Text: Luke 13
So many tried to correct the spelling of our theme this week, ‘Just Deserts’, that I’ve retitled these notes ‘Not Just Desserts’. Today was not about sweets in the last course of a meal. It was not about hot dry places. It was about justice, fairness, due ‘deserts’: ethical, moral, and religious discourse, having to do with merits, entitlements, rewards and punishments.
Elaine opened worship by saying she Googled ‘just deserts’ to disambiguate the theme. I encouraged you to go to YouTube and enter ‘you deserve it’ for a brief video clip from a couple of young comediennes exploring the ‘moral licence’ and ‘free rider’ phenomena I have been noting in Lent. You can view it here.
Prior generations of our church subculture endorsed a ‘just deserts’ worldview. We believed in hard work and fair play, the Protestant work ethic, (worth ethic) assured us that those who worked hard and lived clean would be rewarded. At its worst, it was reduced to ‘no drinking, no dancing, no smoking, no gambling.’
God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world! As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, amen. These days, you can get the ‘prosperity gospel’ from Joel Osteen on TV, with the Prayer of Jabez assuring you that God wants you to prosper in very material ways!
I have rejected ‘just deserts’ loudly, for a long time. Liberation movements appealed to the fundamental equality of each human being, regardless of gender, or race, or other apparent difference. Foucault and deconstruction elaborated on suspicions that rewards really reflected social control, privilege, and power of those born on third base, thinking we’ve hit a home run.
25 years ago, on April 5 1994, ‘Just Desserts’ was a trendy little café in Toronto where affluent couples enjoyed specialty coffee and fancy sweets downtown. When 3 men with guns demanded money, male customers refused their wallets, and a young woman, Vivi Leimonis was shot dead. Police broadcast warnings of suspects as ‘3 black men 6 feet tall.’ The layers of inequity multiplied.
Lady Justice is imagined as a blindfolded woman with a sword and scales, a figure dating to Emperor Augustus in the first century CE. We projected images adding a machine gun and umbrella to the image, to provoke your responses to the question of the day: do we get our just deserts?
Grace is the name for God giving us more positive blessings than we deserve, mercy the word for God giving us fewer in negative outcomes than we deserve. Just Deserts? I say no, thank God! Do I echo the L’Oreal tag line, ‘I‘m worth it’? On the other hand, is God such a misogynist that women are worthier and less materially blessed? Do Africans deserve shorter life expectancy?
If we skip the underlying questions about ‘just deserts’ and material blessings and mortal outcomes, our ‘prosperity gospel’ destroys the earth. We try to be more than God made us, do less good than we can, in ‘moral licence’ and ‘free rider’ behaviour, consuming goods ourselves, and externalizing costs to others. We live in wrong relationship with each other and creation, without respect.
I am derisive of ‘just deserts’. Do we really want everybody in China to have two cars in their garage? Should a rising middle class in South Asia match North American excess until billions more humans match our consumption? Should we all enjoy an extra decade of life expectancy, spent in ICU technology? Sin should not be reduced to ‘no drinking, dancing, smoking, gambling’ – it’s bigger.
The gospel this morning sounded like familiar, vernacular gossip about sensational human interest stories in our tabloids and social media. How about those Galileans, eh? Did you hear what happened to them? Pilate mingled their blood with their sacrifices! What about that disaster, when that tower fell in Siloam, eh? Did you hear what happened to them? Eighteen dead, just like that!
Trying to make sense of those human interest stories as parables and examples, fables and moral tales, has a familiar human ring to me. We try to explain medical conditions as self-inflicted by bad behaviour. We try to justify economic disparity based upon work (worth) ethics. Rather than random crimes by a despotic ruler, or by a profit-maximizing builder, we construe just deserts.
I don’t know if Jesus faced these specific juicy stories, or ones like them, but Luke’s community did, and tried to write what Jesus would have responded, and what we should. ‘Do you think they deserved it, those Galileans, more than others, more than others did? No! They did not deserve it! Neither did the worker at the tower of Siloam. Those spared were not more worthy!
