The Unfair Way of God

Parables & Prophets  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  20:56
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While the religious leaders look to logic and philosophical musings to stump Jesus, we see that the way of God is unfairly bent toward blessing those who act upon God's instructions. It's not fair that our questions don't always get answers. And its unfair that God's grace is given to even those who had once turned their backs on God. This is the beautiful unfairness of the Gospel.

The New Revised Standard Version The Authority of Jesus Questioned

The Authority of Jesus Questioned

(Mk 11:27–33; Lk 20:1–8)

23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

The Parable of the Two Sons

28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

The Sacred Questions

This week I started a book that is new to me. I’ve loved science fiction and fantasy for as long as I can remember. But I’ve never read Dune! And with a new movie production of the story coming out and at the strong recommendation of a dear friend, I struck out on this epic. Wish me luck.
As I say, I’ve always loved science fiction and fantasy. I love the stories because they challenge me to dream, to wonder, to ask philosophical questions about the world and about God. Its the same reason I love comic books — they take the real world and they open it wide with possibility and contradiction and reframed narratives.
Science fiction is often called speculative fiction these days. And I think this subtle naming change gets at the heart of the sacred beauty of the kinds of questions it asks — what if? What if the tables were turned on the powerful? What if we could travel to the farthest reaches of space? What if there was practical magic or super powers?
Would we still have the same questions if these things were true? (Spoiler — that’s the whole point — we still have the same questions about existence and belonging and God and hope that we have without the powers — there perhaps is simply even more at stake!)
I love that the Pharisees and Jesus are asking questions of each other, questions that mostly remain unanswered. It’s beautiful. It’s provocative. It cuts into the deep parts of our longing for answers and perspective.

But…the Sacred Practices

Today’s message is actually quite simple, in contrast to the deep philosophical questions. Or rather, we might say it is practical, running alongside these deep longings and wonderings. Because while we wonder, we must also act. While we challenge and engage curiosity and speculation, we must also practice forward in the way of Jesus.
This is what I see in these two texts. As we dive deeper into this series of Parables & Prophets, we will be challenged to face the truth that each biblical literary style presents us with. Because that is what they are for — to cut to the truth, to expose our meandering and to present us with places to practically enter into what God is up to.
To Question is Sacred. To Practice is Sacred. We mustn’t separate these or let one overshadow the other.

Jesus at the Temple

Jesus faces the questions of the religious leaders at the temple as they attempt to test his authority. He wrangles with their question of his right to teach (which, by the way, this phenomenon of religious leaders trying to stump and confound new leaders who have experienced God’s calling and are beginning to teach the truth — this thing still happens…a lot.) Jesus knows how to handle this and is able to turn the conversation into a deeper questioning of who truly authorizes the ministries of John and himself.
And then he turns us toward a parable that opens up the questioning all the more. The two sons, both which resist the father’s instruction to work, are a perfect image of our struggle with questioning and practice. One outright refuses to act. The other, after locking horns with his father (or at least after ignoring the snooze button enough times), he gets to work. The text says he changed his mind. And it is in the change of mind that his faithfulness is discovered.
Jesus then likens the first brother to the tax collectors and prostitutes who change their minds and follow in the Way of the Christ — their philosophical objections to the religious establishment (whether actually spoken or perhaps simply lived out in the resistance to God’s way), these objections fall away and they are welcomed into God’s family.
The other brother stays in his resistance, stays in his wonders and blocked place and persists in not doing the father’s will.
Is it fair? Both resisted? Shouldn’t both be seen as wicked? Why is one righteous for changing their mind? That doesn’t seem fair.

The Unfairness of God

We find more depth in this parable as we turn to the Prophet Ezekiel, our first reading today. Leading up to the text we heard read today is a discussion about the wicked turning away from their sins and doing what is right. And then our text questions — is that fair? Is God’s way fair?
Again, we have a philosophical wrestling: whose way is truly fair, the people who don’t follow God’s law or God, for offering grace to those who turn and repent?
We are struck by the unfairness of God — aren’t the questions of our lives, the sacred struggle we engage, like the Pharisees, isn’t that what this is about? Aren’t we supposed to get it all figured out in mind and heart first?
Yes, and, but — This is the bind, this is the struggle, this is the site of grace. The questions are beautiful, the speculation is a part of our existence, a part of discovery and finding out what it is to follow God in more depth of whole self.
But the way of God is unfair. The way of God is not for those who have it all figured out and who can stump the next smartest guy on philosophical wonderings.
The way of God is wider than this — the way of God is for the ones who cannot ask these questions in the comfort of temple philosophy. The way of God is for the ones who have no time for conspiracy theories because of the anxiety they produce. The way of God is for the ones who have tried to get it all figured out for so long and yet…it still doesn’t always line up.
The parable and prophetic word to us speak of a better way — it is not about how much we get right. It is, rather, about living in those questions and stepping out in faith and action nonetheless. It is about holding sacred questions alongside sacred action.
This may sound unfair. We want to get it right and be blessed if we do. This may sound unfair, we want the ones who ignored the right way in the past to be punished — why should they be counted in the house of God?
But really, friends, is the way of God unfair? Or perhaps, is it our ways that are unfair? Is our expectation of right belief and all the answers — is that fair? Or is the beautiful, slow, unfolding work of God that offers more questions than answers, isn’t that the joyous grace we have come to know?
As I said, I love a good work of fiction, science fiction, fantasy — bring it on. And I love it because often, there’s a big twist, a grand reveal. Something alters our perception of the world along the way and opens it up much wider than we could have imagined possible.
Right after graduation from college, I read Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi.” I won’t ruin the book for you, other than to say there’s a pretty significant twist at the end. It rocked me as I read it, brought me such joy and curiosity. What was…was not.
That’s unfair, you might say. We can’t let the path diverge.
And then, connect this with the walk of religious faith. We want consistency, predictability, questions that have answers.
And it’s not fair when it doesn’t always work that way.

Embracing the Unfair Way of God

Today, I want to invite you to embrace the unfair way of God. We often think of what is unfair as what is unjust.
But that is far from what is happening here. Rather, we’re finding that the more questions we have, the more struggle we come across…in this, the more grace and reception we have in God.
The reply in the Ezekiel text cuts right to this:
The New Revised Standard Version Individual Retribution

25 Yet you say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? 26 When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. 27 Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. 28 Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die. 29 Yet the house of Israel says, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?

It’s not the way of God that is unfair. It is our ways, our denial, our persistence in resistance that is unfair.
For us, the invitation is to stop resisting. To let go of the need for all our questions to be answered in proper fashion. To keep asking questions for the joy and curiosity they provoke. And to practice our faith, to live it out, to go to the vineyard and get to work.
We have had 6 months of time at home where we have all faced deep questions about the future, about ourselves, about the state of the world, about where God is. It seems unfair that God would not show up and provide clarity for us.
But you know what I’ve seen — I’ve seen, at the same time, people rising up to care for one another, I’ve seen us caring for ourselves. I’ve seen you being kind to yourselves, giving grace for the difficulty of this season. I’ve seen you volunteer to support others in need.
The questions have not gone away, in fact they’ve continued to grow more difficult. But while we hold the questions, we also do not turn away from the goodness of action in the way of God.
Is this all unfair? Sure.
But it is also truth — that while we hold the unfairness, we also find grace and justice in the ways we step forward nonetheless, the ways we live and love. The ways we find the welcome love of God in spite of all that is uncertain.
May this be our foundation, today and always, as we continue to wrestle and question and explore and live out our faith in Christ, together.
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