Sunday, September 18, 2011

Striving For Real Fairness

Try to imagine for a moment that you have been in your workplace for more than ten years and a new employee gets hired and works the same job you do but receive ten percent more than what you get. Or try to imagine that in spite of your ten years in the job, you got laid off while that new employee got to stay and kept his. Well, maybe you don’t have to imagine them at all because that’s the reality in the workplace nowadays. My guess is that it would not or does not sit too well with you as you would most likely be on his defense for the obvious reason that it’s unfair!

Our sense of equality and our preferment for equitable distribution usually lead us to champion the cause of flying the banner of fairness. We totally support such a cause and, consequently, we would not entertain any second thought when it comes to matters of fairness or more importantly, on matters of justice.

We demand that we get what we deserve when it comes to our job; although there’s that great possibility that we would not be so overly concerned if we end up getting a little bit more than what we actually deserve. And that, by itself, might appear to have a veneer of unfairness. Why? It’s because, as is often the case, only when we appear “disadvantaged” that we get so enthused and tempted to bring into play the rules of fairness.  We rarely hear of someone who, after getting paid for the hours she did not work for, still complains “What? I’m getting a full pay? But I was off for two days. It’s not fair.” It’s funny how that works.

The Gospel story (Matthew 20:1-16) for this Sunday alludes to this seeming inconsistency in the arena of fairness.  The landowner in the parable pays all of his workers the same amount, even though they worked different numbers of hours.  Listening to this story, many of us would readily think to ourselves, “Well, that doesn’t seem fair.” In the course of saying those words, we somehow pass our judgment as we observe the scale of fairness to be tipping not on our favor. Why? It’s because we side with those who have put in the most and naturally, we feel aggrieved. We could easily identify ourselves with them.

But what if we ally ourselves with the ones on the receiving end of the landowner’s generosity? Would we still be saying “Well, that doesn’t seem fair.”? We usually do not complain when it comes to bonuses, do we? In similar situations, we keep mum and let it fly. And so, how ironic it is that in one situation we become so resentful, and in the other we are more than pleased and grateful for the added blessings.

Having made that observation, I think there is the danger of “reading” this story along the terms we observe in our human experience which could lead us to conceive of God as being just with some people and overly generous with others, or that He lets some of us get exactly what we deserve while letting others get more, or that God is extra-kind to some people but less so with others.

If we view the story only in those terms, we might come to the logical conclusion that God, after all, doesn’t treat us all the same. And the moment we fall into this trap, we could not be more wrong. Part of the problem, I believe, is that we talk about these attributes and actions of God while employing a very limited tool: human language. When we try to say something about God; when we attempt to understand and explain that which is “Unexplainable”, we use words that we employ when describing human attributes, not realizing that such words are “limited” when used for a better understanding of God.

From our human perspective it can look as if God picks and chooses who gets the most and who gets the least, who gets immeasurable blessings and who must go without, who has a special place in his heart and who is just ordinary. What’s really happening is that God is simply being God doing exactly what He is supposed to be doing.

So how might we understand this story? Perhaps we need to re-read the story. You see, our tendency is to focus on the fact that the laborers did not put in the same amount of work.  And that’s a simple reflection of our ways of looking at things. But what we probably should focus on more is the fact that each of the workers received a full day’s pay which the landowner promised to everyone he called to work on his vineyard; for the all-day laborers and for the newcomers, for the greatest and for the least, for the first and yes, even for the last.

Again, at times, we think God doesn’t treat us all the same. Well, from our human perspective, maybe not.  But viewed from the lens of faith, God wants the best for each one of us. God loves and blesses us all, without any regard to what society might have thought of us. God wants each of us to experience the same fullness of life –the same “full day’s wage” – a full, rich, and meaningful life.

It’s interesting to note what Jesus said to those workers he approached later in the day. He asked them: “Why do you stand here idle all day?” Perhaps, the parable about God’s fairness is really meant for them and for us who might have also put off embracing the new life Jesus won for us through his death and resurrection. Finding affinity with those who “stood idle in the marketplace” should convince us that we’re the ones for whom God continually offers a full day’s wage. And while it might look pitiable, it actually points to a remarkable opportunity for hope, for it doesn’t matter how long we have been idle, how long we have refused the precious gift of new life. 

