That’s Not Fair!

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Take a little memory trip with me, and think back to your childhood. (If that seems too long ago, you’re welcome to think about that of your children or grandchildren.) Think of some of the things children say and, after a moment’s reflection, name what you think they say perhaps more than anything else. Maybe, “I love you”? I’d like to think that, but I’m not so sure. Now that we’re adults we may know how important it is to say and hear those three words often, but I’m not sure we knew that as kids. When I think back to my own childhood — and if I’m totally honest — I’m likely to name three other words: “It’s not fair.” Do you remember? “It’s not fair that I have to do homework before watching T.V.” “It’s not fair that I can’t go play with my friends just because I stayed home sick from school.” “It’s not fair that their parents buy them whatever they want and we have to go without.”

“It’s not fair that ___________ .”

You can probably fill in the blank and finish that sentence as well as I can, because if there’s one thing we’re all born with, it’s an innate sense of fairness. That’s a powerful and wonderful thing, because that sense of fairness, when developed into maturity, is the foundation for justice and equality: “It’s not fair that some can vote and others can’t, that some ride in the front of the bus while others must stay in the back, that some are paid more for the same work, that some go to bed hungry while others fill landfills with their excess.” Yes, our innate sense of fairness can lead to a strong and life-giving sense of justice.

But not always. Because our innate sense of fairness tends to be somewhat ego-centric. We tend to assess fairness, as the examples from childhood demonstrate, in terms of what seems fair not only to us but also for us. We tend to measure fairness, that is, in terms of our own wants, needs, hopes, expectations, often with little — or at least secondary — regard for the wants and needs of others. And unfortunately this doesn’t end with childhood.

Which brings us to Jesus’ parable about these day laborers. Right up front, it’s important to recognize just how tough it was to be a day laborer. These are the folks with no regular employment and so must stand in the town square hoping that some land owner or manager needs extra work done and will hire you. The trouble is, there’s usually a lot more laborers than there is labor. And there’s no unemployment, or social services to fall back on. So if you were both healthy and lucky, you’d get chosen and work a twelve-hour day and when you were done receive a day’s wage that would provide food for your family for the next day. (This, by the way, sheds some insight into the practical earnestness of Jesus’ prayer: “give us this day our daily bread.”) If you were unlucky or unhealthy, however, you’d be passed over, possibly waiting all day, only to return empty-handed to face the disappointed looks of those who depended on you.

In the parable Jesus tells, everyone gets lucky. Some are chosen early, some more in the late morning, at noon, and mid afternoon, and some just an hour before quitting time. No doubt these last were not just pleasantly surprised but downright flabbergasted by their good fortune when they received a full day’s wage for an hour of work. Not, let’s keep in mind, because they hadn’t wanted to work all day. After all, they’d been there just the same as the others — ready, willing, and eager — but they had been passed over, time and again, until right near the end. And so I suspect they were delighted to discover they would be able to provide, at least for another day, for their families.

This act of generosity, however, sets up expectations. Those who had worked all day started doing their mental calculations, adding up and anticipating just how much  more they would receive than they’d originally expected or contracted for. To be honest, I think it’s hard to blame them. After all, if the folks who worked just one hour got a full day’s wage, wouldn’t it be only fair to give the folks who worked twelve long hours a little more, or maybe even a lot more? But that’s not what happens. They receive a full day’s wage — nothing more, nothing less — just as they were promised. They are disappointed, maybe even angry. It just doesn’t seem fair. But the landowner reminds them that, in fact, it’s totally fair — they are being paid just what was promised. If anything, the landowner is being more than fair — actually, downright generous — to those who were invited late in the day, as well as perfectly fair to those who were fortunate to be called to work early. Why, then, begrudge such generosity?

Why indeed? Except, perhaps, that that’s human nature. Fallen human nature, to be more precise. There are a lot of ways to read the story of the fall in Genesis 3, of course, but to me it’s primarily a story about how through our own insecurity and lack of trust we come to understand and assess our lives not through the abundance we have been given by God but instead by what we feel we still lack. Because of this gnawing sense of lack, we define ourselves over and against others, comparing and begrudging their good fortune because it wasn’t our good fortune.

Think for a moment, of what this does to the grumbling day laborers. Rather than feeling fortunate to have found work for the day, they feel unfortunate at not having received more. Rather than rejoicing that these other workers — who waited all day for the prospect of work — can return home blessed to be able to feed their families, they can only begrudge them, perhaps even curse them, their good fortune. And rather than be grateful to the landowner who has given them an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s work, they can only grumble with resentment.

There is a historical dimension to this parable. Jesus tells it to illustrate the hardness of heart with which those who deemed themselves righteous considered those who by almost any standards were not, begrudging them the grace and mercy of God and the attention of God’s Son. But there’s also an existential dimension that speaks as truly to our own day, time, and lives as it ever did to Jesus’ original audience. Because this parable lays before each and all of us a choice as clear as can be. When we look at our lives, do we count our blessings or our misfortunes? Do we pay attention to the areas of plenty in our lives or what we perceive we lack? Do we live by gratitude or envy? Do we look to others in solidarity and compassion or see them only as competition? The killer thing about this choice is that it really is a choice as unavoidable as it is simple — you just can’t be grateful and envious at the same time. So which is it going to be?

Jesus is eventually killed precisely because he offers this choice. That is, Jesus is crucified not just because he proclaimed that the grace, and mercy of God was available to all, even to those deemed so incredibly unworthy, but also because his declaration revealed the hardness of heart, the stone-cold entrenchment of spirit, that is part and parcel of the human condition. His inclusive, boundary-breaking generosity revealed the envy and competitiveness of those in power. His vision of another way of being in the world — he called it the kingdom of God — betrayed the lie told by the protectors of the status quo that theirs was the only way. Shamed by such a vision, and unable to embrace it, they put the visionary to death.

So this week, Working Preacher, I invite you to consider passing out two 3×5 cards to each person in the congregation. Ask each one to write on one of those cards some resentment, some grudge they hold in their hearts, something they believe they lack, or something of which they are envious. Invite them to be honest, because honesty matters. Then ask them to write on the other card some blessing, some areas of abundance, something for which they are grateful, in their own lives or, just as importantly, in the life of someone else. Once they are done, invite them to hold each of those cards face down in the palm of each hand. Notice with them that, physically, the two cards weigh the same. Yet spiritually, existentially, one of those cards is weighing them down, like chains secured to an anchor wrapped tightly around their hearts, while the other is light as a feather. Then pass the offering plates — not for money, you can do that later — but for one of those cards. They can’t keep both, remind them; they have to choose. Ask them to give one of those cards away by putting it in the plate and take the other home as a reminder. You can burn the cards passed in or throw them away; it doesn’t much matter. What matters is the choice they’ve made and the reminder they take with them.

Will we always be true to our choices? No, but perhaps this exercise can help us be more true. In the end, the only one who is true is the One who came preaching, teaching, and embodying this new life and kingdom, the One who was willing to die that we might see and believe that this new life is possible. But let’s be clear: while this One is true, he is not fair. Because this One gives us more than we deserve, loving us from the death of scarcity and fear to the new life of abundance, courage, and faith.

Thanks be to God, Working Preacher, for this One, our Lord Jesus, and for those who proclaim his grace, mercy, and message — and that’s you!

Yours in Christ,