Here is an ethical dilemma: let’s say you have a neighbor, or a relative who is just refusing to follow the COVID-19 guidelines. They don’t believe the virus is all that serious. They think everyone is worrying too much. They don’t physically distance. They go out without a mask. They have family staying over. And last weekend, they threw a big party in their house with people who weren’t in their bubble. Suddenly, they get sick. A COVID-test comes back positive. Their symptoms worsen, and they have to be hospitalized; they get a bed. Meanwhile, behind them in the queue is someone else – a person who wore a mask, physically distanced, and isolated from their friends, to be as safe as possible. Someone who in spite of careful work, still got sick. But the hospital’s getting busy; a bed may not be waiting.
I know what my reaction would be – and maybe yours too: if health care resources are finite, why should the person who didn’t follow the rules get to the use them up? This is a real-life question that may yet exist this fall. We all now know what to do to reduce our risk of getting COVID-19; how much sympathy will we feel for those who just flout those rules?
Two versions of this scenario are presented today in our first lesson and in our gospel. In the first lesson, we hear the story of Ninevah, a city filled with corruption and debauchery, whose people have finally come around, at the very last moment. So, God gives them a pass from the calamity that had been planned. And Jonah, observing, is furious about this decision. Why bother, he basically says to God, who then goes about making the larger point, by giving Jonah a shady bush, and then taking it away. Look how angry you are about killing the bush, God says, a thing you did nothing to create; yet how bloodthirsty you are for a city of a 120,000 people who didn’t know their left hand from their right, but are beginning to come around.
Our gospel makes the same point delivered as a parable from Jesus. It begins by making the link very clear – just in case we are confused. The Reign of God, Jesus says, is like a landowner going out in the morning to hire labourers. Each one is promised a fair wage and agrees to it. Some labour all day, some for a shorter part of the day, and a few for just one hour at the end. Each is paid the same. Of course, this is controversial: you work harder, you earn more – that’s a fundamental principle. The labourers who worked all day are angry: why are the one-hour workers getting the same as them? But the landowner says: aren’t you getting what you were promised? Take it and go; I can choose to give equally to those who came last, and it doesn’t affect your share. I imagine those full-time labourers went away grumbling, as we might as well.
What is the message here for us? We want things to be fair, and there is something unfair about all three of these scenarios. Can you break the rules and still get a share of limited resources? Can you live a faithless life and still be accepted if you seek forgiveness at the end? Does everyone get the same reward? God’s answer is yes. Yes, that is, with a strong message of: mind your own business.
I want to unpack this message, because I think it rankles; it feels wrong on the surface. But let’s consider Jonah – if we know his story, we know that he spent his own amount of time ignoring God and what God wanted him to do; that’s how he ends up in the belly of a whale. So, he is hardly perfect himself, throwing around his judgement.
Considering the gospel, we might subscribe to the rule that if you work harder or longer, you are paid more. But, of course, we know that is not true. During this pandemic, long-term care workers, janitors at hospitals, and nurses on wards have put in much longer hours at greater risk than many government or business managers at home, and yet they are not paid more. Women who still do more of the childcare and household chores, on average, even while working full-time, are not paid more – in fact, jobs dominated by women are paid less. The argument of the labourers even to the landowner doesn’t hold up: perhaps they worked slowly all day long, but the ones who came late hustled and raced to get their work finished. Indeed, perhaps they were late because they were parents with a sick kid at home and no safe child-care options. Perhaps they were caring for aging relatives. Perhaps they were dealing with their own health issues. Perhaps, as the gospel says, no one would hire them, because they were seen as different, and unworthy, in a way that was beyond their control. Is all of that not unfair? And certainly, to follow through on the metaphor, if the labourers are a stand-in for how people come around to grace and kindness and love – we know that some of us get a good head start by circumstance and others of us are held back and pushed down by misfortune. Where does the fairness lie in that?
Indeed, where God’s grace is fair is that it is extended to all who desire it, when they need it. This is not a position to be argued against; it is a goal to strive for. We should argue not for people to receive less, but to receive more. Not for people to be judged more harshly, but to be forgiven more freely. Indeed, if we know that God will treat us fairly, then what is our motivation to live the gospel? It is no longer to show up our neighbor, or to push them down, or to judge them. Our motivation is to be better for our own sake, and for the sake of our community. Sometimes that means we show up for the first shift. Sometimes, we are waylaid by life. God is there waiting nonetheless; grace is extended to us. Who are we to withhold it from others?
None of us can claim perfection. Going back to that very first ethical dilemma – ask yourself if you have always followed the COVID rules perfectly? Haven’t we all, over these last months, had to weigh the risks, had to make trade-offs? In the end, our job here is to do our best to enable everyone to as safe as well as they can, so that we can use our finite time and resources to the best purpose. If we use our energy to judge and ostracize, we have given up on change. Obsessed with an impossible standard of fairness, we have allowed the world to become more unfair.
How differently might it have gone if the labourers on that day had approached those showing up late and asked if they needed help getting to work, or with their families? How different if they had listened to their stories with an open mind? Perhaps, they would have gotten more help earlier in the day.
This is a time when it is easy to judge on many fronts. Let us be careful how quickly we reach conclusions. Let us be grace-centred in our assessments, and let us remember that love and acceptance – the gifts of the gospel – are not finite resources. There is always more to be shared.