Thinking Differently about Fairness

Matthew 20:1-16

In this Lenten season, we are preparing for the crucifixion of Jesus. Lent is the journey to the cross, obviously a somber journey. Choosing the cross is not easy, to say the least, which is why Lent is a season in which we focus on growing in maturity through our spiritual practices. Truly doing justice and loving mercy and walking humbly with God is not easy. Jesus calls it “dying to ourselves” and everything in our nature rebels against the idea of dying in any way shape or form. And so we need seasons when we deliberately focus on where things need to change in us so that we can be part of changing things around us.

Human nature and human societies run on the idea of retribution: an eye for an eye, if you hurt me then I’ll hurt you. But all of history shows us that fighting fire with fire leaves the whole world burned. The alternative is the nonviolent Kingdom of God, where we follow the way of Jesus in loving our enemies. So we are going to spend this season of Lent exploring Jesus’ parables of God’s nonviolent Kingdom and learn how to be nonviolent people. The nonviolent way of life challenges our egos as we are confronted with the idea that the world really could change, but only when we are willing to release some of our comfort, safety, and power.

Nonviolence is a radical idea and always has been. Like I said, our instinct is to use force to get our way. You may remember last fall when we explored the story of Noah and the flood. One way to read that story is that God tried to destroy violence and with violence and not even God could make that work! The rest of the story of the Bible is about how God destroys evil without destroying the people who do the evil, how God conquers violence through nonviolence.

That’s what the sign of the rainbow means. God knows that we are still going to choose destruction, but by promising to never again destroy us, God chooses to suffer the pain and grief that our evil causes God. In fact, if someone were to fire an arrow from the rainbow that hangs in the sky, the arrow would “hit God” and not us. From that point forward, God chose to absorb our violence. Thousands of years later, Jesus chose to once and for all nonviolently absorb all our violence on the cross. Evil was finally conquered in the body of the resurrected Christ. Violence was conquered nonviolently.

So if nonviolence is not natural to us, we need principles and examples and practices to help us learn to do it. Over the six Sundays of Lent we are going to learn Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s six principles of nonviolence and also explore six parables from Matthew about the nonviolent Kingdom of God. Hopefully these principles and examples will build courage in us to live nonviolently and release some of our own comfort, safety, and power. 

The first principle is that “Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. It is active nonviolent resistance to evil.”* When we respond nonviolently, we are not “doing nothing.” We are doing something. And we are actually doing something that takes more strength and more courage and more integrity and more faith than it would take to just hit back. Think about how hard it is when someone tells you to “rise above it.” Think about social media and the way we snipe back and forth at each other. Think about politics. On one side you have people chanting, “Let’s go, Brandon.” And on the other side you have people sneering at “the deplorables.” Honestly, friends, can we just admit that both of those are weak and violent responses? Neither one of those requires any courage. It takes no guts whatsoever to do to someone else what they just did to me. 

But to turn the other cheek, give our cloaks when our shirts are taken from us, to go the extra mile — you remember when we talked about that? If not, go listen to the podcast from January 22 — to do those things? That takes tremendous fortitude. To respond nonviolently is to really do something, to do something creative. We are taking creative action. It doesn’t mean not responding. For example, one of my favorite Christian writers and nonviolent activists Shane Claiborne tells a story about a time when he and a friend were jumped by a group of guys who had every intention of beating them up. Instead of fighting back, Shane and his friend started acting like chickens. Like clucking and flapping their arms and moving their heads. And you know what? Those guys walked away from them. Probably ran away from them. 

In order to take nonviolent action, to ACT differently, we have to THINK differently. We have to think outside of the consumeristic, individualistic, revenge-based way of the empire (and the US certainly has the spirit of empire). We have to think outside of our own privilege: our own comfort, safety, and power. We have to think outside of what seems “fair.” Which brings us to the parable of God’s Kingdom that I was us to hear this morning. Please turn with me in your Bibles to Matthew chapter 20, verse 1, page 1529 in your pew Bibles, for one of my favorite parables, and I’m not going to give it a title because I don’t want you make any assumptions before it starts. Even if you know this story, do your best to let it surprise you this morning. The thing Jesus says right before this parable is, “But many where first will be last, and the last will be first.”

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day, the usual daily wage, and sent them into his vineyard.

“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is JUST.’ So they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

These are the words of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

This parable makes me crazy. This parable is bad news for everyone at the front of the line, and friends, I am an educated, white, straight woman, I am pretty close to the front of the line. I have quite a bit of privilege in our society. I have worked hard. All day long. I got started when people are supposed to get started and I kept working. And here we are at the end of the day and the people who worked for an hour or two are going to get the same thing that I am getting? That is not fair! That makes me crazy!

You know why it makes me crazy? Because my brain has been colonized by the mindset of the empire. Because I care more about my status than about someone else’s needs. Because an eye for an eye. As Jesus said to Peter in last week’s story, I have set my mind not on divine things but on human things. And the Kingdom of God works differently. The Kingdom of God is not structured around privilege. The Kingdom of God is not designed to protect my comfort, safety, and power.

If we are going to be actively nonviolent people who live in the already but not yet Kingdom of God, we are going to have to learn to think differently. Learning to do anything new or different requires practice. Guess how we practice learning to think differently? Through prayer, charity, and fasting. We learn to think differently by thinking differently. We learn to think differently by valuing different things. We learn to think differently by putting our physical bodies in situations that require us to turn off our auto-pilot and actually think about what we are doing and why we are doing it. Doing practices of prayer, charity, and fasting in ways we don’t normally do them makes us think differently. Prayer, charity, and fasting force us to release a little bit of our own comfort, safety, and power. This is what Lent is for: not to make us miserable because we deserve to be miserable because we are inherently bad. NO. No. That is not true. That is not healthy. That is not biblical. NO. Lent is a season when we deliberately rearrange our daily habits through prayer, charity, and fasting so that we learn to think differently. If we are going to be actively nonviolent people who live in ways that reveal the Kingdom of God, we are going to have to become more creative thinkers. We are going to have to decolonize our mindset, get out of empire thinking and get into Kingdom of God thinking so that we can get into Kingdom of God living. Lent gives us the opportunity to practice thinking and living differently. Amen. 

Principles of nonviolence from The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change

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