Sermon: Proper 21 RCL A – “That’s not fair!”

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Photo by Ray Fragapane on Unsplash

R. C. Sproul, he died in 2017, was a Presbyterian theologian. I figure if they can quote C.S. Lewis, we can quote Sproul. He tells the story of when he was a college professor.

At the start of the semester, the class of about one hundred and fifty students had three papers due, equally spaced through the semester. The penalty for a late paper was a zero grade.

When the first paper was due, one hundred and forty students strolled in and put their papers on his desk. Sproul asked the ten students whose papers were late, “Where are your papers?”

“Oh, Professor Sproul,” they pleaded, “we have had so much work, and we are having such a hard time adjusting to college. Please give us an extension.”

“Okay,” said Dr. Sproul, “but the next time your papers are late, you will receive a zero grade. Agreed?”

“Yes,” they all replied.

When the second paper was due, one hundred and twenty five students arrived and put their papers on his desk. Sproul asked the twenty five students whose papers were late, “Where are your papers?”

“Oh, Professor Sproul, we had mid-terms, and we just did not get time to write the papers. Please give us an extension.”

“Okay,” said Dr. Sproul, “but this is your final warning. The next time your papers are late, you will receive a zero grade. Understand?”

“Yes,” they all replied.

During the last class, the final paper was due and only one hundred students put their papers on his desk. Sproul asked the fifty students whose papers were late, “Where are your papers?”

“Oh, Professor Sproul, it’s not a problem! Don’t worry about it! We’ll get the paper to you in a day or two!”

“Each of you will get a one letter grade reduction!” said Dr. Sproul.

Enraged, the students shouted, “That’s not fair!”

“Oh, you want me to be fair!” said Sproul, “I will be fair. I said that if your papers were not on my desk by noon today, you would receive a zero grade. Since they are not here, I will be fair and just, and you will receive a zero grade.”

I have shared with you in the past Portia’s monologue from William Shakespeare’s, Merchant of Venice: “The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.” Portia speaks of how mercy blesses both the giver and the receiver, that it can be used by kings to show love, and that “It is an attribute of God Himself.” She concludes, “And earthly power doth then show likest God’s, when mercy seasons justice.”

With those students, the full enforcement of justice, would have been to give the zeros from the beginning, but mercy was something that Professor Sproul fully understood, even when the students failed to turn in their papers the third time, for where he could have given them the promised zero, he applied justice—lowering the grade—seasoned with mercy—only lowering it one letter. Justice was the full application of the rule: no work, zero grade, which Sproul was within his rights to give: his class, his rules. Yet he chose to show mercy. However, when he did not extend to them 100% mercy, when there were consequences for failure to abide by the rules, the students shouted, “That’s not fair!”

These days, we have come to understand fair in the same manner as those students: fair means we can bend the rules to our liking, so that even though I may have failed, I will be accepted and even rewarded. However, that’s not how fair is defined. Merriam-Webster Dictionary: “fair — marked by impartiality and honesty : free from self-interest, prejudice, or favoritism : conforming with the established rules.” Fair is not the bending or negating of rules to benefit every infraction. Fair… are you ready for this… fair is the application of justice. No deviation from the rules, so when the students cried out, “That’s not fair!”, Sproul responded, “Oh, you want me to be fair!” They didn’t know what the word really meant, but Sproul did and was 100% fair by applying justice minus the mercy he had been showing. No paper, zero grade. “And earthly power doth then show likest God’s, when mercy seasons justice.” But there does come a time when fairness… justice will be applied without mercy, and that is the point Jesus was making today in our Gospel and it made the people very angry. How did that work? It begins with our reading from Ezekiel.

The Lord said, “When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die.” That is God’s fairness. His justice. He says, “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone,” but his justice is such that there is no deviation.

Is there mercy? Of course there is mercy. Basically the entirety of the Old Testament is the telling and retelling of the same story. The people walked with God. The people sinned against God. God may have punished the people, but he didn’t wipe them out, except the one time in the flood. God sent a judge or prophet to tell the people, “You’re sinning in the eyes of the Lord.” The people heard the words of the prophet, repented, returned to the Lord. For his part, the Lord showed mercy and gave them his love and protection once again. What happened next? Rinse and repeat. It was the same with John the Baptist.

When Jesus arrived, the religious leaders came to him and asked by whose authority he was saying and doing these things. Jesus asked them about the baptism of John, but this was just a way of saying to them, here’s another example of the Father calling on you to turn and you ignored Him once again.

But now Jesus comes on the scene and tells the people, the Father is about to apply his justice. In the parable of the two sons, Jesus reminds the people of what the Lord’s justice is all about and they even agree that it is correct: the first son said he would not go into the fields and work (he would be disobedient to the Father), but he repented and went to work. The second son said he would go (he would be obedient to the Father), but he did not. He knew the Father’s desire, but he ignored it. Jesus concludes, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

The Lord, through John, called you to repentance, and the first son—the one who disobeyed at first—the tax collectors and sinners, heard the call to repent. What did the Lord say through the prophet Ezekiel? “When the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life.” Yet, the second son—the one who said he would obey, but did not—the one who agreed to obey but failed to repent and continued in sin: “When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it.”

Jesus is saying, “You know the rules. You’ve been warned. God has shown you mercy… time and time again, but now, He is going to apply fairness, a 100% application of justice.” How do the people respond? “That’s not fair!” Yet: God’s house. God’s rules.

He loves us. He wants us to repent. He does not want us to die. But he is going to apply the fullness of his justice to all. Is it any wonder that Paul says to us, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

We are called to be like the first son. Repent and return, but there is a problem with that, like the Israelites, we will fall away, and like the Israelites, we are no better off than we were when we were still tax collectors and prostitutes. God the Father will apply 100% of his justice to us and we will die. Something else is needed. “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Where there is a 100% application of justice, we need a 100% application of mercy. Where do we find this mercy? “For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him.  For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”

The Lord will apply 100% of his justice to us all and for those who believe in his Son, the Lord will apply 100% of his mercy. That’s not fair… no. That’s love.

Let us pray: O My Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell and lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who are in most need of Thy mercy. Amen.

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