If you’re a parent, those are familiar words. It doesn’t take very long for a child to start sizing up what her siblings have and compare it to what she got.“It’s not fair!” “His piece of cake is bigger than mine.” “She took more crayons!” “You spent all day with Johnny and didn’t spend any time with me!” (This one’s usually at the end of the day when Johnny’s been sick and you’ve been run ragged caring for him.)
“It’s not fair!”This attitude carries over into our adult lives as well. We grumble when we get passed over for a promotion, especially when we feel the guy who got it was much less deserving than ourselves. We complain the lights are against us when we’re running late. We envy the good luck of the neighbor who can take a grand vacation, or the co-worker who tells us about an unexpected windfall.
We want life to be fair – and that usually means that we want things to go our way. For most of us “fair” means that we get ours. Unfortunately, it often seems much less important if others can also get theirs.Some of us would define “fair” as being equal. In my household, there was a time when Brussels sprouts were the most desired veggie (honestly, I was just as amazed as you are!). When we had Brussels sprouts for dinner, I had to carefully count to make sure every family member got the same number of sprouts on their plate. This was fair.
That may work for Brussels sprouts, but “fair” often goes far beyond equal. The best definition of “fair” I’ve ever heard was at Girl Scout summer camp training. The camp director told us, that we needed to treat the girls fairly, and “fair” meant, not equal, but making sure that each girl got what she needed.“Fair” is everyone getting what they need. And that’s exactly what Jesus teaches in the parable of the Laborers of the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-15).
A landowner went to hire some workers first thing in the morning (about 7am). He agreed to pay them the usual wage, a denarius, and they went to work for him. About 9am, the landowner went back and hired some more men. Again at noon, and at 3 pm, he hired more. Each time he hired them, he promised to pay what was fair. Finally at 5pm, when there was only about an hour left to work, the landowner hired a few more men – men who were left standing without work when everyone had finished hiring for the day.So far, so good. The trouble comes when pay time comes.
The landowner decided to pay in reverse order of hiring. So those men who only worked an hour were paid first. Imagine their surprise when they each received a denarius – a whole day’s pay for an hour of work! What a windfall! What good fortune! What generosity on the part of the landowner!Those who were hired first began to do some calculating. Sure they were promised a denarius too, but look what those others got! There must be a bonus involved. Surely they’d get much more than one denarius.
But the landowner paid them the agreed upon wage. And those first hired men grumbled. “It’s not fair! We worked all day in the hot sun! We put in a full day! Those slackers you hired in the last hour goofed off all day and barely did any work when they got here! It’s not fair that they be paid the same!”And the generous landlord said, “I paid you what we agreed. I am fair with you. What is it to you if I decide to be generous to someone else?”
“It’s not fair!”This parable makes many of us angry. When discussing this parable with some pastoral colleagues, one pastor said that he has a parishioner who simply won’t come to church when this parable is the assigned text. It makes her angry and she doesn’t want to hear any sermon based on it. We want life to be “fair,” and in this parable it seems to us that those first hired hard workers weren’t treated fairly.
Maybe it would help if we called this “The Parable of the Generous Landowner.” We focus on the laborers, but the real story here is the Landowner. Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who goes and hires workers – not like the workers that he hired. And that is a very good thing.Because in the kingdom of heaven, the Landowner hires workers all day, every day. Everyone is offered a place, everyone can respond to the Landowner’s call. And the Generous Landowner knows that to be truly “fair,” the summer camp definition is best: making sure everyone gets what they need.
How do we respond to God’s grace, steadfast love and mercy? Do we look around and grumble that someone else got a bigger share? Or do we look with gratitude on our blessings and thank the giver?“It’s not fair.”
Thank God it’s not! Thank God that we do not get what we deserve. Instead we receive abundant grace and blessing from God’s hand.