Proper 20 (September 18-24)
Texts: Matthew 20:1-16;
DOING JUSTICE: ADVOCATING REPARATIONS IN AN AGE OF RESENTMENT
An Epidemic of Resentment
- The phrase “the usual daily wage” is repeated four times in this parable in order to be clear that no great injustice is being perpetrated. No one is being cheated. No one is being deprived of a fair wage. But the folks who worked all day in the vineyard are ticked off. Why?
- Most revealing in their response is: “you made them equal to us.” What have we been talking about for several weeks now? (Since Jesus confronted Peter that he was employing usual human thinking, not God’s thinking; Matt 16:23.) That usual human thinking is structured in terms of Us vs. Them. Pretty clear in the parable, right?
- Let’s add another important element to usual human thinking: It’s based on meritocracy. It’s based on the idea that everyone should get what they deserve. The angry workers got the usual daily wage but they worked longer than anyone, so they think they deserve more. There is certainly an identifiable logic here that makes sense to us.
- But does it make sense to God? Jesus came to help us disciples think more like God. (“Get behind me, Satan!” is what Jesus tells Peter in order that he might start thinking more like God.) When you couple meritocracy together with Us-Them thinking, it usually results in thinking that We obviously deserve more because we know how hard we work, how good we are. We certainly deserve more than Them . . . whoever the Them is for us. Who is that group of others for you who represent the opposition? We are so divided in this country that there always seems to be a group of folks that each of us deems to be the opposition.
- And couple that with the very strong meritocracy in which we’re raised in this country, and together they bring the feeling that we deserve more than them. We’re the good guys. We work hard. We deserve more. Like the workers who worked all day in the vineyard, we get angry. And if it is entrenched with an enduring Us-Them thinking, then the anger generally turns into a lasting resentment of them.
- Brothers and sisters, doesn’t this describe where we’ve come to right now in our nation’s history? Think about it. Even before the pandemic hit, hasn’t there been an epidemic of resentment between all the groups of our divided nation?
Getting into God’s Way of Thinking as the First Step of Healing
- So what do we do about it? The first step is to acknowledge that God’s way of thinking is quite different. It is much more like that of the vineyard owner in today’s parable. God does, in fact, make Them equal to Us. Just like all good parents do, right? We need as parents to find ways of giving all our children equal love and respect, even though they are different with differing needs. It’s one of the greatest challenges of parenting to make our children equal to each other even though they’re different.
- Jesus came to help us experience God as our loving parent. In his patriarchal context, he called God, “Father,” which is obviously still meaningful to us today. But as we are further along in trying to get out from under the many ways we’re divided, we’ll also end our worship today by addressing God as “Mothering God.” The Us-Them structure to our human thinking needs to have practices that express God’s way of thinking. God is neither literally Father or Mother, but God is also both. Like a loving parent, God loves us human beings in ways that makes all God’s children equal to each other.
- It’s part of our baptismal identity that we are re-birthed, so to speak, into God’s family as equal brothers and sisters. The old group identities of human thinking should begin to melt away. St. Paul dramatically puts it this way:
As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:27-28)
- In God’s way of thinking, there is no longer Us and Them. There is only Us.
What Are the Practices that Help Us to Think More Like God?
- Silent Prayer, often called Contemplative Prayer. Even in today’s secular culture it is called Mindfulness or Meditation. People outside the church are discovering the healing practice of observing our usual thinking. In contemplative prayer you become an observer of your usual thinking so that you can begin to have some freedom to think in other ways.
- For followers of Jesus, I think this is the most crucial prayer practice: to gain some distance our usual human thinking with openness to God’s way of thinking — guided by Jesus himself. In parables like the one today, Jesus is guiding us into God’s more gracious way of thinking which begins to dissolve the Us-Them structure. Over recent centuries, this way of praying tragically became the forgotten practice. It’s imperative for us to recover it.
- There’s also more ‘active’ practices, too, like . . . being generous! Practice generosity, like the owner of vineyard in this parable! What are the ways we do this? We give to those in need. On October 12, we will observe African Sunday and have opportunities to practice generosity. Obviously, there’s so many more opportunities available that fits our own interests and passions
- We tithe. On three Sundays, October 18-November 1, our Stewardship Committee will lead us in the annual focus on tithing, being generous in what we set aside for our other ‘families’ — our church family, our Racine family, our American family, our global family.
Best Practice to God’s Thinking: Do Justice
- There’s one most important practice, I think. In answering the question of what does God require from us, the prophet Micah said, “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” (Micah 6:8) He put doing justice first. Practicing justice is the strongest way for us to live into thinking like God thinks.
- The first thing it does is adjust our view of justice under ordinary human thinking. When structured by our usual Us-Them thinking, what is justice? Isn’t it basically punish Them and reward Us? Our false meritocracy of giving people what they deserve? I say false because, remember once again, that God’s thinking is like a loving parent’s. Yes, sometimes our children need to suffer the consequences of wrong actions. But have we done our jobs as parents if we leave it simply at that? No, deeper justice happens when we teach our children how treat everyone with equal love and respect. When they do wrong, justice is about helping them to get back on the right track.
- So in our politics, doing justice means redressing the harm our ordinary human view has done in the past by being trapped in a false meritocracy. Our country is extraordinarily founded on the ideal that every human being, every child of God, is created equal. But our limited justice of false meritocracy, especially paired with racism, has kept us far from approaching that ideal. We have a long ways to go.
- How do we as white people react, for example, when the possibility of reparations for African Americans is advanced? Let’s be honest. Isn’t it most often a version of the vineyard workers’ response? We grumble, “You are making them equal to us.” Yes!! That’s exactly what this grace-filled brand of God’s justice is all about! For centuries people of color have been treated unequally — and worse! Inhumanly. If we are to ever live up to our ideal as a nation, then we need to extend our justice to practices that lead to meaningful ways of ‘making them equal to us.’ Why? Because if we truly think in terms of our ideal of all people being created equal, then there is no longer Us and Them at all. There is only Us. Us working together for the common good of all. When God tells us to do justice, that is how God thinks. When we learn to do justice in this way, we are living into God’s thinking.
- Is reparations how we human beings have tended to think? No! That’s the point! That’s why Jesus came to reveal to us God’s thinking. God thinks completely differently than we do. If we are open to learn God’s thinking, then we won’t bat an eye when taking measures to undo past inequalities in order make everyone equal. We won’t any longer be envious of God’s generosity. Because we will be becoming generous and gracious people ourselves. As I’ve been saying from week one, Jesus came to save us by helping us live into nothing less than a new Way to be human. God’s way to be human. We do that in prayer, practicing generosity and doing justice. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer,
Racine, WI, September 20, 2020