I’m always struck by the zealous insistence of “fairness” as rule that first appears in childhood when parents pronounce a decision that some child renders unjust: “That’s not fair!” Though this sort of protestation arrives on the scene during one’s youth, the socialization that led to this way of viewing the world began a very long time ago. Sometimes one is in fact not treated fairly and that is certainly an injustice. However, fairness as a rule tends to be more subjective than most of us would like to admit and it’s almost always, at least when invoked by the comfortable or privileged, a cover for selfishness.
The Gospels are replete with illustrations that uncover our selfish impulses, which is usually masked by the ruse of “fairness.” This morning’s selection from the Gospel of Matthew (20:1-16) is exactly this sort of thing.
You will recall how Jesus announces that, “The Kingdom of heaven is like a landowner
who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.” This fictive landowner, the usual stand in for God, then goes out periodically throughout the day to hire more laborers. He orders that all the workers be paid the same wage, which provokes the ire of those who were first hired in the morning. We know how it goes.
So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more,
but each of them also got the usual wage.
And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying,
‘These last ones worked only one hour,
and you have made them equal to us,
who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’
The “fairness rule” rears its ugly head in the contestation of the workers who labored all day. Surely, they insist, we deserve more than those who worked but a few hours.
But why? As Jesus’s narration makes abundantly clear, the landowner has cheated absolutely nobody.
‘My friend, I am not cheating you.
Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?
Take what is yours and go.
What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?
Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?
Are you envious because I am generous?’
Again, let us look to yet another Gospel illustration, this time from Luke’s account (15:11-32). One of the most-famous parables of Jesus again reveals what’s really at play in our own self-righteous thinking. This is of course the narrative of the “Prodigal Son.” After the younger child wishes his father dead and demands his inheritance, which he squanders, what would be fair is for that son to be dismissed and left for dead. Or, in the best-case scenario, as the son himself imagines, he might be hired as a servant on his father’s estate.
However, what happens in the Kingdom of Heaven is the opposite of our base human impulses disguised as “fairness.” The gratuitous father is entirely “unfair” by worldly standards and welcomes the son back without punishment or shame.
Like the vineyard workers who began early in the day in Matthew’s narrative, the older son in Luke’s parable seethes with anger at the spectacle of his father’s blatant unfairness.
What is to be learned here? What does this say to us?
First, God’s sense of what is fair and what is not fair does not, at all, align with our human sense of “fairness,” which again is typically a thin veil covering our own self-centeredness. The Reign of God is marked by everybody having what is necessary. In both parables, God does not withhold anything from anyone. All parties are accounted for and given what is necessary for human flourishing.
Yet, it is a sense of of selfishness and entitlement that drives those who have what is from the outset fair (an agreed upon daily wage or all that already belongs to the father) to feel they deserve so much more. Perhaps this impulse goes all the way back to our mythical parents in Genesis, who were not content with their humanity and desired to have and be even more.
Second, these parables and an awareness of the selfishness that is called “fair” today spawns other narratives that justify real injustice in our world. The wealthy, comfortable, and powerful spin tales of “fairness” that justify their grandiosity in the shadow of poverty and injustice around them. Like the vineyard workers hired in the morning, many justify their greed and desire for more as a comparable reward for their hard work.
But unlike the parables, the landowners and father (or mother) figures are usually not prodigal in their generosity and or love. Most landowners operate according to the logic of those first-hired workers. The rules then get set to benefit a few, while the system and the rhetoric of society explain inequality, abuse, poverty, and injustice as merely a real-world reflection of “fairness.”
It is difficult for many of us to accept the gratuitous love, generosity, and mercy of God. We hold one another accountable to rules of “fairness,” sometimes even baptized in the water of religion, but it is not the radical unfairness of God; it is not the radical justice that is equivalent to God’s infinite mercy.
What our world desperately needs, and that the forthcoming year of mercy may offer, is a serious reconsideration of what we consider to be fair.