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A New Perspective on Suffering and Injustice (sermon)

September 16, 2011

Texts: Exodus 16: 2-15, Philippians 1: 21-30, Matthew 20: 1-16

There were some people who lived under the shadow of the greatest superpower of the world, it was their version of the developed world with the latest technology, and there was plenty of food to eat. But they were slaves in this world. And the work was getting harder by the day. They were enslaved to the progress of the empire.

They would have been lost and forgotten to history, but for the fact that someone called Moses came along and they were led to believe that God had different ideas, so they left that world to form a different community and now find themselves suffering and hungry. At least that’s one way of reading the story.

Their big ideas seem a little shakey when their bellies are empty and they don’t know what the future holds. Now they’re not so sure about this God who wants something different. It’s hard to have faith when your stomach is rumbling and the future looks uncertain.

Looking back the life of slavery doesn’t seem so bad after all. How is God fair, taking them away from their comfortable world and giving them hunger and suffering and an uncertain future? That’s hardly just. Surely justice is when those who do what is right get good outcomes, right?

In the wilderness, the story continues, God does provide them with food. They do get what they need to be the people God is calling them to be. In the end the resources are there. They certainly don’t have all they want, they certainly don’t have the security of being in control of the process and knowing where it is going and knowing it will be a comfortable life. In fact they are caught in the middle of a process that they don’t understand. What God provides is what they need for their journey. At least that’s one way of reading it.

When I was a kid we were told this story of the Israelites grumbling in the wilderness often. And, if I recall correctly, the moral of the story was simple. “Don’t complain or you won’t get any pudding”. And it is true as you get older, you realize who much easier it is to get on with those who put on a brave face and look on the bright side… who never complain and how depressing it can be around those who are always complaining. The flip side of this is the tyranny of niceness. People who feel they have to be stoically positive about everything… therein lies the way to madness. And I don’t think the Bible has an interest in either of those ends of the spectrum. But it does tell us a story about suffering… and about complaining.

So does our gospel reading. It’s the story of the workers who are looking for work. Some come at the beginning of the day and work hard all day and get the same pay as those who are hired at the end of the day. It just doesn’t seem fair, certainly those who have worked all day are annoyed. If they’d known they would have arrived at the last minute. This is not justice. It doesn’t make sense. God seems random. There is no relationship between work done and reward. The kingdom of heaven, the story suggests, is like a place of work where everyone gets what they need, regardless of what they do, where there is no comparison and no competition, where there is no incentive to work harder. What purports to be a wage, is effectively a gift…sure they all do some work, but the relation between the work and its reward is not like a wage at all. In the end God provides what each person needs, even though they don’t understand the logic of it. The kingdom of heaven is like a gift and gifts are not fair, gifts are gifts.

Two stories: The travelers in the wilderness who have followed what they believe is God’s guidance towards becoming a new people are not happy because they are suffering, and the workers in the vineyard who have worked all day are not happy, because someone else seems to be happy when they should be suffering (or at least less happy).

I wonder if you find yourself unhappy… because things have not gone right in your life and you don’t see the big picture. How can you? All you see is injustice. Or perhaps you feel unhappy because you haven’t gotten what you deserve out of life. Or people you love haven’t gotten what they deserve out of life, perhaps they died young. Or perhaps you look at those who earn millions for merely becoming celebrities or who have made it to the top through some accident of circumstance and you ask yourself, how can the world be like this, if there is a God?

Life is not fair, as far as we can tell. Everybody is not equal. So how can there be a God?

It’s interesting to place these experiences of injustice, inequality alongside the witness of Paul writing to Christian’s in Philippi. Paul is suffering in prison and his readers are also suffering because of their faith. Paul concludes, for “he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well”… ‘the privilege of suffering’!

I don’t want to use Paul as a way of telling us not to complain: Suck it in and look on the bright side! As I suggested before, that way lies madness. However, as I have reflected on this I think there is something to be learned by contrasting Paul’s thoughts on “suffering as privilege”, with the complaining of the Israelites and the Early Bird Workers. For both the Israelites and the Early Birds God is on trial in a particular way.

It’s a bit like us, when we look at the world and all its injustice and also the examples of injustice in our own life… and no matter from what angle we look at it, it seems unfair, so we decide against God, whether in theory or in practice, we stop trusting God. And from that perspective it is an eminently reasonable decision.

What strikes me is that Paul’s faith in God comes from a different place. His trust in God is not the result of an assessment of the state of the world. He believes in God for other reasons.

You see Paul’s belief in God, Paul’s christian belief in God, came from a moment of encounter, when ‘he saw the light’ (in several senses) on the road to Damascas. And the light said to him ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting’…. So Paul was doing his religious duty, making the world a better place, getting rid of dangerous sectarian groups. And the voice of God interrupted him. And it didn’t try to persuade him that the world wasn’t so unjust after all, instead it said to him, ‘YOU are part of the injustice of the world’. God said to Paul, I am YOUR victim. I am the victim of your religiousness. I am the victim of your selfishness. I have lived on the receiving end of the injustice of the world, died on the receiving end of the world’s injustice. I have not simply wiped out that injustice, I have suffered it… What’s more as one of the victims alongside all your victims I am not even now getting my revenge. I am not seeking justice in the sense of revenge. I am coming to you, to give you a part to play not in the justice of revenge, but in the justice of reconciliation!… If my life was a gift, my resurrection is the same gift given to the universe… but given specifically to you who need to know that you are not merely victims of an unjust world, but victimizers also.

The truth is not nice, you might say, but it is a gift. It sets us free. The gift given sets us free from any sense of self-righteousness, from any easy place to put God on trial. It also sets us free to share in God’s solution to the injustice of the world. Sure the world is unjust. But Paul’s God does not sit back and leave it to it destruction, nor does he come in with a big stick. He comes back with another gift. The same gift given again. Jesus (the risen Jesus) is the gift of forgiveness. The one who comes to those who arrive late and those who work all day, and has the same word for them both. “You too can live in this gift”.

What strikes me is the difference it makes for Paul, facing suffering in his life, if his belief and trust in God comes from this place, rather than from some supposedly ‘objective’ survey of world history. The reasonable response to one stance is atheism, the reasonable response to the other is Christian witness. I struggle to see other options.

To conclude let’s listen to Paul’s comments on suffering later in his letter to the Philippian Christians:

“I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes the faithfulness of Christ, the righteousness from God, based on his fidelity. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead”

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Pam permalink
    October 6, 2011 6:55 am

    When I think of suffering and what it all means I go to the book of Job. We all know it’s a story about lived human experience, a God who seems to be more concerned with a bet with Satan, and ‘friends’ who are supposed to be comforters but who inform Job that he must have done something evil to deserve this sort of punishment. There’s no explanation for us in this book, just the reality of evil – learn to live with it and don’t try to explain it. And all this, when all you cry out for is ‘explanation’ and ‘justice’. Cold comfort. But I think it’s all about humility and knowing our place. I couldn’t have journeyed to that last sentence without the help of the God who made the bet with Satan.

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