Everyone in my household has a love of Charles Schultz’ Peanuts characters. There is always wisdom in Linus, unedited truth in Lucy, the wishy-washy doubts and insecurity of human nature in Charlie Brown. The way in which characters are so brilliantly depicted in simple ways shows the real gift of Schultz’ artistry. More than once in a while, a complex topic that I’m wrestling with, either in my classroom or in my life, comes out through the cartooned mouth of one of these characters.
It’s the voice of Sally Brown, younger sister to Charlie Brown, that is in my mind today. You may remember the scene: it’s nearly Christmas, and the Peanuts gang is readying for a Christmas Pageant and trying to find the real meaning and holiday spirit in a commercialized time of year. Sally has her clipboard, composing a letter to Santa Claus and spelling out all the things she would like as gifts. She dictates out loud to big brother Charlie Brown, who is helping with her writing. At the end, she sums up what a lot of people are thinking: “…if it seems too complicated, make it easy on yourself and just send money. How about tens and twenties?”
As Charlie Brown screams, “TENS AND TWENTIES!! Even my baby sister…” we all chuckle. Then, truth comes in Sally’s quiet voice: “All I want is what I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share.”
Whap. Sally speaks words that most of us have thought…and probably said…more than we’d like to admit.
The truth is, we do want our fair share. Nothing ticks us off more than when we see someone we judge as less worthy or deserving get something that we feel we are equally (if not more) entitled to. It’s human nature, at least in contemporary Western society. We work hard, we earn it, we deserve it. Right?
I’m not so sure we really have our money where our mouth is when it comes to justice and wealth.
What about the person who has worked two minimum wage jobs, both at 28 hours per week to avoid the dreaded “29 hour rule” that keeps her employer from being required to pay health insurance benefits on her behalf, which is why she works extra to buy into a health insurance plan on her own. Does that woman deserve to be paid less than someone working a salaried position at 40 hours a week as an administrative assistant receiving benefits but “expected” to work at least 15 hours unpaid just to accomplish all the tasks assigned? Do either deserve to make less money than an investor who has a good hunch (and maybe a good lead or two) and trades online 10 or 15 hours a week?
We put a lot of rhetoric equating work and money in the United States, and it still doesn’t come out even.
I’m curating a weekly series for my faith community, starting today, on Sunday Thoughts for a Monday World. Today’s Gospel lesson starts us out chewing on this topic of wealth inequality. Feel free to check out all the links and questions in today’s weekly column, but most especially this video from Politizane which may give you something to ponder about wealth distribution.
In my own life, there have been times when I’ve received less or more than what I felt was my fair share. I know this, and I admit this. It’s called privilege, and when it’s given to us we have the responsibility to acknowledge it and do right by it. Otherwise, it becomes entitlement which is never, ever something to which most of us aspire. Let me talk about my privilege and unearned grace: I wouldn’t be who I am today if a major University hadn’t decided I was worthy of a full scholarship and took a risk to offer it to me. I am not more “worthy” than a thousand other people whom they could have chosen. They saw something in my application, took a risk, and that is how I came to have the opportunity to earn a PhD. It would not have happened without that. But even in this story, I know that someone else didn’t get chosen, just the way that I did get chosen.
At an earlier point in my life, I was one of the non-chosen. I had applied for numerous scholarships when I decided to pursue my MSW degree. I didn’t receive any of them. I took out loans…lots of them. I took a job, and lived in a very humbling condition for a year to make ends meet. I took a leap of faith in myself that I could eventually pay them off. During that year, I felt bitter when one of my class-mates frequently flaunted that she received a full tuition scholarship and felt my indignation burn when she bought herself a car, a new computer, and was missing a few weeks of class to go on a cruise. Bitter, bitter, bitter. I admit it (and I remember it to this day). At graduation, we both walked across the stage and had the same degree, though. That, in itself, was a privilege to which not everyone had equal access.
So, why did I feel so bitter? And why are we so focused on getting “my fair share?” when we sometimes fail to see that we are still getting more advantages than some others.
One of the realities I ponder is that being given an opportunity, especially in contemporary U.S. society, reinforces that we are considered worthy. Someone believes in us enough to hire us, to give us a scholarship, to advance us money for a business investment. It must be something about us, or what we have done that makes us worthy in someone else’s eyes. We are clamoring for that sense of worth, to reinforce our value.
Does that mean that those without opportunity are less valuable in society? Have we been telling groups of people that with our actions?
Today, people sitting in my church and many others hear a Gospel reading where Jesus tells a different story. The parable of the landowners (Matthew 20: 1-16) asks us to chew on a story where a fair wage is offered to people for a day of working the fields. Some are hired early and work all day, some hired mid-day, and some at the end of the day. Everyone receives the same agreed upon fair wage at the end of the day. But, the wage doesn’t seem “fair” any more, because some worked longer and harder than others.
I go back to my own college experiences and my wrestling with “my fair share.” Its the tale of two graduate degrees. I worked for both. One, I paid off over 15 years. The other was given to me without cost. Was one worth more than the other? Did I work harder for one than the other? Was one more “fair” than the other?
Perhaps the Gospel parable is telling us something not about the value of giving based on hard work, but about the gift of generosity and abundance. Grace is not dolled out according to how good we are, nor how hard we work. It’s given, freely, to everyone.
As amazing as that is, it means we have to check our assumptions at the table (perhaps literally). It isn’t about our worth. We are already worthy. It isn’t about earning God’s love and acceptance. We are already loved and accepted. That person next to me is receiving the full abundance of God’s grace, as I am. There is enough for everyone, and grace is abundant.
Maybe it is about being willing to be transformed, to open ourselves to giving and receiving grace in a radically different way than we see in society around us. That changes how we relate to others. It begs us to practice generosity and abundance, rather than functioning out of stinginess and scarcity. That, my friends, is an act of faith.
Living in that faith, one small point of light at a time, brings me into contact with more than my fair share of radical grace. For that, I am humbled and grateful.