Arbitrary evil, and accident, however predictable and preventable, exacerbated by evil intention or careless negligence, are unjust. They are pointless, futile – and reveal what the victims leave as pride and regrets. But unless you repent, you will all perish as they did, with as little point or purpose, and with as little pride and as many regrets. In any event, in the long run, we all die.
This is reflection on the theme of deserts. Not the sweet ones, or the dry ones, but the moral ones. I still reject specific threats of special providence, of quid pro quo air strikes by God, using evil people and systems to chasten people. Mine is not a micromanaged universe, where God plays dice or manipulates each situation in unilateral abusive power.
The third gospel starts with gossip, than adds a provocative parable:
"There was once a man who had a fig tree growing in his vineyard.
He went looking for figs on it but found none.
So he said to his gardener,
"Look, for three years I have been coming here
looking for figs on this fig tree, and I haven't found any.
Cut it down! Why should it go on using up the soil?'
But the gardener answered,
"Leave it alone, sir, just one more year;
I will dig around it and put in some fertilizer.
Then if the tree bears figs next year,
so much the better;
if not, then you can have it cut down.' "
The fig tree that doesn’t yield gets one more chance, in case fertilizer, care and mercy will matter. Might it matter? Won’t it matter? Is it worth trying? You get to empathize in various roles: losing patience with the tree as a planter, interceding as the gardener, or being the tree yourself, or ourselves.
Some people, in some seasons, build political, moral, and financial capital. Other people, in other seasons, spend it. Are the builders always hoarding? Are the spenders always wasting? One generation in our church invested and accumulated trust assets, and this generation is depleting them. The question is not who’s better – but either way, what’s our legacy of pride and regret?
We struggle to get over our petty differences of moral deserts in the face of evil and accident. We do well to remind one another of our common humanity and mortality, and ask the question of what matters, and has meaning. No! They don’t deserve it. Neither great blessings nor great sufferings are ‘just deserts’. But if we don’t turn, our fates will be as meaningless and unjust as theirs.
Our skepticism about distributive justice remains. We’re blessed, not deserving, in our exceptional economic privileges. Do we simply want the same for every human? We are not cursed for what we are given, but accountable for what we do with it. Our moral agency, on our own behalf and on as agents of household or community, and as citizens, matters as much as distributive equities.
I know the risk of returning to petty moralism in the name of ‘just deserts,’ and this reflection was a confession of sin, not an exercise of righteous shaming. No human should make you feel excluded or judged in the sanctuary of church and community. This must be a safe place to come home. As Robert Frost wrote in ‘The Death of the Hired Man’:
‘Home is the place where,
When you have to go there,
They have to take you in.’
‘I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.’
Augustine’s Confessions addresses that yearning for assurance or promise of merciful welcome, prior to any condition of deserving or worthiness, and beyond losing through any ‘just deserts’ outcome or event:
You have made us for yourself
And our hearts are restless
Until they find their rest in you
Do I get what I deserve? God forbid, God forgive! Am I worthy of what I enjoy? Thank God, no! Do we deserve more wealth than the Chinese, or better health than AIDs sufferers in Africa? No! But unless we repent, our fortune and fate will have as little meaning. What if we were given another chance, another year, a bit of digging, pruning, and fertilizer? Would it matter?
John Calvin’s commentary on this text proposes that it serves:
To correct the false and cruel judgment which we are accustomed to pass on wretched sufferers, and, at the same time, to shake of the indulgence which every man cherishes towards himself, he shows, first, that those who are treated with severity are not the most wicked of all men; because God ministers his judgments in such a manner, that some are instantly seized and punished, while others are permitted to remain long in the enjoyment of ease and luxury.
We concluded with Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer:
God grant us
to accept the things we cannot change,
to change the things we can,
and the wisdom
to know the difference.