be able to do it justice in one sermon.  So it may extend to next week.
“I’m aware of time, and you all are Presbyterians….”

Let’s begin by establishing some common ground in our understanding of what’s going on here in Jesus’ parable and how it compares with our own 21st century American reality.

Do we think that Jesus is saying, “In the kingdom of God everyone gets paid the same no matter how much work they have done?” Some people attempt to spiritualize this story—Marilyn—saying it is a story about when someone became a follower of Jesus, and it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been working for Jesus, if you’ve been doing it since you were three or just decided to follow Jesus yesterday, our reward is the same. This is a nice and good interpretation.

But, what happens if we keep it in terms of dollars and cents and work and wages earned, rather than some kind of pie in the sky by and by heavenly reward? Does it become more problematic?

Good, that’s where we are going to go.

Is it a parable that suggests that in a just society everyone should get their basic needs taken care of—a days wage—no matter the how long or hard they have worked?

Most of us would tend to agree that everyone should have his or her basic needs met.  The rub comes when those who have been working all day, get paid the same as those who show up late on the job.  That’s how Jesus says it is in the kingdom of God.

How is it now?  Let’s put it like this: in our society, do we all start the race in the same place?  Or to use the analogy of the bible story; do we all show up in the labor park at the same time? Is everyone is given equal opportunity?  Can’t everyone can show up at the labor park as early as they want to, but some people choose to show up early, while others show up late, clearly they are just lazy.   

Ok, so, we are all in the labor park at the same time waiting for the job to arrive.  But let say, I was born a white male to educated and stable parents with a successful businessman for a father; I was sent to a private high school and a private college. I get hired ahead of most people who are in the labor park.  But hey, I worked hard, I had to pass all of my classes; I survived the many pressures I had to face.  Had I not gone into ministry, I had a ticket to “the good life.”

Others from the labor park—people of color, women, kids from a broken home, immigrants, undereducated, these other people were ready and willing to run the race. They eventually came out to the field to work a few hours, some odd jobs. But they all came in after me so they don’t make much, but they get what they deserve.   

Let’s look at more tangible distribution data. How many in this town who work for the state are facing pay cuts this year?  Now, you are aware that last year, the chief executives of America's 500 biggest companies got a collective 38% pay raise, averaging $15million.  Fair?

What is an average salary for a public school teacher? $43000
And Baseball player, Prince Fielder, just agreed with to a contract with the Milwaukee Brewers to be paid $15.5 million next year.   Just deserts?

Supreme court justice John Roberts makes around $225000.  Not bad.
But there’s another judge who is making a little more?  Judge Judy: $45 million
Where are our priorities?

I think what Jesus is challenging us to consider, those of us who would listen to him, and not just blow him off as a cook, do we, or anyone else, have any moral claim to our earnings? In other words, do we—or anyone else—deserve to make money by our virtue or by moral desert--for being a hard working, by being skilled or able? That’s what the first workers of the field argue: We worked longer! Or We worked harder! Maybe even, we are more skilled! So, we deserve more!

It’s a claim often made, but is it justified?

Let’s take for example, Michael Jordan and his $31 million he makes a year.  He deserves that much money because he worked so hard to be so good at basketball. But what if another basketball player works even harder than Jordan, but is a woman, and has no chance of ever making that kind of money.  So if it’s not because of his hard work, than it is because of his skill or ability that he deserves it.  But, wasn’t it naturally given to him; what did he have to do with the mixing of his genes?  So can he make a moral claim on his earnings? Not to mention that he lives in a sports crazed society.  What if he had grown up in Northern Alaska, where there were no outdoor basketball courts, and he developed his skills as an ice fisherman.  How much money would he be making?  You know he would have been a good fisherman.

And what about us?  Where do we fit in? Have some of us made more than we deserve? Have some of us not quite gotten where we want to be, but know that we deserve more than we have? How much bread to you have in your hand? And how much of that bread are you going to share with the hungry masses who are still waiting to get hired?

They say, in this country, we don’t buy into a feudal aristocratic or caste economic system. Still over 70 percent of the students who attend the most prestigious colleges and universities in this country come from wealthy families.

