Thursday 16 November 2023

What Everyone Needs

It’s not fair. How often have you heard that? Or thought it? Or said it?

Seems like we hear it a lot lately, especially in the negative, and almost as an accusation.

Fairness seems to be something we seek, but I wonder if we really know what it is we’re looking for. Just, equal, impartial and deserving are words we often use to define it, but I wonder if we really mean that. It’s hard to be objective about those things when we’ve already been influenced by so many variables like desire, personal and societal values and structures — especially when it comes to things like work ethic — not to mention power and our understanding of things like empathy and compassion. Or the absence of them.

And then there’s comparison and competition. Why’s this happening to me? Why didn’t I get the same deal as someone else? Why isn’t my work/time/product worth more?

The world’s a very conflicted place right now and it feels like we’re leading more with hostility and aggression than anything else. When we do that, I think we can become even more subjective about our sense of fairness.

Jesus has an interesting perspective. I don’t think Jesus is as concerned with what we’d call fairness as he is with the fundamentals of what should — that’s should — make it: justice, equity, respect, self worth. I think Jesus is also inclined to employ empathy and compassion instead of comparison and competition.

That’s not to say that Jesus isn’t very much aware of what we think about fairness and those ways we might perceive it. That’s why he’s always trying to poke a stick in them, if not completely up ending them or tearing them down.

One of the ways I think Jesus does that is by talking about what he calls “the kingdom of heaven” and how it’s near, even here. See, I think what makes the kingdom of heaven so different from this one is that it’s made of those very fundamentals on which we should build things like fairness. That’s the things with which we build relationships. We started there, but the building took on a life of its own and became something else with comparison, competitiveness and all those structures, institutions and traditions we built. It became something that separates us, disconnects us, even breaks us.

Think of how often Jesus says “the kingdom of heaven is like …” and then tells a parable that points to that particular fundamental he’s illustrating. Take the story of the landowner who hires labourers to work in their vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16). They hire day labourers, but at different times of the day, working different hours, but, at the end of the day, pays them all the same. When those who worked the longest complain, the landowner simply says we had a deal and I can pay the other what I choose, even challenging them that they’re envious of the landowner’s generosity. “The last shall be first and the first, last,” they say. Things are turned upside down, it seems.

Yes, they are. There are a variety of interpretations of the parable, from religious to socio-economic and everything in between, but go to the fundamentals that make the kingdom of heaven — after all, this is what the kingdom of heaven is like. Everyone is offered what they need. Everyone is treated with equity. Everyone is offered grace, everyone is loved, just as they are, first at the gate or not. There’s no hierarchy, no structure, at that very basic level of being because that’s where we start. Jesus knows not everyone wants to go back there and acknowledges it’s hard.