Wednesday, June 25, 2014
"That's Not Fair!" and Other Hazards to Community
Children learn early on about scarcity. Our world basically runs on the notion of scarce resources for which we must all compete. Parents and teachers also try to teach children about sharing, but this often runs into trouble because sharing requires giving up my access to those scarce resources. It turns out that it is difficult to worry about the other's needs when I'm anxious about my own. And this isn't just a problem for children sharing toys. If you study church offerings or charitable giving in general, you'll see the same problem at work. I cannot share much of what I have lest I run short. The same anxiety that makes me worry about getting my "fair share" makes me prone to hoard what I do have.
You can see this anxiety about fairness and sharing in the parable from today's gospel reading. In Jesus' story of "The Laborers in the Vineyard," those hired in the morning are upset to learn they will not receive more wages than those hired late in the day. They are paid the fair wage they had agreed to, but in the competition for scarce resources, it looks like a loss on their parts for others to receive the same as them without the same effort. "That's not fair!" The vineyard owner is not playing by the rules.
I've been planning a summer sermon series around the topic of Sabbath, and that has led me to a lot of thinking about the busyness and anxiety in American culture. There are so many things to be worried and stressed about. In this world of scarce resources we may not have enough for retirement. We may not have enough on our résumé to land that great job or get into that elite college. The blanks in the phrases "I may not have enough ________" or "I may not be ________ enough" can be filled in with all sorts of anxiety producing deficiencies, and God forbid someone else acquire what I need without expending the same energy and effort as me.
But as Jesus' parable makes clear, God doesn't abide by our rules of scarcity and competition. Old Testament and New speak repeatedly of a God who provides, who insures abundance for all. The laws God gives at Mt. Sinai and the new day Jesus labels the Kingdom of God are about a community of abundance, or enough for all. This unnerves us, though, because we are so thoroughly acclimated to the norm of scarcity and competition. We find many of Jesus' teachings so troubling that we have relegated them to a purely spiritual sphere. Jesus offers salvation, understood as a ticket to eternal life, as free gift to all. We can, to a degree, live with the unfairness of this, in large part because it has so little to do with our daily lives.
Yet neither God's covenant with Israel in the Old Testament nor Jesus' proclamation about the Kingdom that has come near speak of tickets to heaven. They are about transformed human community here and now, about heaven's ways taking up residence on earth rather than us escaping earth for heaven. That is why Jesus tells parables such as today's. It is why the book of Acts tells of a church community where "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need." Nothing particularly "fair" about that. Nor is there much evidence of worrying about having enough or something happening to "my share."
America was founded in part on the notion of a "common good," a notion that is not nearly so operative today as it once was. I don't have any idyllic picture of a young America. There were countless ways in which our founding mothers and fathers twisted and distorted biblical ideas about loving neighbor as well as enemy, about valuing the other and the stranger. Still, there is little doubt that our focus on individualism and competition has eroded early ideas of America as a "covenant community," ideas partly drawn from the Bible. And the Church has often aided and abetted this erosion, joining in on the focus on me and mine, my rights and my share.
The ridiculousness of churches championing Second Amendment gun rights is but one example of this. Jesus calls us to give sacrificially for the good of the other. When I am more focused on my rights (of whatever sort) over the good of the neighbor, I find myself at odds with Jesus' parable of the laborers and at odds with God's dream of true community. I do, however, find myself fully in tune with the world's notions of scarcity, insisting on whatever "fair share" I can attain, unable to trust that God can provide enough for all.
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