SHADES OF GRAY: AND JUSTICE FOR ALL?
Matthew 20: 1-16
In her bestselling book THE HELP, at the back of the book, author Kathryn Stockett tells about the person on whom she based her stories: her family maid, Demetrie. “Demetrie used to say picking cotton in Mississippi in the dead of summer is about the worst pastime there is, if you don’t count picking okra, another prickly, low-growing thing. … Demetrie would … shake her finger at us, warning us against [picking cotton] as if a bunch of rich white kids might fall to the evils of cotton-picking, like cigarettes or hard liquor.” [THE HELP, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2009, p. 447.] Later in the book, and also depicted in the film, we are reminded of the separate drinking fountains, wash rooms, and dressing rooms for people of color. As Jesus’ parable unfolds today, I wonder if it isn’t so much about workers in a field as it is about workers and human beings in the world. Although THE HELP is a work of fiction, there is truth in the pictures it paints.
Jesus made it clear: what would it be like for someone who expected separate, dirty and poorly maintained facilities to be granted the right to be treated equally? What rejoicing would go on in their heart! But instead of equality, the parable speaks loudly about perceived inequality. How many people get distracted as they compare the work space someone else has; or they compare incomes, or clothes, or cars? The size of an office matters to many; status matters to them as well, and fairness seems to matter to everyone. Would a man who is a law partner making a 6 figure salary be willing to trade places with a cotton picking sharecropper? Would a woman who loves purchasing designer wear be willing to trade seats with the woman who makes the dress in sweat shop conditions, with poor light, no health care, no breaks, and minimum wage pay? Certainly many poor ones would trade places with the people of status in a heartbeat, because the grass looks greener on the other side. But look wealth and status also has its heartaches, as millionaires get confronted by lawsuits, by shootings, by kidnappings, and by the coercion attempts of others in power.
Our recent history tells us that on 1st December, 1955, Rosa Parks, left Montgomery Fair, the department store where she worked as a seamstress in Montgomery Alabama, and got on the Cleveland Avenue bus as she did every night. As always she sat in the section in the back of the bus as 1955 designated. However, when the bus became full, the driver instructed Rosa to give up her seat to a white man. She was exhausted; she had paid the same fare that others on the bus had paid; and she stayed put. Rosa stayed seated and the police were called to arrest her for not giving up her seat to a white man. Fairness seems to matter to everyone. But justice matters to God.
There is a commercial on television currently with two boys on it and the banker is giving ice cream to the newest boy. The other boy protests that he too is new, and the banker replies, “Yes but he’s newer.” So the tag line says this bank will treat you fairly instead of treating the newest customers better. It is a common sales practice. Customers who are new to some cable or satellite television companies get channels for free that get dropped after a certain time: loyalty seems to drop them from being treated like royalty: how strange. What is wrong with that picture? And then again, by contrast, there are some people in certain country clubs that, by virtue of their tenure or investment, get the best perks, better than others who join later. Again, Jesus has so many similar stories: he watched his own disciples argue one time about who was the greatest; he chose the twelve first, but as he invited others to follow him they were told that they would be first. What did he mean? He had watched people at banquets make a beeline for the best seats in the house, only to be bumped—Rosa Parks style—when someone with more clout or pull came to the banquet as well. I don’t think Jesus’ story just takes place in a field, does it? It takes place everywhere, and it happens when we compare. Indiana poet Max Ehrman wrote the words to what became known as the Desiderata. In it he wisely says: “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.” It is a warning against judging whether your parents are fair, the world is fair, or if God is fair. Attempts at fairness trip us up everytime. Justice is Jesus’ issue; it is God’s issue, and and so it is one of our issues as well. A child gets toys at Christmas and by the afternoon has called his or her friends to compare gifts. Four children in a household open their stocking and one secretly watches how many pieces of candy her sister has and points out any distribution issues she observes! A teenager compares curfews with her parents, and another compares driving privileges with those his friend gets to have. Sometimes Property Owners inundate the Condo Association with claims that one unit has gotten neglected or gotten unfair treatment over another. Politicians agree to a pork-laden bill if their state too gets a slice of the pork. And even ministers in the Presbyterian Church (USA) have their full salary packages published for all ministers and elders to see and to compare. Hasn’t the church learned how envy or jealousy can drive God’s Holy Spirit from our souls; why do they pubish such things? This parable isn’t just about paying fairly or graciously after a hard day of back-breaking work! It is about our sideward glances at what someone else has gotten; about our comparisons that let Satan himself enter our hearts: the times when the devil is on one shoulder and an angel is on the other.
So today’s parable is not just about a field and workers; it is about Israel in the first century and about people in this century who believe they are entitled to more because they have belonged the longest. What does the parable say about justice and fairness, that betrays our human and emotional underbellies, which can be green with envy or blue with sadness? If Google Earth- that eye in the sky that can zoom in even to the street where you live- if it could follow children at school, business persons in hallways, tradesmen and women on job sites, and politicians in Washington, the camera’s eye would catch some of the actions and attitudes that are like those men in this parable: our human condition entices us to look at what another has, or is wearing, or is paid. And then what happens? Do we cry out to God “No fair! Why does my child have cancer and that person’s child does not? Or “How is it that I&n
bsp;have spent years in the ministry and that new pastor has a starting salary higher than anyone in the area?” Or “Why is it that a church ministers to a person for 30 years or more and yet a Hospice organization, that gave tender loving care for two weeks, gets chosen as the place to send rememberances?” Or “It doesn’t feel right that I spent much of my life building up that fine program, and in a year that new person has torn it down!” Or “Why is it that I have given and given to my daughter all her life, and now, in my hour of need, she says she can’t be here for me?” The list can be filled in with whatever wound has left its mark in your heart.
What is the inequity in your life? Whatever it is, remember the words that have been said forever: life isn’t fair. There are few guarantees that promise what you put into something, or particulary in someone, will be returned tenfold or even one fold. The better question is “Where is there injustice?” Injustice matters to God; it mattered to Jesus; and working to right injustice is the work of Christians and other people of faith. These are our marching orders; what God does out of grace, or what you do out of grace, is a gift; you don’t owe a rationale to any prying eyes or questioning kids unless you choose to give it. The landowner said “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” What is left unknown? Did the landowner, perhaps, have a prior relationship with some of the workers in the parable? Or did he get a report that the last workers worked at double-time speed and the first ones like snails? We don’t know the circumstances; we just grouse at the results. You decide who you will help and who you won’t; make your decision with choices that are honorable and not selfish. Then Christ himself will not write a parable about you; instead he will whisper in your ear: “Well done.” May it be so with you.
Jeffrey A. Sumner September 18, 2011