#Justice is the podcast for September 20, 2020. Is justice fairness? Or, is it something more. Listen here FREE and find out more: Download it into your phone. #Matthew20 #Justice #Fairness #Rawls #Nowzick #Plato #Aristotle #Grace #Last #First
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For listener supported My Spiritual Advisor, this is Fr. Mark Kurowski with a reflection for Sunday, 9/20/2020 The 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time.
Please pause this audio and read Matthew 20:1-16.
Last Monday, I asked the staff [at Christ the King] what their feelings were about this passage from the Gospel of Matthew. [So, today, I will ask you what your feelings are about this passage from the Gospel of Matthew. Remember, I asked how does it make you feel? No one from the staff is allowed to say anything.]
[The staff said that they thought it was unfair that people got more who did not work all day. One person, who owns a very successful business said, “well, the owner does have the right to pay what they think is best.”].
I told them what I am going to tell you. In the 35 years that I have been preaching through the lectionary, I have never once had a person not think of themselves as the person who came first thing in the morning. What that tells me is that even very good people are just like Peter. Just prior to this passage, Peter says, “We have left everything for you. What will we have?” We are always thinking that we deserve something for following the Gospel, following Christ. It is a rather arrogant assumption, if you think about it. It is an assumption that can cause us to miss out on the fact that it is God who loves us and sustains us. Yet, we all do it.
Of course, parables are not allegories. Parables do not match up point by point, but make an overall point. Yet, in this parable, there is a lot to absorb. First, these folks are day laborers. They are out in the square gathering like migrant farm workers do. The owners come out in the morning and gather people for the day. Some days they are hired and other days, they are not. Most of the time, we do not think of ourselves this way. We think that we are going to get picked every morning. We will have a consistent income coming in, yet, the parable is not about employment at all. It is about life.
We are finding out in these last two economic downturns, the Great Recession and now in this Second Great Depression, that what we thought were solid jobs are gone. Life is not as consistent as we think. Life is fragile. In this case, Jesus is saying to Peter who asked, “What is in this for us,” that the Kingdom of Heaven is a day by day proposition. Every day, we must get up and go out to meet God in the square. St. Augustine said that he needed to be converted every day.
In a world that gives us so many options around which to center our lives, we need to be watchful daily. We need to get up every day and meet God in the open square of prayer, Scripture reading, and refocusing on the way that we view ourselves in life. We are not a certainty. My brother-in-law’s brother, 66, went to the dentist two weeks ago and had an aneurism and died. He was a giant in Conservative Catholic literary circles. Every day, we need to live life like it is our last day. We are day laborers for Jesus on this earth. Every day, we have to get our assignments by meeting him in prayer and hearing him in Scripture.
This leads me to my second point, each time that the owner went out to the square to hire people he told them something important about their wages. He said, “I will give you what is just.” He did not say, “I will give you what is fair.” Fair assumes a transactional view of the world. I have work, you have money. My commodity is my labor, which is what I own. I give you the commodity of my labor and you give me a wage. Yet, that is not what the owner said. He invoked justice.
When I taught Business Ethics, I used to give two hour and a half lectures on what justice is. I will let you know that this passage is very informative about justice. Justice is not fairness. It goes far beyond fairness. Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Robert Nowzick, and John Rawls have all contributed to the discussion on what is justice, but the owner’s voice in this discussion indicates that justice is concerned with the care of the entire individual.
A day’s wage in this context is what is needed to thrive. If, we are like God, which the owner of the vineyard represents, then he says our concern is not for fairness. We are not concerned about the transaction. We are concerned about ‘the other.’ We want to make sure that this person who has presented themselves to us has all that they need, regardless of whether or not we think they deserve it.
Remember, “being deserving” is what motivated our thoughts and opinions about this parable from the beginning. We wanted to make sure that things were fair. Fair is transactional, as I have said, and therefore means there is a degree of deserving involved. Yet, for those of us who pray for the Lord to give us our “daily bread”, we should be careful about wanting the blessings of God to be distributed based upon fairness. What have we done this day that would make us deserve God’s fairness? Do we really want our sustenance based upon whether or not WE are deserving with fairness as the measure?
Just before we ask for our “daily bread”, we ask for “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Well, think of the images of heaven in the Bible. Isaiah 55 says, “everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” Acts 2 has everyone coming, giving all their money and goods to the church and the apostles gave “to each as had need.” Justice, according to these passages is that everyone gets what they need to be fully human. That is God’s kingdom on earth.
I think the reason we struggle with this is because we are capitalists. Capitalism, as we live it, seems to need people who are at the bottom of the wage structure who go without even the most basic of necessities. Capitalism is based upon this structure of giving my labor as a commodity in order to exchange it for a wage. This is NOT how God acts. God gives people who do not deserve it what they need. That is the daily bread. That is the daily wage which is given here in Matthew. God is not about tit for tat, I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine. Our arms are too short to scratch God’s back.
God is about justice which seeks to make sure the daily needs are met. Let’s stop for a second and think of ourselves, not as the people who came first and are deserving, but as the people who were in the square all day and were hired at noon, three, or, even better, at five. What if we had a sick mother or mother-in-law at home and we were sick with worry all day standing there hoping for day labor work? What if we hadn’t gotten work for days and this little scrap we thought we were going to get was going to have to make do? Then, to our amazement, we are given the wage that is needed to thrive for that day. We could go home and give our ailing parent a doctor visit. We could feed our family.
I can tell you from my own experience of being in a bad spot over and over, that the feeling you get when you have what you need is not joy right away. No, it is relief. When we are relieved, then we can feel. When we can feel, then we can feel joy. On top of that ability to feel and then feel joy, we would also feel as though we rightfully had a place at the table. We would have dignity. Dignity is a central component to God’s justice. God’s justice restores dignity.
So, imagine you were the worker who was hired at the end of the day. You were last. What gratitude would you have to the owner of the vineyard? What dignity would you feel? How would that dignity empower you to live and live with joy abundantly? Having stability to live with dignity that breaks forth into joy is God’s justice. It is not the end point, but the starting point of being fully human. This is God’s justice. God’s justice is giving you what you need to begin to live; live relieved, live with joy, live with dignity. Justice is what a human being needs to be fully human.
“It is by grace that you have been saved, and not by works, lest you should boast,” says St. Paul. Grace is at the center of justice. Grace says, “I will send my Son, my only Son, to be born your life in poverty, walk your walk, talk your talk, live your life, suffer your suffering, pay your price so that you may have undeserving eternal life.” It avoids the pitfalls of Peter who asks what is in it for us. It realizes that salvation is about justice because if you are a human being, no matter who you are or what is fair, you deserve justice. You deserve justice because that is who God is. He is concerned about your dignity. Having dignity is living heaven on earth.
As to our salvation, if we meet the Lord in the square of our lives every day and work in his vineyard, concerned about doing our part, we will rejoice when others come to him and are given the daily wage of eternal life. We will rejoice when those who are without are paid wages that allow them to live and live life abundantly.
What is scandalous in this passage is God’s generosity. We know it is scandalous because even we do not expect people to be given justice instead of fairness. We expect “fairness” which always leaves someone out, ironically; always leaves someone last.
So, my friends, we are indeed last, but because of Jesus Christ, we are now first. Thanks be to God.
May God bless the preaching of this Gospel in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This audio is under the copyright of My Spiritual Advisor, Incorporated and may not be used, reduplicated, or distributed for commercial use without the express written consent of My Spiritual Advisor, Incorporated. My Spiritual Advisor, Incorporated, 2020.
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Mark Kurowski, M.Div.
Spiritual Director, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Theologian