“That’s Not Fair: Learning Generosity and Grace” Matthew 20:1-16 Rev. Sean Weston
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
March 17, 2019
When I lived in New York City for a year of seminary, I was eligible for SNAP – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funded by the federal government often referred to as “food stamps.” I got a restricted debit card, and on the first of the month it was loaded with $194 which was what a formula decided a single person in NYC needed for food. Because of the SNAP assistance I received I was able to take out about $2,000 less in loans than I otherwise would’ve needed.
I remember a few things about being on SNAP.
The first is that it was incredibly difficult to get enrolled in the first place. I couldn’t figure out the online system – and I know online systems pretty well. So I went to the office in Harlem and got in a line that snaked down blocks. I was the only white person in line and it was clear to me from start to finish that the process was designed to be as difficult and dehumanizing as possible.
The second is that I felt so much shame about needing help. I’ve always believed that everybody deserves to eat, and that part of what a society does is make sure that everybody can eat. But since I could listen I’ve also heard the sorts of things our society tends to say about people on “food stamps.” I felt ashamed that I needed help, especially when I would go to pay and everyone saw how I was paying. I felt the eyes on me and my shopping cart, eyes that seemed to ask how I had a nice coat if I needed food stamps, or whether I worked (I did, in addition to full time studies), or why I was getting meat or ice cream.
The third is that people – then and now – never even imagined that I might have been on welfare. After all I’m a middle class background. I act and dress and talk like a middle class person. So for years I’ve been present when people have shared their opinions about people on welfare. And I’ve heard some ugly things. There is some real resentment of people on welfare: “why am I paying for them to have ice cream?” When I’m being courageous, I’ll say something like this: “you know, I spent a year on food stamps, and bought ice cream sometimes. It helped me stay disciplined about other spending. And do we really think people should be poor and miserable?” It’s a good way to end a conversation, if nothing else.
As it turns out there is a whole lot of conflict in our society about programs like SNAP. And that conflict – like most conflict – isn’t about what it looks like. That means that it isn’t actually about ice cream or nice steaks. That’s just the spark. It’s about deeper questions: what is fair? What do people deserve? What is right and just? And while I have strong feelings about this myself, I recognize that these are old and deep questions and conflicts, and they come up in today’s story from scripture. Workers who have toiled all day feel like they deserve more than those working only an hour. But when they complain to the landowner they are rebuked and called envious. That doesn’t seem very fair – yet Jesus says that’s what life with God is like. The story never resolves the conflict. How might we untangle and make sense of it all?
You can’t navigate conflict without hearing different perspectives, so I’d like to explore today’s story from three different perspectives, in modern terms. Let’s say construction manager picked up day laborers throughout the day from the corner of Belmont and Milwaukee on Chicago’s Northwest Side – one of over 500 such street corners in the United States where half a million people go to find work each day. First let’s hear from someone who was there all day:
“I got to the corner at 5am, and was so relieved to find work early in the day. The manager told each of us he would pay $10/hour for the day, which is about as good as it gets. It’s not a lot but it puts food on the table. He kept bringing more people on throughout the day. It was a long day of hard work. When it was time to get paid, I was relieved at first. After all, we get stiffed all the time. First he paid the guys who came last, and when he paid them $80 I got really excited. Surely he would pay me more since I’d been here all day. But then I got paid the same amount they did! Even the guys who even worked an hour. I got so, so angry. How could that be fair? A lot of the other guys agreed with me. Either I should be paid more, or they should be paid less. It wasn’t fair, not one bit.”
Now let’s hear from one of the last laborers to be hired:
“As the day went on I got more and more nervous. If I didn’t find any work today, I wasn’t sure what I would do. I need the money but work’s been harder and harder to get. It’s been tough. So waited all day. Then the manager came by and asked why I was still here – I said I hadn’t been hired yet. When he hired me I was so relieved. Something is better than nothing. And then when we lined up to be paid, the most amazing thing happened! He paid me for a day’s worth of work. We all got paid the same! I was so relieved you couldn’t believe it. Nobody is that generous. The guys who were there all day got mad. And I get that, but you know, I was ready to work all day. And we all need to live.”
Finally, let’s hear from the manager:
“I had work that needed done. And I know these guys have a hard time finding good work. They aren’t often treated well, and I just wanted to do right by them. When I realized more guys were waiting for work, I took them on too. We can always use a hand. Then when I paid them I paid them all the same. After all, they all had the same need. I have plenty to give. I think we all deserve some generosity. And we all need to live.”
Of course the story is often read as if God is the manager, giving generously to each person whether they seem to deserve it or not. The reality is that this story offends most people who hear it. Human beings have a very strong need to feel like things are fair. And when we don’t feel like things are fair it’s probably because we feel entitled and resentful. To feel entitled is to believe that you deserve everything you have: “I’ve worked for everything I have.” To feel resentful is to believe that someone else doesn’t deserve what they have: “why are they getting ice cream with their welfare money?”.
Both are focused on this idea of deserving; that we should get certain things for living our lives the right way, and that if others don’t live right, they don’t deserve those things. In the United States we especially live in a society that often says we need to earn every single thing we have. While these may be deeply human feelings, they do not seem to be God’s feelings. God does not treat us according to what we earn or deserve, or what’s fair. Instead, God treats us according to what we need. After all, everybody needs to live. Instead, God offers generosity and grace to everyone, no matter what we think they earn or deserve.
For those of us who feel like we’ve worked hard for what we have, this might not seem like good news. What’s the point of working so hard if God won’t give us a little extra something? Why work all day if you can work the last hour and get the same?
But let’s try to see this through God’s eyes. Christian doctrine has long said that we humans are such a mess that if we deserve anything it’s not something good. After all we really make quite a mess of things, we hurt people all the time even when we don’t want to, we’ve managed to create a society with incredible poverty and violence, and I can go on. We are all part of the problem. We all live in this world, and we might not know but God surely knows that we each have a long, long way to go before we start worrying about what anyone else deserve.
One perspective might say that in the Bible the last time God really gave people what they deserved was in Genesis when the earth was covered with a flood. I’m not sure we want to live in a world where we each get what we deserve.
Maybe I’d rather live in a world where we all get what we need, after all.
As it turns out, identifying what people need is one of the first steps in conflict resolution. One you agree on the problem to be solved, you do what we call “documenting interests.” What does everybody need? One you can state each party’s interests in a neutral way, problem-solving can begin. Let’s say I’m working with a couple having conflict over money. Sofia accuses Rosa of irresponsible spending, and Rosa accuses Sofia of being overly anxious and controlling. I will say, “Sofia needs to feel respected and consulted about financial decisions that affect her. Rosa needs to feel like a trusted equal in financial decisions.”
Entitlement and resentment are a recipe for toxic conflict and a whole lot of “stuck-ness.” Whether over food stamps or a daily wage or anything else, you’ll get nowhere. But when we can step back and try to see as God sees – not what we think people deserve but what they need, a corner is turned. We can find a way forward, start to solve problems and, often, reconcile.
Thank goodness, God doesn’t love us based on whether we deserve it or not. God doesn’t keep score of who has earned what. God is generous. God is graceful. God loves us because we are God’s children. God loves us because God is love. God loves us because that is what God does. God loves. Period.
We can learn from God. We grow in generosity and grace, looking not for what we or anyone else deserves, but for what we need, and what others need. We can become more like God, and when we do we might find some relationships get unstuck, and some ways forward that were blocked become clear. It’s not easy. Not at all. But God’s grace is there, along every step of the journey. Amen.