What we deserve
by Susan K. Olson
When I was a girl, I felt that I had been gravely wronged in the cut-throat competitive world of Girl Scout cookie sales. I have never been good at sales, and if there was an omen, it was Girl Scout cookies.
I typically sold about a dozen boxes a year—mostly to my mom. This was fine with me. I had no aspirations of cookie sales grandeur. But the year that I was a 5th grade Junior Girl Scout, my beloved but perhaps overenthusiastic leader got it in her head that each of the girls in my troop would earn the patch for selling 50 boxes of cookies. I knew better than to ask my mom to buy 50 boxes of cookies. So I went out, door to door (allowed in those days), uphill both ways in the rain, sleet, hail and snow. It was grueling. But I did it.
The minute I sold box number 50, I put away my sash and beret and counted myself retired.
I was proud, though, of my work. I knew that I’d had to work really hard to sell those cookies. We were new to the town; there were no tried and true customers to call on. I had to rely on cold calls to make my sales. Frankly, I was impressed with myself.
Another girl in my troop, Patti, had a different method.
While I was out trudging in the snow and hail, she was home watching Gilligan’s Island on the sofa. But the day before the order form was due, while I was resting on my cold call laurels, she was getting together her clipboard and pens. Her mother worked at the local liberal arts college. Patti spent one hour in front of the college cafeteria and sold 200 boxes without breaking a sweat, without even having to put on galoshes.
I was fine, though, really I was. For in my heart of hearts, I knew that on the big Girl Scout awards ceremony day, I would reign victorious as the hardest-working cookie seller in the world, or at least in my troop.
You can imagine my disappointment when I got the same purple and green patch that Patti did. I sputtered. I choked back tears. “It’s not fair!” I howled inside.
But the truth is, it was perfectly fair, because fair is what you get when you get what you deserve.
And what I deserved was a purple and green patch with the number 50 embroidered on it.
But I wanted so much more than what was fair.
I wish I could say that this moment of youthful pridefulness was a one-time thing for me, but it wasn’t. I don’t think I’m alone in that.
There are times when all of us wrestle with the green-eyed monster. There are moments when all of us feel undervalued, unnoticed, jealous of God’s generosity to others, wistful when it comes to others’ talents and gifts.
There are times, for all of us, when it seems like we’re not getting what we deserve.
Some of us are born with talents that we did nothing to earn—a glorious voice, for example, or a swift mind or a green thumb. Even untended, these talents might garner us extra attention, opportunity or favor. And even those of us with these special gifts (and really don’t we all have at least one?) find ourselves pining after the gifts that others have. Sometimes we even put in extra time and effort to try to gain a gift or skill. I had a friend who worked harder than everyone at acting. She took classes upon classes and planned her auditions carefully. Every year, though, she watched in dismay as the naturally talented but under-prepared thespians walked off with the parts she had worked so hard on. “It’s not fair!” she’d cry, forgetting, perhaps, her own formidable athletic prowess—a gift many of us coveted.
In the classrooms where I used to teach, “it’s not fair” was a bit of a battle cry. It didn’t matter what the situation was: juice at a birthday party, the coveted spot in the front of the line, the lead in the play, the captainship of the team, the honor roll spot—no matter who got the spot, at least one other child found it to be not fair. And not fair usually was code for “not my way.” It’s easy to get annoyed when children act like this—until we remember how we teachers felt (and sometimes acted) when one teacher got the beautiful room at the end of the hall, and another got tenure a little early. It wasn’t fair, we thought. It wasn’t fair.
Fair is what we get
Matthew’s parable of the vineyard (Matthew 20:1–16) has a bit to say about fairness.
In Matthew’s parable, we celebrate with the landowner who had such a big harvest that he kept going into town to collect more workers. We can imagine the joy of the last-hired workers when they are surprised with some labor at the very end of the day. The language is so vivid that we can just imagine the buzz that must have been created when those last hired workers received a full day’s wage. The line of earlier hired employees must have been vibrating with excitement, imagining the riches that surely awaited those that had worked longer, harder, their necks burnt from the harsh sun. That hope turns to entitlement when they realize they are getting no more than the last hired workers got. That single denarius that looked so good at 6 a.m. is no longer sufficient. It seems stingy, paltry.
But the landowner tells them that it is his money, and he can be as generous as he wants. He has paid them, he reminds them, what he promised. He has been fair.
Because fair is what you get when you get what you deserve.
It may be that this story was meant to give us a little glimpse of the kingdom of heaven. The earliest listeners wanted to know if there was a spot in the kingdom for them. We ask the same questions: What about me? If I am a faithful Christian, a dedicated church member—penny in the plate and casserole at the potluck—is there a spot for me in that great kingdom of heaven? The parable is unequivocal. There is a spot for us.
But the other certainty in the parable is this: there is a spot for all the others, too. There is a spot for those who didn’t hear the story until 5 p.m., for those that did just a part of a day’s work, for those that sold all their cookies on the last day. They have a reservation, too. And, in fact, they have the same exact ticket.
For God’s pay scale is one that is made of complete grace and unconditional love. It is a scale that is born not out of fairness, but out of grace. In essence, God is not fair…because fair is what you get when you get what you deserve, but grace is what you get when you get what you don’t deserve.
Susan K. Olson is the assistant dean of students at Yale Divinity School. She is ordained in the Presbyterian Church, USA.
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