Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin with Ezekiel once again. He answers those who complain that the “Lord’s way is not fair.” Ezekiel responds by speaking about the virtuous person who turns away from virtue and dies and announces that his turn away from virtue caused his death. But the person who turns away from wickedness and does what is right and just will live and not die. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus asks the chief priests and elders about a man with two sons. He asks the first to work in the vineyard; that son refuses, but changed his mind and went to work. When the father asks his second son to also work in the vineyard, he promises to do so but then broke his promise. Jesus asked those gathered who did the father’s will. The chief priests and elders unanimously answered that the first son (who refused to work but later did) honored his father. Jesus then declared to the chief priests and elders that tax collectors and prostitutes would enter the kingdom of God before them. He explained that the tax collectors and prostitutes headed the message of John the Baptist but they did not.
Another day, another reading about fairness. I have to confess a certain love of the prophets of the Old Testament. I’ve spoken about this before: prophets are called to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And clearly prophets care deeply about economic justice. The prophet Amos cared about nothing else, but that’s a sermon for another day.
I say this because the issue of fairness means different things to people of different economic classes. As you know this December I’ll celebrate 20 years as a hospice chaplain. I’ve spent much of my life in the homes of people I never would have met and I can affirm that we can learn much about someone by being in their homes. And I can tell you that the difference between the wealthy and the poor frames these readings.
Last week I made a snarky reference to the current American President and his obsession with fairness and suggested that fairness makes sense to only children. Today I wish to advance the theory that fairness also makes sense to the wealthy.
A terminal illness creates pain universally to the person and family. Sometimes this pain seems worse because the person is young or planned to attend the wedding of a loved one. And this pain is real. But among the elderly I’ve noticed a divide.
Those who have spent their lives at or near the bottom of the economic ladder tend to be much more philosophical about terminal illness, and by extension, about fairness. It’s as if a lifetime of scraping to get by has given them an understanding of humility. They’ve learned that a lifetime of doing the right thing doesn’t necessarily give them a sense of entitlement. They’re not happy about their lot, but they don’t think the world should treat them better. On the other hand, I’ve met countless people at the top of that same economic ladder who rail at the unfairness of their lot. They have used their wealth to shield themselves from suffering and are appalled to find at the end of their life that their wealth gives them no advantage over the poor.
Please understand that this divide isn’t absolute. I’ve met wealthy patients who have faced death with grace and dignity, and poor patients who have shown resentment and anger. But as a general rule I’ve found people who haven’t been blessed with wealth easier to care for.
And I think that sets the table for today’s Gospel. When Jesus spoke to the chief priests and the elders of the people, he was speaking to the elites. They had the ability, unlike Jesus and his followers, to spend their days reading and studying Scripture. They didn’t spend their days as carpenters, or fishermen, or laborers. And they didn’t spend their lives overcharging people to make a living (tax collectors) or having sex with strangers (prostitutes) to get by.
And these chief priests and elders resented Jesus. Jesus was below their class and so were his followers. When Jesus began to teach he challenged their authority. When Jesus asked for their opinion on a parable whose answer was obvious they fell for his bait. Let’s face it: of the two sons who were tasked with working in the vineyards nobody would side with the son who broke his promise to work.
But Jesus wasn’t interested in their answer. Any idiot would have given the same answer. When they answered they fell into his trap. And let’s face it: this was a complete throw down. Their attempt at smugness was met with nothing short of a smack down.
Because while the chief scribes and elders thought themselves as those who worked in the vineyard, Jesus accused them of being the son who promised to work but didn’t. He called them out for being intellectuals who ruled over those who fed them. The chief priests and elders lived off donations from those who worked. When Jesus said last week that “the last shall be first and the first shall be last” I think he was calling them out.
As I read this Gospel I couldn’t help but think about my high school classmate Chris Montoya. Chris was a smart guy and I enjoyed his friendship. He was also a strong evangelical Christian. Everyday he wore a button his shirt that said: “Get Smart: Get Saved” and spent much of his free time convincing other high school students to accept Jesus. But he didn’t reach out to people who were as smart as him. He spent his time with the drug addicts and those who clearly weren’t doing well in high school. I respected Chris because from time to time I would find his “Get Smart: Get Saved” button on someone the rest of us had written off as a drug addict or someone else who most of us had written off.
But now let us look on the part of the Gospel I’ve missed (and maybe some of you too): Jesus’ throw down line to the chief priests and elders offends them by telling them that “tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.” This doesn’t mean that the chief priests and elders will be denied salvation. It only means that they will have to wait their turn.
What does this mean? I don’t know but this is what I think: the chief priests and elders are used to being the first in line. If they are told that they will have to wait their turn, they have a choice: do they wait their turn and gain salvation or do they claim offense and deny themselves salvation because they weren’t treated well enough?
I’ve been speaking these last few weeks about fairness and no doubt the chief priests and elders think themselves unfairly dealt with if they are in line behind those they look down on. But if the Kingdom is open to all, does it really matter who enters first? I hope discipleship in Jesus calls us to look on ourselves and others through the same light: As I said last week, God may not be fair, but God is just.