Thank an Unfair God

You cannot conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.

That’s a line from Graham Greene’s book, The End of the Affair.

At the end of the story, the character Maurice
whose faith, if he has one,
is characterized more by anger at God than by love of God,
finds he must wrestle with this God
who is free to do whatever he pleases with his life,
and he concludes:

You cannot conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.

In Matthew 20, Jesus tells a parable:

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them out into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.”

God is like this, Jesus says:
God agrees to give you what’s fair;
whatever is right, God will pay you.

Whatever is right—well, that’s what I want.

I want a consistent world;
I want to know that justice will be done,
that good will be rewarded, and evil will not.

I expect God to be righteous—someone I can count on.

Here’s the deal, God—I give to you, and you give to me;
I give you an offering, and I expect something in return.

But do your prayers ever turn into negotiations with God?

Just give me this one thing, God, and next Sunday morning
I’ll get up and watch church online with the rest of them.

I’ve been good … so could you please give me just this one thing?

Good works must be rewarded;
if God doesn’t reward us for good works, why do them?

This is what makes sense to us:
We know God is good by the way God rewards us fair and square;
we figure God is good because God notices when we are good.

Surely, God sees what you do and does not forget it;
God will even give you a just reward for whatever you do.

It is rewarding to follow Jesus, to live for God.

So, God is fair—that’s great; God will do whatever is right.

Or are you sure that it’s not God who will do whatever is right,
but you’re sure you’re the one who is right,
and what you do is right,
and what you think,
and what you have always thought,
and what you’ve always believed
is righteous,
all-American, patriotic maybe,
or your true vision of justice?

Beware;
because whenever you are sure that you are right,
you are in the greatest danger of doing the greatest evil.

Call the laborers and give them their pay, the parable says,
beginning with the last and then going to the first.

Beginning with the last?

That’s not right, that’s not the way we do it, God;
we begin at the front of the line, with those who come first.

When those hired about five o’clock came,
each of them received the usual daily wage.

A full day’s wage, even though they’d barely gotten their hands dirty?
—well, that’s crazy.

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 ‘[See here,] 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.’

THAT’S NOT FAIR!

It just grates on us, doesn’t it?

Why did he hire those other guys in the first place?

Why weren’t they there in the morning if they wanted a job?

Why don’t they get a job, make something of themselves?

Hoping for some kind of welfare state,
where they could take advantage of God at the last minute?

You cannot conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.

If we could stop looking for a minute at the workers,
if we could stop looking at ourselves for a minute,
we might notice that the main character in this story is the landowner.

The hardest worker here is the landowner; he just never stops.

He’s out there first thing in the morning
waiting for the laborers to show up.

As soon as he sees them, he hires them and gives them good work to do.

And then he’s back in the marketplace,
looking for those with nothing to do.

All day he travels back and forth
between his vineyard and the marketplace,
calling those whose lives would be wasted otherwise,
even those who show up at the last minute,
giving them meaningful work to do,
including them all
when he hands out his rewards.

Every time he finds somebody new, every time he hires somebody,
it’s a moment of grace.

You know what God’s fairness is like?

It’s more than fair;
God’s fairness is God looking for you,
high and low, up and down the streets,
beating the bushes to see what you’ve gotten yourself into,
never giving up on you,
never doubting your gifts and abilities,
always ready to put them to use,
always ready to see what you can do.

I will pay you whatever is right, he says;
but what is ‘right,’ in God’s eyes?

Righteous is whatever is generous;
grace is righteous;
if you would be righteous,
then you must be gracious.

It is so strange, it’s not what we would do;
our world is painfully different;
in our world, we insist that justice be done …
as long as it’s not done to me.

But this is the strange mercy of God,
not what’s “right,” but what is more than right—
to be righteousness is to be gracious and merciful.

And if God is more than gracious,
then what about us?

Should we not give up our presumed “righteousness,”
and take up the righteousness,
not of being right,
but of being unreasonably gracious with others,
however strange that may seem.

Amen.

© Paul R. Olsen

Paul Olsen

Paul Olsen

ELCA Pastor, King of Glory, Boise ID

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