One of the most profound lessons I learned as a teacher is that people get upset when someone gets candy from heaven and they don’t. They even get upset when people get something they earned and they don’t get it too, whether they earn it or not.
Candy from heaven is my metaphor for a free gift or benefit that only one or two people get. It could be the person next to you finding a twenty dollar bill on the sidewalk, the person in front of you receiving a cup of coffee made by accident and given away because it wasn’t what the previous customer wanted, or a teacher giving the answers to the pop quiz on a day you weren’t in class.
It never occurs to people that sometimes we get candy from heaven as well when others don’t. It’s always fine when you get free candy, it’s only unfair when some else does.
When I was ran the multimedia classes at one of the pioneer charter schools, I was told to give every one of my students a merit award so no one would feel left out. The administrators felt that students who didn’t get awards would feel cheated. It never occurred to them (even after I pointed it out) that perhaps the students who actually earned the awards might feel cheated as well.
Nor was I allowed to give additional awards to more meritorious students. It was one award per student. So I printed out a certificate on my inkjet printer for every one of my students and handed them out at the ceremony. I was surprised to discover that the very teachers who proposed one award per student also gave out presents to special students.
This was considered acceptable because the presents weren’t awards so no one would feel slighted. Except someone did feel slighted. Not the students who didn’t get the cool gifts, but the teachers who used a black and white laser printer to print awards. Those teachers felt cheated because their students didn’t get color certificates like mine did.
So the administrators told me that from then on I would be responsible for creating special certificates for every student at the school. I offered to find room in my budget to give color ink jets to other teachers (they were, what, a hundred dollars?), something other teachers would never have considered doing with their budgets. But that wasn’t good enough. It seems my certificates were not just color, they were prettier too.
A worker at my wife’s office noticed one day that a few workers were leaving ten minutes early in an attempt to beat traffic. She complained and convinced management to require everyone to sign in and out. That was when she realized she would have to start showing up on time instead of fifteen minutes late the way she usually did.
Even Jesus was aware of the candy from heaven principle and discussed in in the parable of the laborers, a passage that bothers many Christians because it seems so unfair (which was actually the point).
In the parable the boss hires workers for a hundred dollars a day.1 Two hours later he hires more workers for the same wage and after lunch hires even more for the same wage. At the end of the day every body gets a hundred dollars, which really pisses off the workers who worked for eight hours a day.
The message of the parable is pretty clear (and, in case we don’t get it, Jesus spells it out). God’s gifts are his to give freely to anyone he chooses. More importantly, they are his gifts to give. More importantly, everyone gets the same gift no matter how or where it is offered.
This isn’t a question of fair or just, it’s a question of grace and gratitude.
The Christian Right has an even more perplexing reaction to candy from heaven. God gave them his gift and they accepted. So they have absolutely nothing to be upset about. And yet they get upset when people don’t want their candy from heaven.
Instead of saying, “Wow, we got a gift nobody else wants,” they want to force that gift down everyone else’s throat. It’s almost as though they are saying, “You have to accept Jesus whether you want him or not.” They seem to believe this is God’s country, and the rest of us are duty bound to comply.
Grace is neither grace nor a gift when it’s compulsory.