Sunday, January 22, 2012

Goodness a barrier to mercy?

January 22, 2012,

Dear friends,

It is easy to misunderstand the point James Sanders made about the good guys (see last week’s blog). Sanders was NOT saying that there were no good guys in the stories Jesus told. Sanders was NOT saying that Jesus wanted us always to identify with the bad guys either.

What Sanders was emphasizing was the complexity of being a good guy in the stories Jesus told. Sanders wanted us to read cautiously, paying attention to the human predisposition to make a mixed muddle of black and white in our attempt to live out the good guy role. From this angle, the story of the land owner and his hired help (Matt. 20) provokes serious thought.

The workers hired at six o’clock were truly good guys. They didn’t haggle about their wages, and didn’t attempt to manipulate a “better deal” at the owner’s expense. In the story, when the six o’clockers reported themselves as having worked hard all day in weather that made their task exhausting, the owner did not dispute their account. These were in fact the good guys—working hard, trying hard to get along with the owner and to do the fair thing. As my grandfather would have said, they gave a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.

What then went wrong? What was the core of the heated argument that these good-guy-workers had with this good-guy-boss?

In the summary of the story as Jesus told it, the problem pivoted around the desire of the good guys that their goodness be recognized as setting them apart from those slackers, the people who had come to work at five o’clock. They wanted to be paid, and to be paid in a way that tangibly established their superior work ethic, their superior productivity, and recognized, so to speak, their superior selves. They wanted to be paid fairly for their good work—certainly a just and sensible requirement. But they wanted additionally to be recognized in a tangible way as superior in worth to those who did not do as well as they had done. What was the land-owner thinking when he paid the slackers the same amount that the good guys received for a full day’s work? Was not their goodness compromised by the owner’s mercy to the undeserving, less productive workers?

It is crucial in the story to hear carefully the land owner’s response.

“Listen, people,” the land owner said (Hubbard’s paraphrase). “I did not PAY these guys wages. I GAVE them (undeserved and unmerited) a gift. You received a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, wages set this morning with your full agreement. You have not been cheated. You are indignant because I chose to gift the slackers with what they clearly had not earned. Your anger is a response to my generosity to the undeserving rather than a protest against unjust behavior toward you on my part.”

You see the problem, don’t you? These six o’clockers were good guys. But they had tangled their goodness with something else—they wanted their goodness to establish their superiority to those who did not reach the bar their goodness had set.

In listening to the stories Jesus told one of the things that often makes us uncomfortable is the way in which, as in this story, Jesus highlights our human propensity to use our goodness to protest God’s mercy.

Trusting that you are remembering that thinking about this story is a bridge to our re-thinking next week my absurd protest when my friend made it possible for some acquaintances to receive the gift of a dinner I thought they had not earned.

Thinking with you that Jesus was right—being good doesn’t insure that we use our goodness in a good way.

See you next week.

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