September 24, 2023

I remember playing baseball as a boy.  Typically, we would find ourselves in the field behind a friend’s house with the sun out on a beautiful day for baseball and having a great time.  Then the ball gets hit over the hedge.  I, being who I am, of course would feel it necessary to clarify the situation.  “Out of bounds!” I announced.

For some reason that I never quite understood, Donny Roscoe used to take it upon himself to question my judgement.  “That’s a home run!  We never made ‘over-the-hedge’ out of bounds!” he said.

Naturally, I corrected him.  “Yes, we did!”

Typical of Donny Roscoe, he differed about my judgement: “No we didn’t!”

I, being who I am, explained the situation clearly, “It’s out of bounds, Donny!”

A spirited debate ensued.  “”Tis not!” Tis so!”  “Isn’t.”  “Is.”  “Isn’t.”  “Is”.”

Then Donny clarified his position: “It’s not fair!”  And the debate continued.

Of course, we never questioned the supremacy of the rule of fairness.  We knew — even by that early age — that fairness was everything!

It’s been drummed into my head since I was first able to grab the blue ball away from the little girl in the yellow dress, “Now, Mikey, let’s play fair.”

And many of us extrapolated the principle into all areas of life.  We grew up believing that if we brushed our teeth and ate our broccoli, then it would never rain on Saturdays and no one we love would ever die.  And when it turned out to not work that way, Donny Roscoe’s plaintive cry became the keynote for an entire generation: “It’s not fair!”

There’s nothing new, however, about believing in fairness, for people or for nations.  Since even before the time of the social philosopher John Locke, government in Western civilization has been based on the premise that everyone has a certain catalogue of rights – and certain of our individual rights must be given up to government in order to maintain our collective rights as a society.  It’s the fair way to do things.

It happens in labor disputes and baseball games – the  most often heard cry of those in contention is, “We only want what’s fair!”  Everybody agrees that fairness is the rule, but often times there’s no agreement on what fairness means.  A clear example is the Presidential election three years ago.  The cry of Donald Trump and his MEGA Republican allies reminded me of Donny Roscoe.  If you lose the election, just claim that it was rigged.  It wasn’t fair!

It also reminds me of Jonah who left the city of Nineveh and went to sit down and pout by the side of the road because the Lord God was not going to rain destruction on the city after all.  Jonah had preached to the Ninevites that they were doomed for their evil ways, but God changed his mind.  It wasn’t fair!

And fairness reigns supreme even in churches, although in the House of the Lord I’ve heard people disagree about the rules.  If the “Week-end Brunch-bunchers” have been using the 5th grade Sunday school room for their Saturday morning social for 25 years, it’s just not fair to expect them to move to make room for a “New Members Orientation Class” – and woe be unto them that try.

What’s fair is fair!  And whether we can agree on what it means or not, fairness is the rule of last appeal on the playground, at the office, in the marketplace, in government, in the home, in the church.

So I hope I don’t scandalize you too much this morning if I say that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not fair!

I have proof.  It’s right here in this 20th chapter of Matthew.  Jesus is trying to explain the “New World Order” (if you will) to a group of disciples.  He says that the heavenly system of economics, and hierarchies, and priorities, works like this:

This fella’s got three guys working for him.  One has been at it all day in the hot sun, another one has put in a decent half-day’s work, and the third is a newcomer who just showed up and worked for maybe a half-hour.  Then he pays them all the same!

It seems like a cute little story with a nice moral.  But, let me tell you, if I were that guy who’d been working in the sun for 10 hours with not so much as a coffee break, I’d be steamed!

Since when does a newcomer with no seniority, no on-the-job-training, no experience, no time on his card, and who hasn’t paid his dues, get the same paycheck, the same pension plan, the same number of weeks of vacation, the same health insurance, the same amount of attention, the same clout, the same level of consideration, the same priority in making room assignments, as me!?  It’s not fair!

That’s right.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not fair; never has been; never was intended to be.

