Cucumbers & Grapes: The Confusing Fairness of God

For the Sisters of Burnham Abbey

Sunday September 20th, 2020 – Trinity 15

Exodus 16:2-15, Philippians 1:21-end, Matthew 20:1-16

I want to start with this rather amusing story I found this week:

A few years ago, Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal, two zoologists at Emory University, decided to study the evolution of fairness. They wanted to explore where our distaste for unfairness comes from. Is it a cultural add-on, or is it hardwired?

To study this question, Brosnan and de Waal designed an experiment using capuchin monkeys. Pairs of monkeys were placed in adjacent cages where they could see each other and trained to take turns giving small granite rocks to their human handler. Each time a monkey relinquished a rock, she would receive a piece of cucumber as a reward.

Capuchins love cucumbers, so both monkeys found this arrangement satisfactory, and handed over their rocks with enthusiasm. But then, the handler changed things up. After a few fair and even exchanges, the handler rewarded the first monkey with a chunk of cucumber as usual but gave the second monkey a grape — the equivalent of fine wine or caviar in the monkey world.

Seeing that the game had changed for the better, the first monkey perked up, and very eagerly handed over another rock, expecting, of course, to receive a grape, too. But no — the handler gave her another piece of cucumber. To make things worse, the handler then gave the second monkey another grape for free!

The results — which you can look up on YouTube — were striking. The first monkey just about lost her mind. Not only did she refuse to eat the cucumber; she hurled it at the handler’s face. She then proceeded to bang against the bars of the cage, throw her remaining rocks in every direction, and make furious gestures at her grape-eating companion.

The experiment has since been repeated using other primates, and the results have been astonishingly similar. Scientists have also studied the development of fairness in human babies and found that infants as young as nine months old will react quite strongly and negatively to perceived unfairness. Clearly, as Brosnan and De Waal concluded after their experiment, fairness is a concept that is deeply rooted in the human psyche.

We have a couple of examples of how deeply rooted fairness is in the readings this morning.

The newly freed Israelites seem to have rather short memories as they rail against Moses, Aaron and God for the perceived unfairness of their new situation in the wilderness. According to them, God has led them into the wilderness to let them starve to death. Of course, he did! God, in his infinite mercy and goodness, feeds the Israelites consistently and daily, morning and night. He did this not only to meet their physical needs but also the need for them to know that he is the Lord their God.

We know that the world is an unfair place, people are treated unfairly at every turn and have been since the beginning. I also think that there are varying degrees of unfairness and we need to keep perspective on the truly unjust and unfair issues facing our world. It is not all cucumbers and grapes!

I also couldn’t help but wonder if St Matthew heard the parable of the landowner and hired labourers and what he made of it? He had been a Jewish tax collector! I suspect that Matthew, in his role as a tax collector, had a skewed view of fairness. His job would have been a good one, secure and well-paid; good for him. Yet his fellow Jews in Capernaum would have seen him as a collaborator with the Romans, in the category with prostitutes and other sinners. Matthew would have paid the heavy price of isolation from his fellow Jew – he was a traitor in their eyes. Yet Matthew had become a genuine follower of Jesus, a convinced Jewish Christian. He, like Peter, Andrew, James and John, did not hesitate to follow Jesus when called.

Jesus seems to be speaking to these disciples, warning them that fame and fortune were not going to be reward for following him. Being close to Jesus was not going to make them the favoured few for all time. Maybe Matthew and the others needed an attitude adjustment? Peter and the others could be the workers that were there at the start of the day, Matthew sometime later? Like the monkeys and us, their sense of fairness was based on being good and doing the right things with the expectation of reward. This is what Jesus is warning against.

Along with the warning, there is also a reminder of the grace and generosity of God. We cannot store these things up or bargain with them, like the monkeys with the rocks to exchange them for cucumbers when we think we need it.

Tom Wright: ‘The point of the story is that what people get from having served God and his kingdom is not, actually, a ‘wage’ at all. It’s not, strictly, a reward for work done. God doesn’t make contracts with us, as if we could bargain or negotiate for a better deal. He makes covenants, in which he promises us everything and asks of us everything in return. When he keeps his promises, he is not rewarding us for our effort, but doing what comes naturally to his overflowing generous nature.’

I know I need the reminder today of the covenant of God and that he will keep his promises. While the world isn’t as fair as it should be, and I am not always fair to others as I should be – God is infinitely fair even though we don’t understand how sometimes.

I need to renew the promise that St Paul admonishes us to do ‘live a life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.’ We can take inspiration from Matthew as he left his tax booth to follow and live the life worthy of the call.

Forgive and Don’t Be Afraid!

