Princeton University Religious Life

Fair's Fair

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
October 1, 2017
Exodus 18:1-4, 25-32 & Matthew 21:23-32

Questions about fairness start early in a person’s life, don’t they?  This past week, I watched a colleague’s toddler eat just enough of his good dinner in order to receive a piece of the cake he was fixated on in the corner of my kitchen counter.  (I still become quite aggrieved if I eat the healthy food but am somehow denied dessert.)  When I was a kid, there was great attention paid to whose turn it was to ride in the front seat, and to not crossing the imaginary line that ran down the middle of the back seat.  Questions of fairness permeate the news cycle every week.  Recent stories I’ve heard have been about seniors who don’t want to pay taxes to support local schools since they don’t have kids of their own who use them now.  A similar story concerned the resentment of one woman about having to pay for her health insurance when others received Medicaid.  Not fair.  There is a particular sting to feeling that a situation is unfair, and a particular propensity to slide then into self-righteousness.  Before we know it, we are at our worst, as citizens and as Christians.

Our gospel passage for today shows a collision between the expectations regarding fairness of some very human beings and the very different standards contained in the Good News that Christ is sharing.  The context is important – this conversation with the chief priests and elders happens on Jesus’s second day in Jerusalem – it was the day before that he had ridden into the city on a donkey, then went to the Temple and turned over the tables of the concessionaires who were there.  This is what the religious leaders are referring to when they ask, “Who gave you the authority to do this?”  Jesus is upending everything, and the elders are not wrong to be wondering, “who sent you?”

Jesus can only get into big trouble and to have his work shut down if he tells them the truth (in fact, this happens later in the week, after his interrogation by none other than Pilate) so for now Jesus answers their question with a question back at them.  He then turns the conversation into an opportunity to teach them about the enormous differences in understanding between him and them on the subjects of power, and of fairness.  When the elders ask him where his authority comes from, they mean his power, and they are thinking of that as strength – both physical and moral.  They think of it as the ability to manipulate situations and people, the ability to change situations and people so that you get what you want.  Power is the ability to get what you want.  It might involve persuasion, or coercion, or deal-making, or threats, or physical harm.  It might involve networking relationships, purchasing power (which is to say, wealth), the leveraging of past faults or crimes or indiscretions.  Power is the ability to get what you want, whether it’s your kid eating healthy food, your kid figuring out how much or little to eat in order to get cake; it’s about buying a car, and about tweeting your thoughts (or threats) and about convincing someone to hire you.  On its surface, it might look like turning over tables in the Temple courtyard, but Jesus was doing something very different.

The power that Jesus embodies and practices is the power of healing, compassion, reconciliation, love, mercy.  It may sound like weak, fluffy stuff next to the power of wealth, soldiers, connections, influence, twitter accounts, seniority – everything the leaders of then and now have in abundance.  Some might question whether what Jesus was about was “power” after all, or if we wanted to dignify it somehow, shouldn’t we call it “soft power”?  But there’s nothing soft about it – it’s the power of healing.  Lots of money can pay for top treatment but it can’t buy the healing practiced by Christ – the instantaneous vanishing of disease or disability, restoration of mind, enlivening of the spirit.  That’s just the healing within a sick individual; Christ also effects the healing of families, of communities.  We struggle to be whole, all of us.  We want to be well in body, mind and spirit.  We want to live well with others – in wholeness, seeing all, respecting all, honoring all.  No amount of worldly power can help us achieve wholeness in our communities of humans – it’s only the power of God and Christ that can finally throw in the trash our humiliations, our greed, our violence, our ego, our vanity, our fear of difference, our love of status and of money.  All the things that make us keep one another down so that we can enhance our feeble grasp on what the world thinks is power – it’s actually the power in Christ that drains that swamp.

For the power inhabited by Christ is the power of compassion – a word whose Latin roots mean “to suffer with.”  Christ and his followers suffer with all who suffer – we don’t rob them when they’re down, we don’t blame them for suffering, and we don’t send them off to their own land to do it out of our sight.  We are present to all who suffer; we extend care, no matter how much we might hear from practitioners of worldly power that certain persons are not “worth” our concern.  That sentiment could not be more contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ!

And there is the power inhabited by Christ that is the power of reconciliation – bringing persons together across the chasm of their mistrust, violence, difference.  Bringing humanity to God – reconciling our estrangement born of our sin, creating the new bridge for us to become a holy people. 

Yes, what the world counts as power is forceful indeed – armies, weapons, wealth, networks, privileges.  The power that Jesus preaches, lives, and dies to implant looks so soft but actually is so much more potent.  No army brings healing, no wealth brings compassion, no weapons or privileges bring reconciliation.  The world’s tools for power ensure only their own perpetuation.  The tools of Christ’s power bring transformation, salvation; they put the world’s tools of power out of business.  No wonder Rome, and every elder also profiting from their own definition of power, tried to send Christ to the grave.  How many persons today, the world over, are trying to keep him there.

And Jesus has such an alternative vision to fairness than what his contemporaries and ours are proclaiming.  Like power, fairness to others is a zero-sum game.  There’s only so much to go around, so if you have power, it’s because others don’t.  If you have wealth, it’s because others don’t.  If your idea of fairness for yourself is working, it’s because it’s not working for others.  It’s like the chocolate raspberry cake on my counter the other night – there are only so many slices in that finite treat.  You’d better get as much as you can, while you can, so that no one else can.

Fairness, to Christ, is based on righteousness, and righteousness is an infinite property.  Jesus tells the leading citizens that some tax collectors and prostitutes have it, and invites them to acquire it, too.  I like very much one commentator’s note that, in the New Testament, tax collectors and prostitutes are ”standard sinners.”  These standard sinners are ahead of the leading citizens on the road to the Kingdom of God, for they have heard the Good News, and they have let it transform their lives into righteous paths.  There is no zero-sum game here; righteousness is available to all and at absolutely no expense to anyone else.  God’s economy of fairness is infinite, and does not measure a person’s merit against anyone else.  We are not measured against one another in cruel competition but nurtured along whatever is our own road – prostitute, priest, tax collector, ruling elder.  Fairness isn’t about deserving people winning out over others; it is about the expansiveness of God’s grace.  Grace is a gift, and no gift is earned, it is simply given in love.  Fairness isn’t a zero-sum game, it’s a carnival where the prizes are given out freely to all who show up.  Everybody wins whose intentions are honest.  Some, like the first son in our parable, say the right things and talk a good game, but they don’t show up, they don’t do the work.  Others, like the second son, make no commitment, but in the end they do the right thing, like “standard sinners” in any age.  In God’s economy, fairness is about grace, not merit, and aren’t you glad?  I am.  Grace is what is extended by God in love, regardless of what we’ve gotten right or wrong.  We are “standard sinners,” and even so, God’s grace has the last word. 

Perhaps we could teach the rest of our society some lessons about how to translate notions of fairness into grace.  Perhaps we could help others to transform their current ideas of power into those of healing, compassion, reconciliation, mercy and love, whatever their spiritual disposition.  Perhaps we can teach those around us that fairness and power are not zero-sum games, and that the more blessings held by everyone, the more blessed we all are, because we are each infinitely and equally loved by our Creator.  Fairness is when we exercise the compassion that ensures that everyone thrives – those who live in poverty, the immigrant, the refugee, those historically marginalized or discriminated against. Fairness is love on its feet, on the move, and it’s the vineyard of the parable, where we are all sent to work every day.


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