Back when I was a youngster in the Age of Aquarius, to use the name of a song that certainly dates me, the question that we all had for one another was, “What’s your sign?” Were you a Scorpio or Capricorn or some other astrological symbol? People were quite serious about it. I know a few individuals who put their Zodiac sign on their job résumés, and they were not looking at openings on the psychic hotline; they were looking for jobs as accountants.
These days the question has changed. Now it is more likely to be, “What’s your number?” and we are just as serious. And by that question, we mean what would your net worth have to be in order to chuck the job and retire? The question became commonplace in the boom times of the 1990s, when smart, or more likely, lucky, people were making killings in tech stocks or as brokers trading them, and some of them would cash out and buy a vineyard in California or an organic farm in New York State. Today, with the new reality of a stuck economy, people are asking if they are going to have to work until they die, if their number will forever be unattainable.
I was not a techie guru in the ‘90s, but I have to admit that I do sometimes wonder what my number might be. In an age when we have computer spreadsheets and Internet sites both easily accessible, my “number” is easy to compute. All I have to do is figure out a rate of return and what I would want to live on, and my goal becomes clear. On those days when life or the job seems not so fair, I make the calculation.
But here is the insidious part. Every time I have calculated my number, it has been based on an amount sufficient to give me a yearly income somewhat above what I am currently earning. That tells me that one of two things: either I am extremely happy with my work and would not think of actually giving it up, or I always want more than I now have. Given human nature, it is more likely the latter; we always want more.
You might say that you don’t recognize yourself as someone who asks this question. If so, remember the following: at the same time all those California techies were talking about their number, everyone else in America began clamoring for lotteries and legalized gambling. I think that their introduction was not coincidental with the rise of the “What’s your number” question. How many of us have pondered on how our lives would change if we won the lottery? I have yet to hear a person who says that he would turn everything over to charity immediately. We all have our number and we take it seriously, much more seriously than we did those Zodiac signs.
That number, whatever it is, is a sign of enslavement, like someone being enslaved to his horoscope. We judge ourselves by how much we own, or how successful our career is, or how fulfilling our relationships are by commonly held standards. If we get more than our share, we frequently used the words “blessed” or “lucky”, and if we get less than our share, we say that life is unfair.
Into this human situation comes Jesus in today’s gospel lesson, when a man requests his fair share of an estate. He wants what is due him, and we would say that he probably has a point. Who has not been in a family when someone dies and it is time to split up the estate? People’s deepest feelings come out. The hurts they have suffered from siblings, the time they have spent taking care of parents, the feeling that someone else already has all that he needs—all those emotions rise to the surface. The situation demands fairness.
What the man asks for is a proper accounting, and Jesus’ response is to refuse his request. Jesus refuses to help the man get what is his, to get a start on achieving his number, because Jesus is trying to tell his listeners that God is not in the fairness game. It is a very difficult lesson for us religious people to hear.
As far as today’s gospel is concerned, the easy way out for 99% of Christians is to say that the story is primarily about the evils of being rich. After all, it is only perhaps about 1% of the people who are really wealthy, so the rest of us can safely talk about them, just like the vast majority of Christians can talk about murderers with a sense of smugness. But let me remind you that middle class, even poor, people have our number as well.
Take today’s gospel lesson, with Jesus’ unwillingness to be judge and his parable on the astute man being a fool for saving (along with the reading from Ecclesiastes about toiling hard only to face death), and any talk about fairness needs to be set aside. The reason is that when we start talking about fairness, we start making lists, and if there is anything that Jesus tries to break us from, it is that mental image we have of God making a list of our rights and wrongs, calculating our net worth, so to speak, and thus deciding our destiny. McMansion or shotgun shack? Heaven or hell? Instead, God is about grace, about gift, and I have to remind you that God, or ultimate goodness, or unconditional love, will not be made evident in a world that is acutely fair. The cross raised outside Jerusalem, where unconditional love was made so evident, was far from a fair experience.
For those of you who had brothers or sisters, did you ever have a parent give a gift to one child and then turn around and give an equivalent gift to the other? Or how about your own children? You know such tokens aren’t freely given gifts; they are more often than not attempts to make everything fair. Or how about a parent who is mad at one child and disinherits her in the will? What he is really trying to do is balance the books, have one last stab from the grave at fairness. In each of these cases no graciousness comes through.
Jesus is telling his listeners that it is a dangerous thing to utter the words “God” and “fair” in the same breath. It is why the very heartfelt cry of “It’s not fair” amidst the hurts of our lives does not result in God fixing things for us, for it is always going to be impossible, so to speak, to reach the “number” where everything is okay. My continual ratcheting up of what the retirement number would be for me is but one small example.
God does not balance accounts in the world; dyed in the wool bigots have as much a chance to experience the kingdom of heaven as the most virtuous among us, which is hard to hear when we are in church, but ought to be good news when we get tainted by the color of bigotry ourselves.
One of the consistent messages we hear from the Christian testament is that in death and resurrection we are set free. And that is what Jesus is telling us today. Only when we stop being enslaved to whatever numbers game we have set up for ourselves—or set up for others—will we find peace. That is why he refuses to help the man who asks for fairness. The money will not bring peace, but realizing he does not need the money just might do the trick. Jesus won’t play by our rules because those rules obscure unconditional love, and such love is never limited by fairness.
Unconditional love will step in to the unfairest of situations and give itself again and again. It is why prostitutes and thieves can enter the kingdom ahead of the most religious. Unconditional love goes where supposedly fair minded, just, virtuous people will not tread. God’s love breaks the patterns of the world.
We all have our numbers—all of us business owners and day laborers and pious sin-counting churchgoers—and as long as we chase them, we will be oblivious to the kingdom in our midst. It is when we start becoming more than fair, more than equitable that the kingdom begins to creep in. Then our assets and virtues become less important, and a very unfair unconditional love becomes what we cherish and indeed want to share with others. Now there is something we can get serious about, and we don’t need to wait until the market leaps or the will is read or we hold the winning ticket or we list our many virtues in order to experience how it can change our lives. Amen.