Our Just Desserts
by Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Luke 6: 17-26
If there is a refrain that describes the last few years, it is “It’s not fair!” There was a time when we as a society thought that complaints that things were not fair was unbecoming. Even when things really were clearly not fair, in matters such as poverty, racism, and oppression, advocates and victims would be careful to avoid the phrase “It’s not fair.” When we hear it, we all think of a child upset that she is not getting her way. And when we hear it in our own heads, as we often do when we ourselves don’t get our own way, I think most of us view it as a warning sign that we’re starting to cross over into whining—that we need to stop for a minute and think, and maybe get some perspective. Most well-intentioned people do this, I think. When the phrase “It’s not fair” enters our heads, we step back a minute and remember our parents telling us when we didn’t want to eat our broccoli to remember the poor starving children in whatever country it was fashionable to say was starving at the time. There are things that happen to all of us that are unfair, but most of us have some perspective: however bad we have it, it’s true there is someone who is worse off. Probably a whole lot of people.
From a Christian perspective, fairness is a pretty troubling standard to judge by. It’s troubling at two levels. In the first place, a type of fairness matters a great deal in the Bible. It is the basis for how we live together as a community in covenant relationship with each other and with God. It’s a way of living together that is embodied in two of our most important social principles: “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “Whatever is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor,” Rabbi Hillel is said to have taught. This, he said, is the whole of the Torah, the Jewish Law; the rest is commentary. For Moses, for the Rabbis, and for Jesus, there was an ultimate standard of fairness to which we must all adhere: don’t do something to someone else that you would hate to have done to you. This is a standard of fairness that is hard but is also practical: It is within human power. We can do this.
But at another level, fairness is troubling because, simply put, life isn’t fair. Even if the playing field is level between human and human—which it never is—life hands us distinctive and unique challenges. Some of those challenges enable some folks to get ahead. Others hold them back. Two people might make the same mistake and one might get little negative response, and another might be completely overwhelmed by negative response. One person may suffer many tragedies or illnesses, and another live a life comparatively free tragedy and suffering.
So yes, it is true, life isn’t fair and never will be. Which is another key reason that we are called to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Because though we may not suffer the same life troubles as someone else, the only way we can truly love and support them is to imagine what we’d need, and what we most definitely would not need, if we were in their same shoes, and try our best to do for them what we’d want done for ourselves. In many ways the Golden Rule is a call for us to become uncomfortable for the sake of a brother or sister in need—to imagine what it must be like to be them, to enter into their fear, grief, and frustration, and to make a sacrifice of some sort in order to provide for them in their time of need.
And of course, there is a third level, a deeper spiritual level, at which for us as Christians fairness is paradoxical. It is because, as C. S. Lewis often put it, if life was truly fair, we’d all be in trouble. Because in the final analysis, try though we might, we will fail at being as loving as we need to be; we will fail at being as perfect as we need to be; and we will fail at being as godly as we need to be. It is the problem of sin, this barrier that separates us from God, that keeps us from becoming what God’s best intention is for all of us; this barrier that separates us from each other, and ultimately keeps us from living into the covenant relationship with the world that God intends for us. As Paul says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” but then he adds, “they are now therefore justified by grace as a gift…”(Romans 3: 23-4). And so Paul says there is unfairness at the very core of the universe—but it is unfairness balanced in our favor. The name for this blessed unfairness is the grace of God, God’s unmerited favor, God’s deliberate overbalancing of the scales in our favor, God’s overbearing, almost foolish love for us flawed human beings, that truly governs the universe and dictates how things happen. So yes, life is unfair, and thank goodness that it is. It is unfair in our favor, because God loves us so completely and so immeasurably that God promises us a blessed life for all eternity in God’s loving presence.
All this about unfairness and about God’s abounding grace is helpful if we want to understand what Jesus is telling us in our Gospel passage for today. This is what is known as the Sermon on the Plain, Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. But Jesus in Luke preaches a sermon that is far more direct in some ways than the way we hear that sermon in Matthew. For instance, in Matthew the first Beatitude reads, “Blessed are the poor IN SPIRIT, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” The poor in spirit are those who understand themselves, as we all should, to be absolutely dependent on God.
But in the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus straight up says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.” Jesus pointing to those who are concretely, in this world, materially poor, lacking in basic needs; and he’s pointing to the overbalancing grace of God to say that those who are poor here will certainly be the wealthiest in the Kingdom of God. The unfairness of the world as it is to the poor will be overbalanced in their favor by the grace of God in the world to come.
But then Jesus complicates it by adding, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.” The complex, overbalancing fairness of God will do the opposite for the rich as has been done for the poor. If you are rich now, you have received your consolation: that means that all the good stuff you’ve acquired in this life is all the good stuff you are going to get. Don’t expect that for dessert, you also get riches in the Kingdom of God. If you are dependent for your spiritual happiness on material wealth, then that’s what you will get. And it’s too bad, because the material is temporary but the spiritual is eternal.
At this point, I think we’re all a bit uncomfortable. In the first place, we like to think of Jesus as having a pleasant message for everybody. And in the second place, we most certainly think that Jesus has a pleasant message for me personally! So maybe we’re looking around the room thinking Jesus is here talking about some other rich person and certainly not me, because I’m not rich!
