What We See, What God Sees: On Fairness and Judgment
The readings this weekend pick up almost exactly where we left off last sunday. In the book of the Prophet Ezekiel, we are told:
You say, “The LORD’s way is not fair!”
Hear now, house of Israel:
Is it my way that is unfair, or rather, are not your ways unfair?
This brings us back to the grumbling day laborers from the vineyard in last Sunday’s Gospel. Those who were hired early in the morning and agreed to a full days wage were given exactly that when quitting time came around. Yet, those hired later in the day received exactly the same renumeration, sending the ones who worked longer to be outraged.
“That’s not fair!” Shouted the laborers, clearly feeling entitled to more money though they were indeed paid fairly. It was not injustice that they encountered and had upset them, but rather the generosity of the landowner (i.e., “God”) that they came to resent.
The cries of unfairness continue this weekend. At the heart of these passages from Scripture stand the proclamation made in last Sunday’s first reading: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.” God’s sense of justice and generosity is far more capacious and inclusive than ours usually is, and while there is oftentimes a lot of grumbling and talk of “fear” of God’s justice, the truth is that we much more often resent God’s generosity.
Our Gospel this Sunday comes from the next chapter in Matthew’s account, and it is short enough to recount here.
Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people:
“What is your opinion?
A man had two sons.
He came to the first and said,
‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’
He said in reply, ‘I will not, ‘
but afterwards changed his mind and went.
The man came to the other son and gave the same order.
He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir, ‘but did not go.
Which of the two did his father’s will?”
They answered, “The first.”
Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you,
tax collectors and prostitutes
are entering the kingdom of God before you.
When John came to you in the way of righteousness,
you did not believe him;
but tax collectors and prostitutes did.
Yet even when you saw that,
you did not later change your minds and believe him.”
Again, we have a crowd of the righteous, the “church goers,” the religious leaders, the ones who are always seen in the right places and saying, thinking, doing the “right things.” Jesus confronts them with this question about what it means to truly do “the right thing.” And the response is pretty straightforward, regardless of what one of the sons says, it’s the one who does the will of the father.
There are many dimensions to this Gospel that speak to us today. I want to address only one today: I believe that today’s Gospel challenges us to reconsider how we understand judgement.
On the subject of judgment, we return back to the insights of the Prophet Ezekiel, who calls us to task for thinking that God sees, hears, and judges in the same ways that we do. God does not. And that is, like last Sunday’s Gospel, a good thing. God’s mercy and justice are not opposed, but two sides of the very same coin.
Likewise, God is able to be merciful and judges differently than we do because God sees and knows everything. God knows our hearts and our actions, our thoughts and our desires, our fears and our loves far better than even we do. God takes the whole story into consideration and reserves judgement for the end, when a whole life has reached completion.
We should recall the Gospel parable from earlier this summer when Jesus talks about the zealous land workers who want to pull the weeds from the wheat. The master tells them not to, that he would take care of separating these things at the end of the harvest, when the plant is fully grown. The reason the workers aren’t permitted to pull the weeds has everything to do with the fact that they can’t distinguish between the good plants and the weeds at that point in their growth — they look the same from the outside.
With that parable from the same Gospel account in mind, if we look at today’s reading we see an echo of how God sees us and judges us. If one stops the story immediately after the point when the two sons respond to their dad, one seemingly obedient and the other ostensibly disobedient, then we’d likely be compelled to say that the son who said “yes,” only to not follow through later, was the obedient son and the reverse true for the other. But when we play the whole story forward, it’s a very different account.
Perhaps this is why the very last parable in Matthew’s Gospel is the one concerning the “sheep” and the “goats,” in Chapter 25.
Not only does this parable and account of the coming judgment take place at the end of the Gospel, but it is set at the end of time “when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.” Then he separates those who are destined for eternal life from those who will go into “the eternal fire prepare for the devil and his angels.”
What is curious about this parable is how few people pay attention to precisely why the “goats” go into the fire, why there are any goats in the first place!
See, when it comes to doing the will of God, which is loving and caring for one another in mutual harmony, you don’t need to know precisely that you’re doing it. These “sheep” in the parable are shocked to discover the reason for their favorable positioning.
The “goats,” on the other hand, are perhaps given one last time to repent, to apologize, to have a conversion and admit that, perhaps unwittingly even, they screwed up big time in life: they didn’t do what was expected of each and every human person. But what happens instead? The “goats,” start coming up with excuses: “when did we see you, lord? hungry, thirsty, etc. etc.?” We might image in them saying to Christ, “If only we knew that’s what we were to do, if only we knew it was you, etc. etc.” they would have experienced then and there the mercy of God that Ezekiel reveals to us and that Jesus demonstrates in his own words and deeds.
Instead of admitting their faults and failures, they blame others and stand stubbornly before their savior having learned absolutely nothing in life.
As we go forth today to begin another week, may we find ourselves more aware of our own tendency to judge without knowing the whole story, without giving other people a chance. May we be encouraged by the mercy of God and, as St. Paul exhorts us, encourage others to be more and more human by being more and more people for others.
Rather than believing we know better than God, judging and casting judgment on others, let us be supporters, lovers, peacemakers, and reconcilers — let all of us go out into the vineyard of the world to do the father’s will, even if at first we said no.