And while there might be more than a few who had been standing on the sidelines for their entire lives, the Good News is that, as far as God is concerned, that doesn’t matter. God doesn’t care what transpired before or who we were yesterday and the day before. He only cares who we want to be today and whether or not we will accept his invitation to journey out into the vineyard and receive our full day’s wage.

That’s the God I have known and the God I serve.  And He may not seem fair when viewed from our inadequate lens of human perception, although in truth, as this parable teaches us, God is much more than fair.  God loves us, He is generous, and He is merciful. With this parable, hopefully, we can be as loving and as generous and as merciful, not just to those whom we have known much longer but to all, with no distinction of any kind.

So let it be our noble intention to continually strive for real fairness. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Our Calling To Forgive…

The Gospel appointed for this 13th Sunday after Pentecost (Matthew 18:21-35) begins with the probing question asked by the Apostle Peter. "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.  Then follows a familiar story.  A master forgives the debt of a servant, who then refuses to forgive the debt of one of his own servants.  The master then withdraws his offer to forgive the debt, forcing the man to be handed over to be tortured until he pays his debt back.  The story ends with the words – “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Whether or not it is just a coincidence or whether or not it was “meant to be”, today’s Gospel Lesson is so apropos, taking into account the significance of today’s date.

Today marks the anniversary of a tragedy we now refer to as 9/11. Ten years ago, our country suffered a great injustice, an act which had a devastating effect: foremost would be the loss of innocent lives; people who were struck down while simply going about their daily business. Among those lost were the brave men and women who raced selflessly to their rescue.  Highlighting all these was what might have been the biggest affront to the icons of American economic fecundity; the collapse of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York. Of similar seriousness, for many of us, was the loss of our peace of mind. Many of us and maybe never before have now felt less secure, a bit more vulnerable and more uncertain about the future.

Soon thereafter, a concerted voice seemed to have reached the number one spot. Everyone seemed to know it almost by heart! It said: “People had done us wrong, and somebody had to pay.” This seems to be the collective mantra of those who, in one form or another, were gravely affected by that horrendous act of terrorism, including the ones involved in the Pentagon plane attack and the foiled one in the farmland of Pennsylvania.

Initially there was a tremendous amount of anger, sorrow and disbelief.  How could this have happened?  Who’s responsible for this?  And how can we make sure that this doesn’t happen again?  And so, we set out as a nation to answer those questions; not only to find and bring to justice those behind the atrocities, but also to take necessary steps to thwart any future attacks by those who would like to harm us. As a nation we were and still are, I believe, united behind those goals.  We even went to war as a result of this.

And yet, it seems that we are in a very different place ten years later and I use the word “different” with a negative connotation.  Let me put that in perspective.

Last Friday evening, I watched a TV program entitled, “The Days after 9/11”. I think that was the title but anyway, it was a program of actual footage from the hours and days that ensued after the Twin Towers of World Trade Center collapsed. There were images of the colossal destruction that conjured a sense of defeat and hopelessness as rescue efforts brought forth negative results.

What proved to be a bit disturbing were images of how a deep sense of anger began to foment among the citizenry as illustrated by someone who did his target practice on a target sheet with a picture of Osama Bin Laden attached to it.

The overall impact of the documentary elicited, I think, a renewed anger to the actual perpetrators and a renewed mistrust to the people of the same ethnicity. And by overloading the American viewers with footage after footage of that horrendous terrorist attack, somehow the general viewer was transported back in time, virtually suffering the same pain and anguish and loss and a sense of vengeance. 9/11 ten years later seemed 9/11, 2001.

As a result, some would-be expectations never became real. Where there could have been healing, there seems to be an unending and ever open wounds.  Where there could have been a let-up of some of the deep-seated anger, there appears to be even a greater desire to lash out.  Where there could have been an improved collegiality and understanding between peoples, there seems to be greater division and where there could have been steps made on the road to forgiveness, there seems to be an even tighter hold on past grudges and past hurts. 

From what we’ve heard and seen, either through casual conversations  with our colleagues or watching programs created by the media, it sure seems as if many of us are even more negatively affected by the events of 9/11 ten years later than we were on the day it happened. 

Instead of struggling to move forward, many of us have allowed ourselves to be dragged back.  Rather than rise to something novel and beautiful, we’ve allowed ourselves to remain crushed beneath the weight of painful memories. It seems that we deliberately avoid healing and closure. What has happened is that, through those years of remembering the iniquitous event of 9/11, we kind of mess around with the virtual scabs of healing and perhaps, on this 10th Anniversary of 9/11, we even did it much harder that others would now see fresh wound on the same old spot.

