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17 September 2011

"Slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love"

Guess what's the most frequent phrase the children in our waiting room are shouting at each other when they get into their frequent fights over toys, attention, space, or the channel on the waiting room t.v. What they hurl at each other are these words: "It's not fair!"

"It's not fair" -- these words don't just document how children behave in our waiting room; rather, they seem to reflect one aspect of how human beings are put together. It's as though each of us has acquired early on a built-in scale that makes us cry out the instant someone receives more than we are receiving: more toys, more attention, more space, more love ... you can fill in the blanks.

"It's not fair" -- the same battle cry is heard when in Jesus' parable in Matthew 20 those laborers who worked just one hour receive just as much as those who started early in the morning: one Roman Denarius. "It's not fair", they complain, and the audience, way back when and today, agrees.  Nonetheless, the landowner is free "to do with what belongs to him", and thus he can say, "I want to give to this last man the same as I gave to you."

 "Are you envious because I am generous?" The second half of Verse 15 sounds almost harmless in most modern English translations. The Greek is everything but. ... η ο οφθαλμοσ σου πονηροσ εστιν οτι εγω αγαθοσ ειμι ... Literally, "Or is your eye evil because I am good?" -- as far as I can see, only the King James Version retains the power of the original.

Is your eye evil because I am good? The tension between human ideas about justice and God's freedom is thrown into sharp relief in the Old Testament text from Jonah 3 and 4.  Jonah is furious because God is merciful to the inhabitants of Ninive. So furious is he that he takes words of comfort that we hear every Lent and throws them in God's face:

“Oh, Lord, this is just what I thought  would happen when I was in my own country.  This is what I tried to prevent by attempting to escape to Tarshish!   – because I knew  that you are gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding  in mercy, and one who relents concerning threatened judgment.  So now, Lord, kill me instead,  because I would rather die than live! 

Parables, those of Jesus, and such as that of the writer of the Jonah book, are (much like Zen koans which drive Zen students nuts!)  forms of speech that are meant to be disturbing.  Their intent is to break us open, to break us out of our restrictions: restrictions of what we think we know; restrictions fueled by our need to control; restrictions fed by our fears. When parables and koans succeed, we rediscover ourselves, with all our brokenness, hang-ups and limitations; someone once said that they "turn us upside down so that we might find ourselves right side up".

When we stop fighting and cease interpreting parables and other wisdom stories on human terms, we realize that all our fretting about fairness only obscures how deeply uncomfortable we are about receiving God's overflowing gift of love.  It's not like God is stingy -- the problem is clearly ours, for we are proud and greedy and stubborn, and we want things our own way.  We want things our own way, yet the upside down world of the Kingdom of God won't come to us unless we live by the great reversal: "The last will be first, and the first last" (Verse 16).  Taoist wisdom describes the same experience:

Yield and overcome;
Bend and be straight;
Empty and be full;
Wear out and be new;
Have little and gain;
Have much and be confused.

Therefore wise men embrace the one
And set an example to all.
Not putting on a display,
They shine forth.
Not justifying themselves,
They are distinguished.
Not boasting,
They receive recognition.
Not bragging,
They never falter.
They do not quarrel,
So no one quarrels with them.
Therefore the ancients say, 'Yield and overcome.'
Is that an empty saying?
Be really whole,
And all things will come to you.

As the People of God we recognize the cry for fairness as yet another lure of the pathetic street theater some call "the real world". Because we know better, we don't look for fairness; we look for wholeness.

Matthew 20:1-16; Jonah 3:10-4:11; Tao Te Ching 22.

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