It’s not fair! That must be a cry that has been uttered by children for a very long time. There seems to be an innate sense that things should be fair, and if they are not it’s only right and proper to protest about it.
I forget where I read about a way of avoiding two children arguing over a chocolate bar they were to share. The mum asked one to break the bar and the other to choose the first piece. It struck me as a solution worthy of Solomon. Being seen to be fair is not easy task.
The leaders of North Korea and the USA have been accused of being like kindergarten children as they trade insults. I suppose we all wish they only had the power of kindergarten children also! It strikes me that at the heart of the problem lies the protest ‘It’s not fair!’ so maybe they are indeed responding like small children. From North Korea’s point of view, it’s not fair that the USA can have nuclear weapons but North Korea can’t. I suppose from the USA’s point of view it’s not fair that a leader of a small country can aspire to match the fire power of a superpower.
Today’s gospel concerns fairness and gives plenty of food for thought. The day labourers gathered in the market-place at the crack of dawn in the hope of getting work with someone who needed a hand with agricultural work. A group of them got hired promptly for the normal rate, so I suppose they would count themselves lucky. There would be food for their family that night. Were they the first there, the brawniest, those already known to the landowner and with a good reputation for hard work? We have no way of knowing. What we do know is there were others there available to hire at 9am, noon, 3pm and 5pm all waiting hopefully for a chance to earn money. I imagine as the day wore on they lost hope of earning anything that day. As it turned out, even those who could only work for an hour were asked to help out.
The problem came at the end of the working day. Everyone, regardless of how long they had worked, was given a full day’s wage. Maybe those who had worked all day and were grumbling did not actually say ‘It’s not fair!’ but that’s what they meant. Those people employed at five o’clock got paid the same as those who had worked since dawn. On the face of it, that’s not fair. Of course, as the landowner pointed out, he could do as he liked with his money. It was up to him if he wanted to be generous or not.
As the introduction states, this is one of Jesus’ illustrations of the way that the kingdom of heaven works. This was no earthly landowner but God himself dealing with people. Is it fair that God should operate in this way?
What do we mean by fair? If we take the example of the children and the chocolate bar or of North Korea, fair means getting the same as one another. Same amount of chocolate, same access to those fancy destructive weapons. If that’s the meaning of fair we are looking at, all the labourers in the vineyard were treated fairly as they all got the same pay. On the other hand, if we look at it from an hourly rate perspective, it was not fair.
Fair can also mean right, just. It’s interesting to note that the only contract the landowner had with the later employees was that he would pay them what was right. Would the workers who worked all day have had any recourse in a court of law? Had they been treated wrongly? I doubt if they would have had a strong case. They had a contract with the landowner and he honoured it. They got exactly what they were promised, the going rate for a day’s work. How he treated the other workers did not influence the landowner’s treatment of those first employed.
What if God decided to be scrupulously, mathematically fair? What if he gave to his people a reward which was in proportion to what they had done for him? Who would get the top reward? A full day’s pay for a full day’s work means it could surely only be those who had been serving God near enough from birth, with no slacking or backsliding. No having a nap under the vines in the heat of the day!
If that was the way the kingdom of heaven worked, it would be just the same as the way the Pharisees saw it. They did their utmost to follow all God’s laws in order to get their reward from him. The rich young man who approached Jesus said he had kept all the laws since his youth. St Paul was able to boast about being a Pharisee and following that way of life to the letter. For the rich young man, all his law-abiding behaviour actually didn’t help him when he wanted to inherit eternal life. It didn’t allow him to let go of his riches. For Paul, he eventually counted all that hard work as a Pharisee as nothing compared to what he found in Jesus. Even though, as he wrote in this part of the letter to the Philippians, his faith brought suffering with it, he had no regrets because he had the privilege of believing in Jesus.
The kingdom of heaven is a kingdom of grace and generosity, not mathematical precision. If it were not so, very few would enter it. The work needed would be beyond most of us. Evangelism would be a waste of time. It would hardly entice people if they were told they might possibly get a tiny reward from God as they had joined up rather late in life and had missed the opportunity for the best God could give.
We can see in Jesus’ life the way he invited those who were not perfect to be part of the kingdom – prostitutes, adulterers, thieves, the dross of society were welcomed with open arms. He illustrated his punchline from today’s gospel when he told the thief on the cross that he would be with him in paradise. That man was certainly one of the last Jesus referred to! He used one of his last struggling breaths to ask for mercy from Jesus and he received it. According to Jesus he will be one of the first to receive his reward.
The gospel is supposed to be Good News. An absolutely fair system would not be good news for most people. God’s upside down, topsy-turvy economy is far better news for the majority of people. Only those who begrudge God’s generosity can have any cause to complain. I suspect even the grumblers will be treated with grace by God. Didn’t he call them ‘Friend’?
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor