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Life Isn’t Fair, Thank God (John Claypool)

John Claypool Life Isn’t Fair, Thank God! First air date January 30, 2000 – Program #4317

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Fr. JOHN CLAYPOOL is Rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and made his first appearance on 30 Good Minutes in 1978. A native of Kentucky, John was ordained in the Southern Baptist denomination in 1953, and served churches in Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. In 1986, he was ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church, and has been rector of St. Luke’s since 1987. John Claypool is one of America’s great preachers. His sermons are widely published in books, journals and magazines, and he’s in great demand as a speaker.

Jesus once told a story that on the surface appears to be quite shocking because it seems to be filled with great injustice and unfairness. However, if you live with the story, wrestle with it the way that Jacob wrestled with the angel, it turns out that there is a deeper truth below the surface, a truth about God and also a truth about our high destiny as made in God’s image.

The story starts during one harvest season in first century Palestine. It seems that a vineyard owner discovered that he had to have extra help if he was going to get in all the grapes before they spoiled. Early one morning before the workday began, he made his way to the town square where traditionally people who were called day laborers would gather. Now these were individuals that didn’t have regular work. They didn’t own property. They were dependent every morning on somebody giving them employment. Let’s say for the sake of clarity that there were 25 such individuals gathered before dawn. The vineyard owner went and arbitrarily picked out five of these people, gave them the address of his vineyard and said, “Go, put in a 12 hour day and I will pay you a denarius,” which in that culture was a living, going wage. It also happened to be about what it took a peasant family to hold body and soul together, and so these favored five set on their way with singing hearts. What they had gotten up in the morning hoping for had become theirs from a power over which they had no control.

In a technical sense, an injustice was done in this particular action. Remember there were 25 potential employees and only five were selected. However, it is interesting that they did not protest the five that had been selected. What happened to the 20 who were left behind, because I think we need to realize that many times our senses of justice and injustice are highly subjective. If something unfair goes in my favor, it is rare indeed that you hear my kind of person protest. It’s only when unfairness goes against us that we tend to be indignant.

Well, as the story unfolds at 9:00 a.m., three hours into the day’s work, the vineyard owner came back to the square, found 20 day laborers still waiting and selected five more. He said, “I will pay you what is appropriate at the end of the day.” He came back at 12:00 noon and at 3:00 in the afternoon and did the same thing. He returned at 5:00 o’clock, says Jesus, one hour before quitting time, and there to his amazement he still found five day laborers, standing, hoping against hope that somebody would hire them.

His first reaction was typical. We tend to think that the unemployed are that way because they’re lazy and shiftless and when he said, “Why are you still here?” they reminded him that they could not make work happen. Somebody had to do that for them and so he said, “You go to my vineyard also. I will pay you what is appropriate.” And what that means is that all 25 of those day laborers had gotten at least a portion of what each had gotten up in the morning hoping for. Nobody was going to have to go home empty handed. Nobody was going to have to go home and see wife and children go to bed hungry.

And then comes the end of the day at 6:00 p.m. and everybody lines up to be paid. It is at this point that the story explodes in surprise. It turns out those who had only worked a single hour came to the desk first and the stewards to their amazement gave them a whole denarius, in other words, what it takes a peasant family to hold body and soul together for a single day. When those hired at 3:00 p.m., 12 noon and 9:00 o’clock came, they too were given a whole denarius. All of them were given more than they had dared hope for and then, bringing up the rear, came that favored five, those who had been first selected, but they too were only paid a denarius.

Well, when they saw what they had gotten in comparison to what everybody else had gotten, literally all hell broke lose. They demanded an audience face to face with the vineyard owner, and when he came out they said, “You have not been fair. We have worked all day long and some of these people have only worked an hour and you have paid us exactly the same.” At that juncture the vineyard owner makes two very interesting responses. He first of all says, “Look I have done nothing unjust. You and I agreed at 6:00 a.m. this morning that I would pay you a denarius and I have lived up to my end of the bargain. Am I not free to do with what I have as I want or are you begrudging me my generosity?”

