Confirmation Bias

Matthew 20:1-16


“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Sermon Confirmation Bias

Good morning! I heard a really interesting story on the radio a while back. The story was about Hank Greenberg, a baseball player who played most of his career with the Detroit Tigers. I was reminded of this story because this past Friday was Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the new year on the Jewish calendar. This is one of the holiest days of the year in Judaism. The other high holy day is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which will be celebrated on September 28th this year. These holidays always pose a problem for Jewish athletes.

In 1934, Greenberg’s second full season in the major leagues, the Tigers were in the hunt for the pennant, and Greenberg was their star player. In fact, Greenberg was the first Jewish superstar in all of sports. There were other Jews in professional sports, but many of them changed their names so that their religion wasn’t front and center.


This sounds so strange now; it’s hard for us to fathom how much public anti-Semitism there was in this country. It really was a powerful force in our society before World War II. From 1919 through 1927, Henry Ford published a newspaper called The Dearborn Independent. Ford used this paper to distribute his anti-Semitic views. Ford believed that Jews controlled international finance and were responsible for starting wars so that they might profit from those wars:


International financiers are behind all war. They are what is called the international Jew: German Jews, French Jews, English Jews, American Jews. I believe that in all those countries except our own the Jewish financier is supreme ... here the Jew is a threat.[1]

Anti-Semitism was everywhere in the 1930s. A Catholic priest named Father Coughlin had a very popular radio program that was syndicated across the country. It’s estimated that his broadcasts might have reached as many as 30 million listeners a week.[2] Coughlin used that program to attack communism and to attack Jews. Later he would support fascism in Europe. His show was finally canceled in 1939, after the outbreak of World War II. All that time, Coughlin served as a parish priest in Royal Oak, Michigan, just outside of Detroit. So, Hank Greenberg was quite the unlikely hero in Detroit.


On September 10, 1934, the Tigers were in first place, four games ahead of the New York Yankees. There were 20 games left in the regular season. That’s a decent lead, but remember, this was the Yankees with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, in their prime. No lead seemed safe. Greenberg was faced with a difficult decision:


Jewish holidays aren’t just family gatherings or celebrations — instead, they come with a long list of ritual prohibitions. Traditionally, these include driving, writing, using electricity, but most importantly, working. And as much as baseball is a game, for Hank, it’s his job…. It’s not an easy decision for Hank. He isn’t personally very religious, but still, his tradition is important to him.[3]


Greenberg was afraid that if he sat out that game, if he didn’t play, that he would face a backlash of anti-Semitism; the fans of Detroit might turn on him.[4]


I can’t imagine how difficult that was. I grew up at a time when anti-Semitism was not part of the public conversation. I can’t relate to the pressures that Greenberg faced. But here’s the thing: the history of anti-Semitism, as practiced by Christians, has its roots in some poor interpretations of Gospel stories.

T

This morning’s lesson from the Gospel of Matthew is a story that has a history of being narrowly interpreted. It’s often read as an allegory, with the landowner representing God: “In this reading, God is the gracious master who rewards all the workers equally (= salvation), thereby upsetting the workers who toiled all day (the Jews) by giving the latecomers (Gentiles) the same rewards.”[5]

This is reading is too simplistic, and that leads us to some serious problems of interpretation. We should always be deeply suspicious of allegorical readings that turn out to favor Christians at the expense of Israel:


We are tempted to see the landowner in God-like terms because he is powerful, he hires workers all day long and pays them all equally, and he declares his own goodness and justice. We should remember, however, that at the end of the day the workers are all as vulnerable and powerless as they were at the beginning of the day, except that, we will see, they have lost their dignity, and probably their unity.[6]


When we see the landowner as God, we see only goodness. We fail to see the landowner’s negative qualities.


Yes, the landowner was absolutely within his rights to pay the workers all the same amount. The landowner was also within his rights to pay the workers in whatever order he wanted. He could have paid the first workers first, and the last workers last. If he had done so, the first workers would not have known what the other laborers were paid.


Instead, the first group of laborers were forced to watch the other laborers get the same amount of pay for less work. And when they question the landowner about this, the landowner throws it back in their faces: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” He’s saying, don’t question me! This is my right! This is my privilege. If you read it that way, the landowner comes off as arrogant, even cruel.