And wasn’t slavery still institutionalized less than 150 years ago? They say in this country we have established a free market system in which everyone starts the race at the same starting line, and then it’s up to us to run as we are able and our own skill and merit will determine how well we finish in the race.  

But in reality: The wealthy start ahead of the poor; men start ahead of women; white people start ahead of people of color; citizens start ahead of immigrants.

So what can be done in terms of making for a more equitable system? Do we tax the rich to provide for the poor?  Evidently Bush, and Obama, feel the rich would be greatly deprived of what they morally deserve.....

So what do we do?

-Do we become a bunch of Robin Hood’s and somehow steal from the rich to feed the poor?  

-Two years ago, we tried to tax homes that were sold in this city for more than $500000 to create a bond, which would be used for affordable housing.  It was voted down.

Why is it becoming more and more difficult to establish any kind of equitable economic system? Why is the average salary for top CEOs continuing to go up?
Why is it getting harder for working class people to find jobs?  Many are showing up in the labor park, but they stand idle all day, just waiting their chance.  What are we going to do about it to establish justice on earth?

“In the time I have left...and I’m hurrying to a close….”

I want to touch briefly on a theory for justice, for a more equitable economic system, and then present you with a proposal for this church—keeping in mind all the while, the biblical passages we read. 20th century American Political Philosopher John Rawls had an intriguing idea.  
(the following was drawn from Sandel, Justice, chapter entitled “John Rawls.”)

He said in thinking about justice, society needs to be governed according to principles in which factors that are arbitrary from a moral point of view—such as the kind of family we were born into, our birth order, our social and economic advantages, our natural talents and abilities—in other words, when we show up at in the field to work—should not be taken into consideration when establishing a more just system.    

In this way, a system would be set up behind what he calls the veil of ignorance.  “The veil of ignorance.” Those who are making the guidelines for society come to the table with the eyes of a new born baby.  They don’t know their ethnicity, their abilities, their gender, their family history.  Rawls believes that behind the veil of ignorance everyone would avoid setting up a system in which there would be oppression or other injustices, because no one would risk being subject to such oppression or other injustice.  Behind the veil of ignorance those making the rules don’t know where they will end up.

Rawls was serious when he proposed this, and while I don’t have time to nuance his position more, it has been suggested that his theory may be “the most compelling case for a more equal society that American political philosophy has yet produced.” (Sandel, Justice)  

Rawls says: “We should reject the contention that the ordering of institutions is always defective because the distribution of natural talents and the contingencies of social circumstance are unjust, and this injustice must inevitably carry over to human arrangements. Occasionally this reflection is offered as an excuse for ignoring injustice, as if the refusal to acquiesce in injustice is on par with being unable to accept death. The natural distribution is neither just nor unjust; not is it unjust that persons are born into society at some particular position.  These are simply natural facts.  What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts.” (As quoted by Sandel, Justice)  

Jesus also rejected the notion that life not fair, and there is nothing we can do about it. The land owner said to those who had been out in the field the longest, I have paid you fairly.  Rawls proposes that we deal with these facts by agreeing to "share one another's fate," The bible says: “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2)

The bible describes the Christian community in this way: “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” (Acts 4:34-35)   

Here’s my proposal, and it is mainly for our money care group, those responsible for our budget and fundraising, and money stuff. Already this church is supporting two families with in financial needs.  Let’s consider our present situation and how we might establish some type of distributive justice. Maybe we begin with Rawls idea of a veil of ignorance; and money care has a meeting in which all participants come to the table behind the veil of ignorance to establish some guidelines by which our church finances may be better utilized for those in need.  What would come out of this meeting?  Creation of some jobs?  Perhaps a push for an endowment—money contributed by those who may have more—
invested in a socially and environmentally responsible mutual fund—from which the interest may be used to support those who show up at the labor field at the latest hour....

It would be interesting to see, but God calls us to live into a vision for justice.  
A vision for the kingdom of God, in which everyone’s needs are taken care of.

May we strive to do so, In God’s name. Amen.

Will the choir come forward.

Saint Francis’ prayer is an attempt to get over the temptation to seek our own needs and get what we think we deserve first, and instead to seek the good of others.  

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
Perhaps the original publication of the prayer was submitted anonymously to the French publication La Clochette in 1912.

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