That Blessed Dependancy

"There wee leave you in that blessed dependancy, to hang upon him who hangs upon the Crosse…" -John Donne, "Death's Duell"

Tag: Lent Meditations

“It’s just not fair!”

‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’ 

 –Matthew 20:1-16

“It’s just not fair.” That phrase rises from playgrounds and penthouses; from nursery schools and national capitals; from classrooms and boardrooms and everywhere in between. Whether spoken with a child’s sense of outrage and astonishment or with a worldly-wise, done-it-all-seen-it-all sense of sorrow and weariness, “It’s just not fair” is less a complaint and more a statement of fact common to all humankind.

But if it’s a fact common to all humankind, yet it is not common to all people all the time. The clearly culpable criminal who gets off on a technicality doesn’t stand in the courtroom and shout, “It’s not fair!” The obviously corrupt politician whose comeuppance is postponed by a national crisis doesn’t call a press conference to announce, “It’s not fair!” The schoolyard bully who slyly provokes his victim into rule-breaking retaliation doesn’t stop the punishing teacher and protest, “It’s not fair!”

No, that great expression of grievance and frustration is voiced, not by those who benefit from unfairness but by those who suffer from it. “It’s just not fair,” says the old man defrauded out of his pension by a CEO floating away from a corporation’s wreckage on a golden parachute. “It’s just not fair,” weeps the young woman victimized by sexual assault when her college community rallies to defend her accused attacker. “It’s just not fair,” cries the child who finds his world utterly overturned by his parents’ bitter divorce.

So it is in today’s story. The people who are paid a day’s wage for an hour’s work aren’t the ones who cry out “It’s not fair!” Rather, it’s those who have borne the heat of the day; those who have labored hardest; those who have worked the longest and done their time. When they see they get no more than the eleventh-hour workers, they grumble against the landowner: “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us. It’s just not fair!”

We can sympathize with their frustration. We know what it is to be among the victims of unfairness. But what happens when we find we’ve drawn the lines wrong? What happens when we recognize that we are not, in fact, always victims but are sometimes—perhaps even frequently—victimizers? What happens when it turns out that we—in spite of our excellent credentials, our impeccable manners, our generous giving, and our devoted service—are the eleventh-hour workers? What if we are not actually the good guys by God’s measure, but are counted instead with the transgressors, the slips-ups, the failures and the faulty?

It is there that we find the great Good News of God’s unfairness. Not the unfairness of this warped, wicked, unjust old world, but the unfairness described in our Gospel reading: the astonishing unfairness of God’s grace. It is an unfairness rooted, not in the actions of victimizers or the wails of victims, but in God’s gift of himself to an unworthy race. It is an unfairness found, not in the exploiting strength of some and the wounded weakness of others, but in the amazing paradox of a mighty God who empties himself, and takes the form of a slave, and dies a death of shame—for us all.

In the final days of this holy season of Lent, may you be overwhelmed by the unfairness of what God in Christ has done. It may not be fair, O victimizer, but God has given you time to repent. It may not be fair, O victim, but God has given you grace to forgive. It may not be fair, O weary world, but God has drawn you to himself. So yield up your sufferings and turn from your sins. Then join the anthem that the forgiven and the free sing with grateful tears from the foot of Christ’s Cross: “It’s just not fair! Thanks be to God!”

“For mortals it is impossible…”

Then someone came to him and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honour your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’

 –Matthew 19:16-26

The first thing we must understand is what Jesus does not say. He doesn’t say “For mortals it is difficult.” He doesn’t say, “For mortals it is really, really hard.” He doesn’t even say, “For mortals it will require enormous displays of humility and devotion—piety and purpose.” No, when the disciples marvel and wonder and ask Jesus, “Then who can be saved?” he looks right at them and answers, “For mortals it is impossible.”

The second thing we must understand is what Jesus’ disciples are asking. Theirs is a reasonable question. Isn’t a wealthy person placed in a uniquely advantageous position for pursuing the spiritual life? Isn’t a rich man a man blessed with leisure for prayer and study, means for giving alms and aiding the poor, and power and status within his community to “do justice and love kindness”? If someone with all this going for him can’t get through the pearly gates, then who can?

The third thing we must understand is what Jesus is talking about. His statement is not about rich people getting into heaven. (Or rather, not getting into heaven.) The “Kingdom of God” of which Jesus speaks means as much in the here-and-now as it does in the hereafter. Jesus tells his disciples that wealth and all its trappings pose a spiritual hazard in this life, as well as in the life of the world to come. Wealth weds us to the status quo. Wealth aligns our interests and our hearts with a world that has grown old and corrupt and is passing away. Wealth can leave us longing for the fleeting dreams of the fleeing darkness, unwilling and afraid to turn our faces to the rising sun of God’s Kingdom on earth.

The fourth thing we must understand is that Jesus’ words are for us too. Is your plan to buy your way into God’s good graces by means of your great wealth—to endow and finance and pledge and purchase your passage to eternal life? Jesus voids your exchange and pronounces that path “Impossible.” Is your plan to work your fingers to the bone—to pour out your heart and soul in acts of charity and mercy so that you might gain a glimpse of the Kingdom of God in this life? Jesus frustrates your designs and declares your efforts “Impossible.” Is your plan to throw yourself wholly and completely into the spiritual life—to bathe each moment in prayer and contemplation, to make the soundtrack of your life the great hymns of the faith and the rhythms of your heart the chanted mantras of the saints, all in the hope of finding God’s Kingdom within you? Jesus breaks into your piety and bluntly announces, “Impossible.”

But the last and greatest thing we must understand is that Jesus’ words are Good News. “For mortals it is impossible.” We cannot break ourselves free from the powers that bind us: wealth, work, wine, women, whatever. We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves. We cannot buy or earn or pray our way into the Kingdom of God. “For mortals it is impossible…but for God all things are possible.” What we could never do, God has come to do. That is the meaning of the great events of Holy Week, soon to be upon us. That is the astonishing declaration written in the blood of Jesus on the Cross of Calvary. That is the earth-shaking announcement illumined by the inextinguishable brightness of Christ’s Resurrection. And as you contemplate with awe the mighty acts by which God won for us life and salvation, let these words be your heart’s song and your soul’s prayer:

“For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”