Sermon for Sunday 13th September 2020 Proper 19/Trinity 14
Genesis 50:15-21 Romans 4:1-12 Matthew 18:21-35

As the children have gone back to school, we find ourselves being educated at the Jesus School of Hard Teaching over these few weeks in our lectionary readings. It is not that we haven’t heard it all before, but we can be slow to learn sometimes. In Robin’s sermon and in the kid’s story last week, the focus was on how we should behave when people do wrong to us. This is continued today as we look at that old chestnut – forgiveness!

I trust that this won’t be the first or last sermon you hear preached on forgiveness, but I do hope you find something new in it. It is a tough subject. I am sure we all have stories we could share about times when we have needed to forgive or be forgiven. I would also venture to guess that we have stories that we do not share about times and situations of forgiveness and unforgiveness. It seems that the untold stories are that ones that often go unresolved; they often come out around the deathbed and by then – let’s be honest – it is usually too late to do anything about it.

Why do we let it get like that? Pride, needing to be right, needing to get one up on another? Not wanting to let whatever happened go – keeping the offending party on our hook for a little longer? Sadly, none of these apparent rewards live up to what we want them to be. They don’t satisfy!

Forgiveness is an act of the will. It acknowledges that something negative, awful, traumatic and damaging happened but that it will not rule our lives. We take the power out of the event. It is not in any way saying that what happened was okay or acceptable. Forgiveness does not mean that we must continue a relationship with the person/people who caused the event. We don’t have to trust them again.

In the Genesis and Matthew readings this morning we see something of the power of both forgiveness and unforgiveness. The story of Joseph is a remarkable one. Joseph was the first-born son of Jacob and Rachel but not the first born of all Jacob’s sons. Joseph was a tattletale and generally disliked by his brothers. The abridged version is that the brothers disliked him so much they decided to kill him, make it look like a cover-up but changed their minds and sold him to some traders. Joseph ended up in Egypt and working for Potiphar and becomes hugely successful. Time goes by and famine hits the rest of the family and the brothers are sent to Egypt and meet Joseph, whom they no longer recognize. Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, big family reunion ensues and Joseph gets to see his father before he dies.

Jacob has now died, and the brothers are nervous about what might happen next. All through the story of Joseph is the tension between him and his brothers. The fighting, jealousy, the arrogance and finally the brothers do something that frankly seems unforgivable. Finally, the brothers admit they have wronged Joseph and go to him. Joseph’s response is amazing – ‘Do not be afraid! Even though you intended to harm me, God intended it for good. I will provide for you and your little ones.’ He spoke kindly to them, he reassured them. Can you picture how those brothers must have felt at those words? Oh, the relief that comes when we are let off the hook! It is physical sometimes.

Now I know, you probably do to, that this seemingly ideal model of asking for and receiving forgiveness might not happen in real life! But we will still have to do it. We must ask for forgiveness if/when we have wronged someone else. We also must extend forgiveness to those who need it from us. This can be a slow process! We may have to remind ourselves repeatedly.

This is what Peter wants clarified in the Matthew reading. Jesus has taught the disciples about forgiveness when he taught them how to pray. What Peter wants to know is how this works out practically – what is the limit? The Jewish rabbis were teaching that forgiving someone 3 times for the same sin was good enough. Peter thinks that by offering seven; he is doing better. Seven being the number of fulfilment or perfection.

Jesus’ reply is much greater than that – Jesus tells Peter and us that there is no limit to forgiveness. It is something that we are always going to have to do! As long as human beings exist together in community, in families, in church, school or at work, forgiveness will need to be a cornerstone to good relationships. The parable that Jesus goes on to tell about the king and his servants is to underline what Jesus has just said about unrestricted, unlimited forgiveness.

The debt of the first servant is beyond what he could ever pay back. The king was within his rights to order the man, his family and possessions to be sold to pay it off. The man falls on his face and asks for mercy. The king was moved with compassion; the only other times this word is used in Matthew is in relation to Jesus. This king showed the compassion of Jesus. This is a show of the unlimited grace of God. The servant has a rather short memory. When he encounters a fellow slave, who owes him much less, the scene is repeated but the response to the plea for forgiveness is different and wrong. The consequence for the first servant’s lack of forgiveness is a life sentence in prison.

There are consequences if we don’t – our own forgiveness can be revoked! This is scary stuff. We will be treated as we treat others. Therefore, we must love our neighbours, forgive our neighbours as ourselves. I need God’s forgiveness – a lot. I need to forgive and be forgiven. This is not easy, and I am not trying to make light of that or suggest that it can happen in the blink of an eye. It can take a long time – but if we can hold to and remember the unlimited grace of God – we can do it.

Let him help you! The prison of unforgiveness is not a place you want to be in.

Joseph freed his brothers from the prison of their anxiety and worry. Not only that, he looked after them, cared for them and their families. The king and the servants show us what happens if we don’t free others. Jesus has all the love, grace and mercy we will ever need – we can use his when we don’t have enough of our own. Forgiveness comes at a high price – but ultimately a price paid for by Jesus.