I want to suggest that that last question is the key to understanding the real message of this surprising story. There is a vast difference between looking at life in terms of justice and looking at life through the lens of generosity. It might be well to go back to the very beginning of creation and ask the question, “How did any of us come to be here in the first place?”

Paul Tillich said he was launched on his philosophic and religious journey when somebody said to him in his teenage, “Why something and not nothing?” In other words, why did creation ever get called out of nothing into being? The Bible gives a very specific answer to that question. If you go back to Genesis, it is clear that in that beginning-less beginning, back before there was anything except God, this Mystery who is life and has life, that One must have said within himself, “This wonder of aliveness that I am, it is simply too good to keep to myself. I want others to know the ecstacy of being and of having and of doing.”

And so God began to create not to get something for God’s self but to give something of God’s self. In other words, bottomless generosity is the source out of which all creation comes, and because of generosity, the truth is none of us, if we look deeply into our lives, can claim that we have earned this existence of ours by our own efforts. Each one of us were given life as a gift. If you look profoundly enough, birth is windfall, is coming into the possession of something that is not ours by deserving, but something that has been given to us. If we will stay in touch with that primal grace that marks the beginning of all of our lives, then the truth is we have reasons to be grateful no matter what our particular circumstances. We no longer think in terms of justice because life is not fair, because it is rooted in grace. Rather we have reason to believe that the sheer wonder of aliveness is an unending source of joy and of gratitude.

I can give you today a fail safe formula for how you can live your whole life with misery and that is do what those favored five who were hired first in the morning chose to do with their lives. If they had stayed in touch with the primal grace that had surrounded that event at 6:00 a.m., if they had realized that before they woke up they could not have made work happen but it had been given to them, if they had stayed in touch with that, then they would have had reasons to rejoice all the day long. The problem was they shifted their focus from that primal grace and began the side-long glance of comparing. They looked at what others had gotten instead of what they had received and when they began to compare, lo the side-long glance of envy turned the joy of the morning into curdled resentment at the end of the


Now that same thing can happen to each one of us. If you want to look at your aliveness in terms of the particularities of what you have: your kind of body, your financial resources, your intellectual capacities, and then compare yourself side long with what other people have, you will always find people who have more than you do and, therefore, you can be indignant. You can say life is not fair. If you compare yourself to others, there is always going to be somebody that seems to have life different.

But I will give you a fail safe formula for how to live your life in joy and that is compare your particular situation at this moment with what you had a year before you were born. I entered the stage of history December 15, 1930. December 15, 1929, John Claypool did not exist. I had no body. I had no being. I had no more way of making myself an alive entity than those day laborers had ways to make work. As soon as I stay in touch with the fact that my sheer birth is windfall, that my life has been given to me as an incredible gift, then something deeper than justice becomes the way that I look at this whole mystery of existence. If it ever stays with us that life is gift and birth is windfall, then we can begin to be generous with our lives exactly as God has been generous with God’s life.

There is an old rabbinic parable about a farmer that had two sons. As soon as they were old enough to walk, he took them to the fields and he taught them everything that he knew about growing crops and raising animals. When he got too old to work, the two boys took over the chores of the farm and when the father died, they had found their working together so meaningful that they decided to keep their partnership. So each brother contributed what he could and during every harvest season, they would divide equally what they had corporately produced. Across the years the elder brother never married, stayed an old bachelor. The younger brother did marry and had eight wonderful children. Some years later when they were having a wonderful harvest, the old bachelor brother thought to himself one night, “My brother has ten mouths to feed. I only have one. He really needs more of his harvest than I do, but I know he is much too fair to renegotiate. I know what I’ll do. In the dead of the night when he is already asleep, I’ll take some of what I have put in my barn and I’ll slip it over into his barn to help him feed his children.

