Generosity isn’t fair

RCL Year A, Proper 20

Every evening when I make dinner, one of the last steps is to get out two plastic cups and the gallon of milk, pour the milk into both cups, and then crouch down so my eye is at the level of the cups, to check and be sure the level of milk is exactly the same in each cup. Usually I do this without thinking. Sometimes, though, I stop and catch myself, and think, this is so ridiculous. But I know that if I don’t check, somebody else will. Two somebody elses, to be accurate. It has to be even.

Anyone who has kids or remembers being a kid knows exactly what this is about. It has to be fair. If one kid gets something, the other has to get it. If they don’t, it’s not fair!

We are deeply imprinted with this. It’s what we mean by justice. Justice – think of the statue of Justice with her scales, weighing things out – justice measures and calculates to be sure everyone receives their due. It’s how we make sure there is equal opportunity, equal compensation, equal rights. When justice is lacking, someone is bound to notice. Sometimes that noticing can lead to rebellion, revolution, and war, when the injustice is too great. Justice matters.

But we’re confronted today with two stories where justice as we define it is thrown out the window. Or, to be more accurate, where justice is trumped by something even better: generosity and grace, radical, reckless free gift. It’s so wonderful, it’s hard to take in. But for most of us, our first reaction to these stories is not to exclaim over the generosity; it’s to think, it’s not fair.

Jonah’s the first of the stories, the prophet whose task it is to go and preach repentance to those dreadful Assyrians. No way, he thinks. I don’t want those enemies of Israel to be given the chance of forgiveness – are you kidding? So off he runs to Tarshish – but then there’s the storm, and the belly of the great fish, and Jonah finds himself on his way to Nineveh after all. But his sense of justice is still so strong that he can’t stand what God is doing – can’t even believe that God might be up to something more. So he goes to the city, does his job, and leaves to sit and enjoy the spectacle of Nineveh’s punishment. But to his horror, the people of Nineveh take him at his word and repent, and God forgives them – them, those horrible no-good Assyrians. And God teaches Jonah a little lesson, sitting out there under his bush. My grace and generosity is greater than your sense of justice, Jonah. That story we get; we know we’re supposed to laugh at Jonah and be on God’s side. Repentance is an act that should receive the compensation of forgiveness, after all – at least in one kind of equation.

But centuries later, Jesus tells his followers a story that bothers us a bit more. It has a similar moral, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. There’s a lot of work to be done in the vineyard, and over and over throughout the course of the day, the manager of the vineyard goes out and hires more workers. The last ones are hired so late that they work only one hour of the whole day. But in the end, all the workers, the one hour shift and the ten hour shift, receive the same wage. It’s not fair. Which is Jesus’ point. God’s generosity is greater than our sense of justice.

Justice is essential in human dealings. We need to balance and measure and calculate to prevent injustice, to prevent people from being taken advantage of and exploited. But not everything can be measured and accounted for. How much repentance does it take to equal full forgiveness, after all? What is the measure of our lives? How do we calculate our relative goodness? We can’t. God’s generosity doesn’t stop to add it up; it’s a reckless generosity. And really, so is ours, as one commentator points out, at least to some extent. Very few of us track each day with a tally sheet, scoring each other for merits and demerits. We love and forgive our family members, friends, coworkers, all the time. Generosity is the basis for relationship – you can’t have real relationship when you’re keeping score.

We are beginning to move into the season of the church year when we think more intentionally about generosity. All through the year we give of our time and our abilities, to the church, to our friends and neighbors, to our work and to other pursuits. Sometimes we count up what we give; more often we simply pitch in. We have the time, the need is there, so we help. We know how to do something, so we do it. Even as busy as we all are, we each find time and ways to help out when and where we can. How do we measure what we give of ourselves? It is hard to do – especially when we realize that sometimes the quick five minutes we took to write a note made someone’s day. When someone else later that day gives us a hug, does that balance what we did in writing the note? We don’t think of it like that. There’s no clear way to calculate it.

But we also give of our money. And money is much easier to calculate. Money is numbers, and we can measure and balance it. So when we do something with our money, we tend to look for what comes back to us in return. I paid you for one hour of work; I expect an hour of your time. If you give me a whole day of work, you expect a day’s wage. I pay the money, and I want the product.

Up to a certain point, we’ll give money instead of time to avoid being troubled. It’s easier to write a quick check than to devote our lives to helping someone else in need. And we might not track every dollar of it. But once the amount of money becomes larger, we calculate it differently. Think of all the colleges and universities with buildings named after major donors. Or the stipulations we put on our giving at church, or to other charitable organizations. I’ll give, but only to the capital fund, not to the operating budget. I’ll give, but I want the amount kept secret. Or, I won’t give, until you change that policy I disagree with. In the end, the truer statement sometimes is I’ll give, but I’m not really giving, I’m investing and lending, and I expect a return. I’m giving for my self, not the good of the whole. It’s my money, and I get to say what happens with it.

As the owner of the vineyard says, am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? But what he chooses to do is to give without regard to the different worth if each worker. He gives enough so that each one can go home and feed their family that night, regardless of how much labor they gave him in return. He chooses to give without controlling it, letting his money go where it can do the most good – no strings attached. He chooses to let the money serve the relationship, not be an end in itself.

It’s not a fair way of dealing with money. It refuses to calculate and balance. What the owner realizes is that money doesn’t need to be treated differently than any of our other resources – because when we do so, it stands a good chance of becoming our god, a major obstacle to our relationship with the true God and with our neighbor. Instead, the owner gives his money like we have been commanded to give our love – freely, without insisting on our own way. What if, as the pledge season begins here at church, we were to do the same? To give of our money freely, without concern for who knows it, who judges it, who calculates it – to give money for the good of the whole, not of our own selves.

It’s not fair. But it’s the generosity God is calling us all to grow into – with our money, with our selves, with our lives. May God grow us and stretch us more and more, that we might come to love with our whole selves. Amen.