And I wonder why that is so. Perhaps, we can take another look at what it takes for that particular wound to heal. You see, at the core of that healing is forgiveness – not the easy or the casual kind which might be illustrated by a shrugging of our shoulders or the casual curled lips. “Yeah, it’s OK. You’re forgiven. It’s no big deal!” No, I’m not talking about that kind of “laid back” forgiveness.

What I’m talking about is the tough kind, the forgiveness we are called to give to others in times when we least want to, when we have been hurt so badly, so deeply and so profoundly.  I’m talking about the kind of forgiveness that can only be prompted by our sense of gratefulness for the infinite mercy and forgiveness that God offers each of us.

There seems to be something of a non sequitor in the way many of us Christians extol the truths and blessings of the Christian faith with the way we live them out. We at times are tempted to claim that those tenets and beliefs we extol are the “best”; that they are the very things that are at the heart of Christianity, things that in a certain sense make us somewhat different and unique compared to many other faiths.  To name a few, we love to talk about things like selfless and unconditional love, solidarity with and compassion for the poor and the outcasts of this world, indifference from material things, and a passion for radical mercy and forgiveness. These are the characteristics of what it means to be a faithful Christian, of what genuine discipleship means and of what being true to our baptismal covenant means.

And yet, these are precisely the things that cause us the most difficulty, the things we seem most reluctant to do, the life many of us are simply not willing to live.  And in this regard, when we measure ourselves against that standard, we fall short. Our unwillingness to truly forgive, our reluctance to begin allowing our hearts to soften, our resistance to letting go of the hurts and grudges, our clinging to the desire for revenge and the need to get even are all forms of a certain kind of slavery, a bondage not imposed from without but fomented from within. This unwillingness to forgive takes on a life of its own, spilling into so many areas of our lives, often budding and blooming into a kind of spiritual smugness which manifests itself in so many harmful attitudes. 

Ten years after the events of that day I’m hearing things from the mouths of Christians and seeing actions from my brothers and sisters in the Lord that I find simply awful; things that on the surface at least, seem to be a betrayal of who we are called to be.  Justified hurt and anger has grown into something else altogether.  In many ways, we’re starting to give the impression of being more and more like the very things we hate.

Extending this kind of radical forgiveness is one of the most difficult things we will ever be called to do.  It takes a loving and generous heart.  It takes a deep sense of our own need for God’s mercy and forgiveness.  It takes a desire to not just believe certain things but to actually strive to pattern our lives after Jesus.  And this sort of forgiveness is unconditional – no matter how much we wished it were something else. It is not dependent on anything done or not done by those who have wronged us. Rather, it could only come from a God of forgiveness, a God of mercy and love and it’s the God we seek to embrace as our own.

Of course, for those who lost loved ones that day, working toward forgiving their enemies is incredibly difficult, more than most of us can imagine.  Not only is it difficult to do but may also be a process that has an extended timeline. And it’s nothing that we should negate.  I believe, God certainly knows and understands our pain.  But for all of us, whether 9/11 hit close to home or far away, the time to begin that journey is now – not tomorrow, or next year, or after certain conditions have been met.  There’s no reason to postpone the healing that is truly possible, the rising each of us can experience once we make room in our hearts by ridding ourselves of all that stands in God’s way.  Now is the time to begin to let go of some of the anger and resentment and, conversely, not allow them to keep us from being all that God wants us to be.

I know that ten years is not a long time for that wound to heal, given the severity of what we suffered as a nation.  But we don’t have to expect to make that tough journey all in one shot, although we can give it a try.  Rather, let us, each one of us, take a baby step today in the right direction and take another small step tomorrow, and the day after. 

Recall what I referred to earlier as the collective mantra that gets repeated over and over again: “People had done us wrong, and somebody had to pay.” Perhaps we can do our own share of disengagement by not re-echoing that vengeful refrain of a hateful song. Instead, perhaps we sing a song of forgiveness, peace and reconciliation, knowing that as followers of Christ we have always known that all our sins, including the one which we call to remembrance today, have already been paid for. Jesus has already paid for all of our debts.  As co-partners of Jesus’ work of forgiveness, let’s allow His death and resurrection to empower us to share that same mercy and forgiveness with others, no matter how difficult it may be. 

We have that calling to forgive!