Being human seems to imply a sense of fairness, an awareness when things are out of balance. Easy to see when we're the victims of unfair play, we might require training to notice when others are getting the short end of the stick. Still this sense of justice, of being equal, forms the basis of our constitution and our judicial system.
So far, so good. But in church yesterday, I was reminded that although we need to be grounded in the basics of justice and fairness, we should not remain in that paradigm. Jesus calls us to be lovers, following the over-the-top generosity of his Abba God. The Gospel reading was from Matthew 20:1-16. In this parable, an employer heads to the local marketplace to hire day laborers for his vineyard. His hires do not stop at the beginning of the work day, however, they continue until it is almost time for the whistle to blow. When it comes time for the men to receive their pay, he pays the latest arrivals (whose work was probably no more than an hour - and done in the cool of the day, our priest reminded us) the same amount as the ones who had begun their workday at 6 am, toiling through the midsummer heat. The early birds grumble, commenting that they should deserve more than the latecomers, but the employer silences them with the comment that as the money (and the farm) is his, he is within his rights to dispense with it as he sees fit.
What struck me as we were reading through the scripture was this phrase. "He went out again at about nine in the morning, and seeing others idle in the square, he said to them: ‘You, too, go to my vineyard and I will pay you what is right," (NIV). Here is something to ponder. The workers who put in a full day's work are not bad guys. They are totally within their rights to notice the inequality of the wage structure. In the paradigm of fairness, what the landowner does is not right. But the landowner, standing in here for God, has a different sense of what is right. The rightness of love goes beyond that of fairness, and moves toward generosity.
Jesus points this out in another way when he tells the scribes and pharisees, to go and figure out what it means for God to desire mercy, not sacrifice (Matthew 9:13). Sacrifice is based on justice, and while a major part of the Old Testament way of life, only a stepping stone to God's true longing, bringing people into a relationship of love. Justice and mercy are not in conflict, however. God does not do what is unjust, in order to extend mercy. Notice that the men who labor in the vineyard for a day receive a day's wage. This is just. But the men who have not been hired, are not penalized for their condition. Instead they are placed in a new system of payment - one that is not based on justice, but rather on generosity.
I've mentioned before a website called People of the Second Chance whose header is
"Overthrow Judgment, Liberate Love." The People of the Second Chance aren't against justice, so much as aware that it is not enough to pull the world into the liberating and freeing energies of love. Without justice, we would be adrift. But justice is not enough, it is not, in God's eyes, truly right. Followers of the Jesus way are encouraged, even commanded!, to go beyond justice, embracing mercy. We need to be on the lookout for those opportunities that we have to fill cups not just to the brim, but to overflowing. And we need to celebrate this quality of God's whenever we see it on display.