Well, bad news folks—if you are sitting in these pews at this church in this town, in this state, and in this country, you are probably one of the richest people in the world. According to the Credit Suisse Wealth Pyramid, 97% of all the world’s wealth is in the hands of 30% of the world’s adults. That, my friends, includes us. We may not be rich by the standards of our neighbors, but we are by the standards of the world. In my research for this sermon, for instance, I discovered much to my personal discomfort that though I think my two-income family lives in moderate but comfortable means, according to theTexas Demographic Statistical Atlas the Ritsch family in the top 5-6% in income in Tarrant County. About 40% of Tarrant County is struggling to make it at $30,000 and under. The official poverty rate is about $25,000 for a family of four. So a huge percentage of Tarrant County is living at the official poverty rate. Is that fair?
What are we to do about this? Maybe the first thing to do is stop complaining that life is unfair and start to hope that God is unfair. Let us trust in the unmerited grace of God rather than our material means. We live better than we think we do, and certainly better than many of our neighbors. I’m not saying we don’t have troubles, but we do well to keep them in perspective. But in the meantime, Jesus’ warnings about wealth and injustice need to be taken seriously, and those of us who seem to be on the winning side of the wealth equation would do well to humble ourselves and throw ourselves on the mercy of God. We need to trust in the grace of God, God’s willingness to forgive us, to accept us, and to love us; God’s unmerited favor that promises us life in the world to come through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That grace will certainly save us.
But there is still more needed.
Part of the balancing act of grace is our humble acceptance, that as we have been saved by the unmerited love of God, so likewise we need to do to others what has been done for us. Love our neighbors as ourselves. God has shown us mercy through God’s love in Jesus Christ. Yay, God! Now in humility we need in some way to pay that forward—to give to others as we have received. There needs to be serious thought put to the problem of financial inequity in our county and in our country. There needs to be fairness in a system that is stacked against the needy, the very people Jesus calls us to be fair to. Those of us who are in a good financial place are key advocates and allies to get this done. Those of us blessed with privilege have voice and power, and that is one vital way we can turn our privilege to the purposes of God. Let me suggest a few ways to do that.
First: Get informed. Let’s stay with Fort Worth and Tarrant County. About 4700 Fort Worth households receive HUD housing vouchers. In other words, they are receiving an income that is poverty level and could not afford to live in housing in Fort Worth without federal help. This is not people loafing around living on the government dole. Most of these folks have paying jobs—they just don’t pay enough. Many city employees, for instance, make less than $10 an hour. That’s $20,400 a year–$4000 beneath the poverty rate for a family of four. If that’s a single-parent family, they’re on housing vouchers.
Infant Mortality. For years Tarrant County had the highest infant mortality rate in the state. It was as high as some Third World countries. In 2006, it was 8.3 percent. By 2015 it had dropped to 6.17%. That’s good news, but a 2016 report in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology demonstrated, shockingly, thatTexas had the highest infant mortality rate in the developed world. This raises a lot of questions, that we as people of faith need to put very specifically to the Texas Legislature and to our local governments. Tarrant’s ability to lower the infant mortality rate took two decades of concentrated effort by an interdisciplinary team. It seems the same thing has to happen at a state level. And we are in a position to advocate for the changes that need to happen.
Children’s Poverty. More than 113,000 children in Tarrant County live in poverty.7000 of them will experience homelessness this year. 48% of children born in poverty enter Kindergarten unprepared and are therefore three times more likely to drop out of school than children not born in poverty. If we’re going to talk about what’s fair and what’s not fair, what’s fair about children living in poverty and homelessness?
Getting informed is first. Getting involved is second. Do your research. Right now, for instance, the Center for Transforming Lives—they used to be the YWCA—is doing innovative and important work to address women’s and children’s poverty in Tarrant County. And of course we have our traditional means of reaching those in need, including the Presbyterian Night Shelter and DRC. But poverty is a much bigger issue than homelessness. It is at the core of so many social ills. One very important place to start is simply to learn information, and having learned it, get to contacting your state or congressional legislator or your city council person or your county commissioner. Emails, phone calls, letters, and especially meetings with you, with us and people like us, make a lot more impact on them than hearing from those in need. I hate to say it, but people in need frankly are not considered politically consequential. But if you are in these pews, I assure you that your council person and state rep believe you are politically consequential. You may not think you make a difference—but if handful of people from this church contacted state senator Beverly Powell about the same issue, it would definitely get her attention. That is the power you have simply because you have means that others do not. So let’s use that power for good.
Christian activist Jim Wallis, founder of the Sojourners Community in Washington, DC, once commented that for years in dealing with poverty, he’d felt like a man standing on the shore seeing someone drowning and throwing a life preserver to save her; but once he pulled her in, there was another and another until finally he decided he needed to go around to the other side of the lake and see who was pushing them off the dock. That’s the situation we are in. It is good and well to reach out a helping hand when someone is drowning, but the larger issue is what our society does to push people off the dock in the first place. We here in this church, we may not be wealthy, but we do have more than so many. And that gives us a vote and that gives us a voice and that gives us influence. Changes need to be made at policy levels, and our material and economic circumstance puts us in a unique position to push those changes forward to better our community and to further the glory of God. This doesn’t cost us much of anything—and even if it did, what is that compared to the grace that God has shown us?
You and I have been granted material security that is alien to other people. Let us turn the blessings we’ve received in this life into blessings that we shower onto others, out of gratitude for the grace of God granted to us all.