Biblical Fairness

“It’s not fair!” The cry came out as I volunteered at Room in the Inn helping get guests on the list for shelter for the night. A guest was not happy about the method by which the limited number of shelter spaces would be allocated to a large number of people hoping for shelter. There were forty nine people seeking shelter. There were twenty four shelter spaces available. Not everybody seeking shelter through Room in the Inn would get shelter this night. More churches are needed to offer shelter. And also needed is more commitment by people to the justice of housing for everyone, housing as a human right.

But for now, the problem. How to distribute the limited good of shelter in the face of abundant need? This guest who complained had the solution, drawn from the capitalist culture which cast him into the streets. “I was here two hours early and I waited. I earned a spot. Those who came later, who were lazy, should not have an equal chance.” Ah, meritocracy! Goods are distributed according to hard work, effort, competition. Goods are rewards for winning the war of all against all. It is survival of the fittest.

Room in the Inn worships a different God. In the distribution of goods the needs of the most vulnerable have priority. Women and children are the most vulnerable on the streets, so they are put on the list for shelter first. On this night that meant twelve shelter spaces went to women.

How to avoid meritocracy in distributing the twelve remaining spaces? Another biblical response: distribution by lottery. (see Acts of the Apostles 1:26, Luke 1:9, Numbers 26:52-56, 1 Samuel 10:20-24, 1 Chronicles 24:5-19, Nehemiah 11:1 and Proverbs 18:18). Such biblical distribution sometimes serves the purpose of revealing God’s will, but more commonly it an exercise in humility in the face of a difficult decision. Lottery distribution recognizes when there is equal need and when a meritocracy distribution would harm the weak while also increasing the arrogance of the strong.

Maybe this is behind “the great reversal” theme present throughout the Old and New Testaments as well. God frees the Israelite slaves from the Pharaoh and his government. In the New Testament, Mary sings “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).  And Jesus proclaims, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last” (Mt 20:16). In perhaps the greatest reversal, Jesus rises from the dead, overturning the death sentence imposed by both the Roman Empire and the power of sin. At the heart of the Christian Gospel is the gracious of God who freely loves us not based upon our merit but upon our being joined to Christ.

But the culture of meritocracy is strong and so are the judgments that come with it. To go with a biblical view of justice challenges meritocracy. The biblical view of justice overturns fairness defined as reward to those who are already dominant.

Another guest came up to me after I had a little discussion with the one who cried foul about the lottery allocation of shelter space. “He doesn’t get it,” this guest said, “we’re all in this together.” Another added, “Sometimes I go; sometimes I don’t. It’s in God’s hands. I just wish more churches would get on board. And besides, no one should be rewarded for getting here two hours early. That’s against the rules.”

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