Life’s Double Standards

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19)
September 14, 2014

The Rev. Dr. Molly F. James —

May God’s Word be spoken. May God’s Word be heard. May that point us to the Living Word who is Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The other day I went to pick up our daughter Katherine from preschool. It was a warm day, and so I had worn sandals (fancy flip flops really). Katherine looked at my feet, and said, “Mom!, No flip flops at school.” Well, she was absolutely right. She is not allowed to wear any shoes to school that do not have a strap around the heel because they would be dangerous on the playground. I explained that my day had not involved any running, so it was okay to wear flip flops. But I give our daughter credit for her desire for fairness and her ability to recognize a double standard.

We all need people in our lives who help us point out when we are living out a double standard. Just as the slave in today’s Gospel had to have it pointed out to him. On the surface the parable in our Gospel is a story about the importance of forgiveness. Don’t get me wrong, forgiveness is incredibly important in our lives, and we could all likely benefit from being a little quicker to forgive each other (and ourselves!). Perhaps because I have been so recently been reminded of it, I am even more intrigued by the issue of the double standard in our parable. Jesus lays it out so starkly. The slave owes a debt. He begs mercy from his lord. His lord grants mercy. Immediately the slave goes to see someone who owes him money. We assume he has learned his lesson and will be showing the same mercy to the debtor as he had been shown. But no, he does not. This is all the more remarkable since the debt that had been forgiven was so huge – more than a lifetime of wages, so it was something that could never have been paid back. What the debtor owed the slave was only a few months wages, something that could a reasonably have been paid back. The slave had a huge debt forgiven, a debt that would have been a dark cloud over his entire life, and yet he cannot see his way to forgiving a fellow slave a few months wages. A huge burden has been lifted, but rather than sharing the joy and abundance, the slave seeks vengeance. He has lived out a double standard, and it costs him dearly, for he is now forced to repay his debt.

The starkness of this passage is meant to make us realize the enormous consequences there can be, if we are not forgiving of each other. Yet it also points out that we can do damage by ignoring the double standards we are living out as well.

Of course there are times, like my wearing flip flops, when the double standard seems innocuous and harmless. Parenting is tricky like that. There are lots of things I get to do as an adult – drive a car, use sharp kitchen knives, wear flip flops, drink coffee – that our daughter does not get to do yet. While we need to be firm in our rules, as many of them are for her own safety and well-being, I certainly do not want her to grow up thinking life is one big double standard. I do not want her to grow up always comparing herself to others. I appreciate that Katherine has an innate sense of fairness, and I am grateful for the way her questions and observations, whether they are about my footwear or life in general, help me to see when I am allowing a double standard.

Katherine’s sense of fairness helps me to be on the lookout for ways in which I might be living out a more costly double standard. Do I insist that she stays home from school when she is unwell, but then go to work myself even when really I should take a sick day? Do I lament my husband logging in to his work computer in the evenings or on the weekends, seeming to forget that I was just checking my work email on my phone? I wonder how many double standards we are living out?

Do we rejoice when we get a bonus at work, but rarely leave a generous tip for the wait staff when we dine out? Do we expect a level of productivity or hard work from our co-workers that we don’t expect from ourselves? Do we insist others take their sabbath or their vacation time, but find ways to justify working through ours?

Here and there an occasional use of the double standard seems to just be part and parcel of the human experience. But if we use it too often. If it becomes a staple of our worldview and our general approach to things. If we find ourselves constantly justifying applying a different standard to ourselves than we do to others, we are probably in need of a bit of self-examination. Living in such a way as to constantly privilege our own needs over others will damage our relationships. Relationships are about honesty and reciprocity, and those can be hard to maintain if we are always living by a double standard. If, on the other hand, we are always privileging everyone else’s needs above our own, then we will do damage to our own well-being. Life is not a zero sum game. It is not all or nothing. There is enough love to go around. In fact, we might just find that if we can strive for a bit more balance and fairness in our lives that we, and those around us, are happier!

So my invitation for all of us this week is to be sure that we have people in our lives – best friends, spouses, co-workers, children, especially children, as they have such an innate sense of fairness – people who will help keep us honest and point out when we are living a double standard. May we all be a little better at noticing when we are about to live out a double standard. May we have the grace not to get defensive when one is pointed out to us. And may we all find our lives enriched and our relationships strengthened when we have the courage to let go of our double standards. I have no doubt that when have the courage to step out in faith and live more deeply into who Jesus calls us to be, we will encounter more fully the grace of God and the gift of the Holy Spirit in our lives.