Where’s the justice in that?
Sermon preached by Alan McLellan – September 24, 2017
“That is so unjust!” I don’t know about you, but that’s my reaction to a lot of things that happen in the world. It’s also my reaction to the parable in today’s Gospel: A landowner hires people to work in his vineyard – and the ones hired at the beginning of the day are given a day’s wages. The ones who are hired at midday are given a day’s wages, and the ones hired close to the end of the day are given….a day’s wages! Where’s the justice in that? It’s pretty frustrating: you look to Jesus for a parable to confirm your sense of fairness, your sense of what’s right, and he comes up with something like that!
Well, in the men’s book group, we turned to the 19th century Russian novelist Dostoevsky and I must say we didn’t fare much better. We’ve been reading his “Crime and Punishment”. And it’s hard to believe that the criminal in that story gets the punishment he deserves either.
Some of the most enjoyable conversations I’ve had the privilege to be part of the last few years have taken place here at All Saints, as part of the Men’s book group. It’s just one of several opportunities around the Parish (including a women’s book group!) for folks to talk about faith and life, and I highly recommend you get involved in one of them. This question about justice is at the heart of “Crime and Punishment”. The central figure of the story is Raskolnikov, a young law student, and one of the most striking things about the book is the way we are drawn to identify with this character. Raskolnikov is full of the idealism of youth, but short on the money he needs to finish his studies. He’s managed to get himself into debt to a pawnbroker -an old woman he considers a worthless crone. Her only desire is to get money out of her borrowers so she can die wealthy and leave everything to a monastery where the monks will pray for her soul. And there’s the justice question again: “Where’s the justice in that?”. So Raskolnikov decides he’s going to take matters into his own hands. He has come to believe that certain people (such as himself) are superior. They have the right to commit crimes – even murder if necessary – for the greater good. So he comes up with a scheme to set things right. He’ll kill the old woman, take her money and use it to further his studies and go on to make the world a better place. (This is where the reader starts to feel distinctly uncomfortable – because we’re identifying with this guy, and he’s about to murder a defenceless old woman!). But according to Raskolnikov, it’s in the interests of justice!
We might say that he stands with the laborers who were hired first in today’s Gospel story. “What’s up with this?” they say. “These people weren’t here all day, working in the hot sun! How could this possibly be just?”
We know that we are called to stand up to injustice. I don’t think Jesus is saying that we should just accept it. He is not saying that we should just accept it when women are paid less for doing the same work as men, or when the poor suffer disproportionately from the effects of natural disasters, or when according to a 2014 study, almost one-third of Brookline residents are economically insecure Where’s the justice in that?
So what’s up with this parable of the laborers in the vineyard? What is Jesus trying to tell us about justice? I think we get a really good hint from Dostoevsky in “Crime and Punishment.” Because our crazy young man, Raskolnikov, actually does follow through on his plan to kill the old woman and take her money. He even kills her handicapped sister who just happens to get in the way. But, although he takes her money, he doesn’t actually follow through on using it for good as he had planned -because deep down he really knows how dreadful – how despicable his act really was.
And here’s where Dostoevsky comes up with a twist in the story that illustrates how God’s justice works so much differently than ours.
At this point I have to say that there are many ways to interpret this amazing novel, but I’ve just latched on to one. And many colorful and interesting characters…. I don’t have time to describe to you this morning, but several of them show compassion to this young man even in the face of rejection, and even once they know about his evil deed.
So here’s the twist: There’s a young woman he gets to know. Sonya is her name – and Sonya’s father is a drunk – a colorful character, but he drank his family’s livelihood away, and left them destitute. Sonya’s solution for the family’s problem is to “get up, put on her kerchief and pelisse (a pelisse is a beautiful fur-lined coat), and go out. And sometime after 8 she came back with 30 silver roubles” (And that’s a lot of money) So Sonya has become a prostitute so that her sick mother and her younger brothers and sisters can live.
And perhaps because she is shunned by the world, Raskolnikov feels he can confide in her. Ironically, even though she’s living the life of a prostitute, theirs is a completely chaste relationship. Raskolnikov still clings to the idea that the deed he has done was all for the good. But he is tormented by what he has done. He confesses his crime to Sonya, and she convinces him to go to the police detective (who has suspected him for some time by this point) and to tell him everything.
And off Raskolnikov goes to Siberia, to serve his punishment – 8 years of penal servitude. But he doesn’t go alone. Sonya, who has loved him constantly and sacrificially throughout this ordeal, loves him still, and follows him to Siberia to be with him there.
So here we have young man whose rational world view leads him to commit a grotesque, horrible crime. He wants to correct a perceived injustice – this pawnbroker is a blot – a stain on society, and the idea is that by eliminating her he can make the world a better place. But through a series of events that grows to a climax, eventually he comes to realize the enormity of his crime, confesses — and then finally, at the very end, he begins his long journey to redemption.
So now, the more I think about this, the more I am struck by the image in the parable, of the laborers coming in from the vineyard, dusty and sweaty after working all day in the scorching heat. They haven’t done anything wrong – they didn’t murder anybody to try to obtain justice – they just worked a full shift, and they’re only looking for fairness. They have a right to their wages.
But in God’s kingdom, the laborers who just showed up at the end of the day also have that right.
And all the generous and loving characters in “Crime and Punishment”, who suffer immense hardship themselves, but shower kindness on this young student, Raskolnikov, have a claim on the grace of God. And somehow, in God’s kingdom, so does Raskolnikov, the criminal—the one who comes late, and very reluctantly—nevertheless, he too receives a share of grace in God’s kingdom.
And so do we. Because the grace of God, as the parable today points out, does not depend on the things we do to earn it. It only depends on us coming to him, confessing everything, and being welcomed to his table.
So whatever crazy directions your life has taken – whatever it is that you have weighing on you: welcome! Eat the manna, drink the wine, and accept the grace of God, freely given, whether you come early or late.