The Fairness of Death & the Generosity of Easter

The Word of God became flesh and was killed. God should have known better than to try to mess up a neat and tidy social system.

Every society needs an orderly system in which everyone knows her or his proper place. When everyone plays fairly and follows the rules, the whole thing runs smoothly. If you choose an unseemly profession, like being a tax collector or a prostitute, you shouldn’t expect to socialize with polite company; it’s only fair. If you squander your savings on wild parties, don’t expect any help from your family and neighbors; it’s only fair. If your anger about profit margins boils over and you cause a scene at the local IRS office, expect to be arrested and prosecuted; it’s only fair.

Pastor Rick Warren would apparently agree. In a recent interview, Pastor Warren explained this perfectly sensible worldview in response to President’s Obama’s call to shoulder each others’ burdens:

Well certainly the Bible says we are to care about the poor. There’s over 2,000 verses in the Bible about the poor. And God says that those who care about the poor, God will care about them and God will bless them. But there’s a fundamental question on the meaning of “fairness.” Does fairness mean everybody makes the same amount of money? Or does fairness mean everybody gets the opportunity to make the same amount of money? I do not believe in wealth redistribution, I believe in wealth creation.

As perfectly reasonable as that sounds, there are some problems with it. I’ll mention just two.

The first problem is this: virtually every single parable in the gospels. Take your pick – the parable of the sower, the prodigal son, the pearl of great price, the lost coin, the lost sheep, any of the wedding banquet stories – just pick one. You won’t find anything at all about fairness. But you will find the God of absurd, foolish, and gregarious generosity.

So how about this – let’s create a national economic policy based on Jesus’ parable of the laborers in a vineyard. Each one worked a different number of hours. Each one was paid exactly the same. (Matthew 20:1-16). Why, I wonder, hasn’t Pastor Warren thought of that? Or maybe his Bible doesn’t have that particular chapter in it (as my friend and colleague Susan Russell suggested on her Huffington Post blog).

The second problem is this: God raised Jesus from the dead. Now that’s totally unfair. After all, God is the one who so foolishly chose to plunge into the fleshy pool of human vulnerability; mortality has consequences. And besides, if we can’t expect God to play by the rules, surely chaos would result, and that’s just not fair.

But here’s the thing: God doesn’t care much about fairness. God cares far more about abundance – abundant grace, abundant love, abundant life. Not even death, apparently, can quash divine abundance. And that word – abundance – could surely ease Pastor Warren’s fears about “wealth redistribution.” There really is enough, more than enough, to go around for everyone. As far as I can tell, God has never heard of a zero-sum game.

So if Pastor Warren worries that the Gospel might rob the poor of their dignity (as he intimated in that same interview), he might want to meditate for a bit on the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37); or the one about poor Lazarus begging at the rich man’s gate (Luke 16:19-31); or the story about that uppity foreign woman who taught Jesus a lesson about scraps from the master’s table (Matthew 15-21-28); or the woman with an unending hemorrhage (presumably without any health insurance) whom Jesus healed (Matthew 9:20-22).

That peculiar text called the Bible that Pastor Warren likes to quote also includes something else. To the wealthy, educated, religious elite of his day, Jesus said this: “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31).

Now that’s really unfair…thank God.