If somebody cheats me out of my coat, I have a right to get the police, hunt him down, take him to court, get my coat back, and collect for damages suffered because of mental anguish.  It’s only fair.

Jesus says, if he takes your coat, give him the shirt off your back too.  That’s not fair.

That’s right.  If the word and witness of Jesus of Nazareth left us anything to hang our hats on, it’s this: Those who buy into the gospel, and presume to call themselves “Christian,” taking on the very name of Christ, are challenged to take on, also, a higher standard than mere fairness.

It rubs against the grain.  Common sense tells us that we should, in a just society, expect fairness for ourselves, and offer fairness in return.  The gospel says that we should expect less than our fair share, and go beyond fairness in return.

Is any of us grown up enough to handle this?  I don’t think I am.  I’m trying.  Heaven knows I’m working at it.  But there is just about nothing that will get my dander up faster than feeling like someone is taking advantage of me.  Maybe it’s because I was always fairly small of stature, and I felt like I had to punch my way through grade school.  But, all it takes is some wisenheimer in a gold Lexus to cut me off on the expressway and I’m ready to ‘duke it out’ – “He got in front of me in traffic!  That’s not fair!”

But it’s not just other people who are supposed to treat us fairly, it’s the world in general – life – the cosmos.  Haven’t you noticed that we Americans have come up with a whole new twist on life?  We’re a piece of work.  We are the first civilization in history to believe that life owes us good looks, a nice job, 80 or 90 years of relatively trauma-free existence, and a BMW.  Young people expect to start out in life with everything.  And we become sullen and bitter when it doesn’t work out that way.  When things don’t go the way they do on the TV commercials, we feel like life has cheated us.

I have met some precious folks who don’t seem to be caught up in all this.  You probably have too.  Did you ever notice that they tend to be the ones in nursing homes, and apartments for the elderly, and Senior Centers, and sometimes you even bump into a few of them in church.  They tend to be the ones with both arthritis and a sense of humor.  They’re the ones who’ve lost their spouses, and their homes, and half their friends, but not their spirits.  They’re the ones who, by the world’s standards, seem to have nothing left to live for, but somehow, mysteriously, every time you’re around them, you come away with traces of a gift in your heart that you don’t want to let go of.

And this is the gift: to know the blessedness of a spirit that’s finally free from the tyranny of fairness.  It’s the sort of spirit that Jesus referred to as “poor” – that is, unencumbered by greed and need (You remember the “poor in spirit” don’t you?  They’re the ones who possess the Kingdom of Heaven).

It’s not just old people who have this gift, but it does seem to favor the elderly.  Maybe that’s because those of us who demand fairness from life burn out at early ages from pounding our fists on steering wheels.

The most wonderful thing about this gift is that it’s yours for the taking.  You don’t have to fight anybody, or demand your rights, or even pay your dues.

Dr. William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury, knew how readily available such treasures are.  He once told a group of students, “The world, as we live in it, is like a shop window in which some mischievous person has got in overnight and shifted all the price labels around, so that the cheap things have the high-price labels on them and the really precious things are priced low.”

Jesus tried to tell us how the realm of Divine Love works.  It’s a kind of economy that seems backwards, where the rule is to appreciate whatever you receive, and give to others more than they deserve.  It’s a realm unlike our own  families and institutions – an ideal sort of place where newcomers have equal status with old-timers, and no one fights over turf.  It’s a remarkable vision, not yet fully realized in which “what’s right is right” and “what’s fair is…” not nearly enough.

When we were playing baseball in the back field, if some knowing soul had come along and tired to explain to us that 40 or 50 years later, it wouldn’t really be significant whether “over the hedge” had been declared out of bounds or not, we would’ve just given him the raspberries.

And when Jesus says that, in eternal terms, the things that seem “only fair” to us are not of real consequence, we are tempted to ignore him as well.  But we ignore him at the cost of a very dear treasure – a treasure of spirit – a spirit that is

-not expensive

-not fashionable

-and not fair.

It is so much more.

[email protected]