To live a just life fairly

This is my sermon from July 23, 2023, the Eighth Sunday after the Pentecost. We use Wilda Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church. These are the readings: 1 Samuel 8:1, 4-18, Psalm 99, Revelation 19:5-9, and Matthew 20:1-16.

This Gospel is often interpreted as being about the end times, known in theological terms as eschatology.  It often is interpreted as being about salvation through Jesus Christ, known in theological terms as soteriology.  I would venture to say it is about both. It is about the end times, when all is perfected by God.  It is also about how we live the promise of salvation in this time, when we can do our best to live into the Gospel imperative of loving God with our full selves and loving our neighbors as God loves us.  Either way, as familiar as it may be, this is a parable that challenges us to consider what it means when we hear things like, “the last will be first, and the first will be last,” and my new favorite opportunity for reflection, “Or are your eyes envious because I am generous?”  

I can’t remember exactly how we got there, but several of us had a conversation about the first being last and the last being first during supper one night when I was at Yale.  (I know, your envious of the riveting mealtime conversation, aren’t you?)  One of my fellow fellows said, “Life isn’t fair. It’s just.”  And that got me to thinking that a case could be made that the laborers in this story are justified in making their complaint based on who did what, but I’m pretty certain that God’s view, which related to stories like these, is sometimes called “God’s economy,” is radically different than ours.  We equate fairness with justice, when in fact they are related but not the same.  

According to, fairness is” the state, condition, or quality of being fair, or free from bias or injustice, evenhandedness.”  The definition of fair is:

  1. “1. free from bias, dishonesty, or injustice; 
  2. 2. legitimately sought, pursued, done, given, etc.; proper under the rules.” 

Justice is “the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness or moral righteousness.” Just is “guided by truth, reason, justice, and fairness; done or made according to principle; equitable, proper.”  

Fairness is linked to judgment in particular situations.  It is not an overly general principle to be applied in the same ways in every situation.  Justice links to morality and ethics.  In likely is an oversimplification, fairness is about how we human respond given a specific set of conditions or circumstances.  Justice is the lens through which we live most faithfully answering the question that the late Peter Gomes would have us ask, “What would Jesus have us do?”  

Though certainly not in response to anything Jesus would have said or done because he lived about 400 years before Jesus was born, Aristotle said that justice means “equals should be treated equally, unequals unequally.”  And this is where we get stuck sometimes.  We tend to look at equality in terms of status or resources or education or any number of criteria that we humans have decided matter in this equation.  We have used those criteria to decide who gets what when and who does not.  For instance, we decide that certain jobs are worth more than others and tell ourselves this is empirically true, even when our live experience tells us this is not quite as empirical or objective as it is conditional and subjective.  An example of this is the seemingly ever-widening gap between the wages of the heads of corporations and the rest of the employees.  Is it empirically true that top are executives are doing 400x more work than their employees? We do it, too, when we allocate resources to public schools where those who live in certain zip codes, even within the same city, have access to higher quality education than those in other zip codes. Depending upon your interpretation of fairness, this can be justified.  

And now I’m back to with its two definitions of justified:

  1. having been shown to be just or right;
  2. warranted or well-grounded.

 Justification that something is warranted or well-grounded does not necessarily make it ethically or morally correct.  Justice is inclusive of “moral righteousness,” which is a principle that enables, empowers, and emboldens us to live in relationship with others in ways that are justified as if we were the world and all people as God does, which circles back to good old Aristotle and his idea that justice is about equality.  God does not look at us and judge us by what we have or how successful we’ve been.  God sees us as God created us, in her image, nothing more and nothing less.  And that is a universal truth.  

Looking at this Gospel eschatologically, it is about judgment on the last day, as it were.  Looking at it soteriologically, it is about grace of our salvation through Jesus, which is something that is both now and yet to be.  Robert Farrar Capon, who wrote three wonderful books about the parables said this story is “about a grace that works by raising the dead, not rewarding the rewardable, and it is a judgment that falls hard only upon those who object to the indiscriminate catholicity [universality] of the arrangement.” (The Parables of Grace, p. 54)  

May we accept the grace of God for us and for all, and do our very best to live our faith justly.  Amen.

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