In that light, he landowner’s decision can spark jealousy among the community of laborers. In the morning, before any of them were hired, they were all equal in standing, equal in dignity. By asserting his privilege, the landowner is telling all the laborers that their dignity doesn’t matter, they’re all disposable. “The injustices are intensified, not overturned.”[7] So what are we to do with this parable?


We mustn’t draw a straight line from a poor interpretation of this parable to Hitler and the gas chambers—or even to Father Coughlin or Henry Ford. “Jesus’ parables are meant to get us to think critically about the world we have constructed, free us from our cultural shackles and self-deceptions, and enable us to discern more clearly how God works in the world.”[8] Jesus invites us to see ourselves in this parable in all of the roles: as one of the laborers who was hired first, as one of the laborers who was hired last, and even as the landowner. To do this, we can’t vilify any of the laborers:


They might indeed have accepted their pay and gone home happy that everyone got what they needed to make it another day. But few of us would be happy in a system of this kind of so-called justice. We shape our identities and our sense of worth by constantly comparing and contrasting ourselves with others. We want fairness and equality, when it serves our interest, but not if it means that we all get the same prize in the end. Where is the reward in that? Regardless of what they were paid, all the workers went home seeing more clearly the vast gulf that exists between the landowner and themselves.[9]


Throughout the Gospels, Jesus calls us to follow him; He calls us to discipleship; He calls us to participate in the work of building the kingdom of God; He calls to the work of reconciliation. To do this, we have to think critically about scripture and about our world.


In 1934, most Americans saw Hank Greenberg as the other, an outsider, someone suspicious. If he sat out that baseball game on September 10th, many people would have seen it as a betrayal—a player walking away from a job that everyone wished they could do. That’s confirmation bias. If Greenberg refused to play, he would have confirmed what many Americans believed to be true about Jews. Few people would have seen it as an honest expression of faith.


On September 9th, the day before Rosh Hashanah, The Detroit Free Press ran a very interesting headline: L’shana Tova Tikatevu. That’s Hebrew for “Happy New Year!” It was printed in Hebrew, in huge letters. Nobody would have recognized those letters—except for Hank Greenberg and the Jewish community of Detroit. “And immediately below the Hebrew headline, there was a huge picture of Hank mid-swing. It was almost as if the paper was saying, ‘Please, Hank. We need you.’”[10]


Greenberg decided to play. The Tigers beat the Boston Red Sox, 2-1. Greenberg hit solo home runs in the seventh and ninth innings. He. Won. The game. But the story doesn’t end on Rosh Hashana. Remember, Yom Kippur was right around the corner—the holiest of holy days on the Jewish calendar.


In the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Greenberg got mail and telegrams from rabbis and Orthodox Jews all over the United States, taking him to task for his decision to play.[11]


That week the Free Press published stories on how difficult the decision had been for Greenberg. Hitler was on the rise in Germany, Mussolini was firmly in control of Italy, fascism was on the rise in Europe, and Father Coughlin was cheering them on and spouting anti-Semitism here at home. And the Detroit Free Press chose to stand in solidarity with Hank Greenberg, who decided not to play on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.[12] He suffered no backlash for sitting out.


The editors of the newspaper saw beyond their own biases. They saw a story that was more complicated than most people knew. They chose to identify with a stranger, an outsider, and by doing so, they said, in effect, “Hank Greenberg is one of us.” As we go about being disciples, as we go about the work of reconciliation, let us remember the example that was set by The Detroit Free Press some 86 years ago. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Benediction

Beloved, as you go forth into the world, remember that we are called to forgive and restore and build God’s beloved community. Go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!

[1] Howard Morley Sachar. A History of the Jews in America. New York: Vintage (1993), p. 311. [2] Sheldon Marcus. Father Coughlin: The Tumultuous Life of the Little Flower. Boston: Little, Brown (1973), p. 4. [3] Noam Hassenfeld, “Hank Greenberg: Caught Between Baseball and His Religion,” Only a Game, September 22, 2017, retrieved from: http://www.wbur.org/onlyagame/2017/09/22/hank-greenberg-rosh-hashana-tigers [4] Hassenfeld. [5] Stanley Saunders, “Commentary on Matthew 20:1-16,” retrieved from: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3395 [6] Saunders. [7] Saunders. [8] Saunders. [9] Saunders.

[10] Hassenfeld. [11] Hassenfeld. [12] Hassenfeld.

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