At the very time he was thinking down that line, the younger brother was thinking to himself, “God has given me these wonderful children. My brother hasn’t been so fortunate. He really needs more of this harvest for his old age than I do, but I know him. He’s much too fair. He’ll never renegotiate. I know what I’ll do. In the dead of the night when he’s asleep, I’ll take some of what I’ve put in my barn and slip it over into his barn.” And so one night when the moon was full, as you may have already anticipated, those two brothers came face to face, each on a mission of generosity. The old rabbi said that there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, a gentle rain began to fall. You know what it was? God weeping for joy because two of his children had gotten the point. Two of his children had come to realize that generosity is the deepest characteristic of the holy and because we are made in God’s image, our being generous is the secret to our joy as well. Life is not fair, thank God! It’s not fair because it’s rooted in grace.

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Interview with John Claypool Interviewed by Floyd Brown

Floyd Brown: What a marvelous message!

John Claypool: Well, thank you.

Brown: You know, I think how our thoughts have changed in generations. I don’t know whether it’s my private thought or the thoughts of everyone. Remember George Gershwin’s old song, “I Got Plenty of Nothing, Nothing’s Plenty for Me.” It’s a marvelous thought because seemingly we then appreciated what we had.

Claypool: Exactly.

Brown: But so many people today don’t seem to concentrate on what they have. They always want to have more. If you start saying, “I’m happy that I have this,” does this in any way shorten the person from reaching or being more ambitious, wanting more things, growing.

Claypool: I don’t think so, Floyd. I think a sense of your life as a gift that you’ve been given that you don’t deserve can engender a gratitude that you’ve gotten to be alive. That sense of “enoughness” I believe comes from the notion that generosity is God’s deepest characteristic. That gives you the confidence that there has been enough, always will be, and therefore you can give because you know there is more where that came from.

I had an old mentor say once that there are only two realities finally. There is love and there is fear. Love is the confidence that there is enough and fear is the suspicion that there isn’t enough. He said if you live your life out of the sense of scarcity, then you are always trying to get. You are always trying to hoard. You are always being stingy and you can at times even become violent. But if you are living out of a sense of the fullness of creation, which I think is the heart of the biblical vision, then you can be generous, which is exactly what I was trying to say in the sermon. Because God gave out of utter abundance and we are chips off the old block, we are made in the image of the Generous One. I can give to you not with any kind of fear, but I can give because there’s more where that came from. So I really think the most creative people are the ones who are the most grateful and the most confident about where life comes from and what life is. They’re not driven by this sense that there’s not enough, that I’ve got to get something from you; I’ve got to keep something from you or even got to take something from you.

Brown: We’ve got a couple of minutes left here and I would like to pursue that more, but we only have two minutes and I have a question that I want to ask you. Your latest book, Stories Jesus Still Tells, would be great to talk about right now, but another I would like you to elaborate on is, God Is an Amateur. Now, I know that you’ve heard from some people after writing a title like that!

Claypool: Well, where that title came from was a sermon on the First Chapter of Genesis and it is rooted in the fact that our word “amateur” in its original form came from the Latin root amor which is “to love.” Originally an amateur was someone who did what he or she did for the love of it. They were not getting any kind of external reward. They were not being forced. It came from the inside out. It came from a sense of abundance and, therefore, an amateur is somebody that really knows they have a gift and then they want to make that a present to somebody else. Where I’ve gotten into trouble is that the word “amateur” has changed in our parlance and “amateur” tends to be a symbol for incompetence, somebody who is not very good at something. I’ve had people say, “Are you implying that God is incompetent?” and that’s not my point at all. My point is that God created not because God had to create but because God wanted to create. God created for the sheer love of what he was doing. The good in his thought is that we are made in God’s image and being amateurs ourselves, that is doing what we do for the love of it. That is where we are going to find our highest joy. Every gift I’ve been given would make a good present for somebody else and that’s what it means to be an amateur.

Brown: It’s a wonderful, wonderful message and we thank you very much. So nice to have you.

Claypool: Delighted.

Brown: It’s good to have you back.


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