What is Fair?
Rev. Dexter Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
September 20, 2020
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.
When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.
Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’
But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
When I was growing up with three brothers, we had a lot of fights about what was fair. Who got the most food? Whose shoes cost more? Who got the biggest, the loudest, the fastest, the coolest, the most expensive gift? Everything was a challenge of fairness. We recognized it so much that we had systems to keep everything fair. For instance, whenever we rode in the car we would rotate seats so that everyone got a chance to sit in front. So much so that my little brother learned before he was even out of his car seat the honest phrase that “the back of the car shall sit in the front and the front of the car shall sit in the back.”
Jonah in our story today was sick and tired of the Ninevites always getting to sit in front. Jonah knew, like every good Israelite, that Nineveh was wicked. Jonah is angry that these wicked evil people were able to repent and receive God’s compassion. God asks, “is it right for you to be angry?” But the way Jonah sees it, he absolutely has a right to be angry. “God, they are the worst! Should your grace be given to killers!?” And interestingly, God does not scold Jonah for being angry but rather changes tactics. God wants Jonah to see Nineveh the way that God sees them. “Yes, Jonah they are violent and wicked and depraved but they are also more, so much more. They are a great city,” God says. “But they do not know their right hand from their left. They are lost and broken but they are still human beings made in my image.” God does not deal to Nineveh what they deserve but rather generously gives them what they need, compassion. (Debie Thomas https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay)
And then we come to our parable for the day. The parable of the compassionate landowner. A landowner goes out to hire workers several times throughout the day, finding people who have not received work that day and bringing them in. Then at the end of the day, the landowner pays everyone the exact same wage. The laborers who got there early are quite upset that they have been considered equal with those who didn’t work half as hard as them. The landowner challenges them, like how God challenged Jonah, saying, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
Once again we are challenged with our notions of fairness. But something I noticed this week is that when I would fight for the front seat with my brothers, I was always fighting for me. I never reminded my brothers when they forgot it was their turn to sit in the front seat. I was very concerned with fairness if others had more but if I had more, I was less concerned. And when I read these two stories, I always assume that I am the person who worked harder, that I am the person more deserving, more worthy. I always assume that I should get more. But God is challenging more than our sense of fairness. God is challenging us to look through the lens of someone else, someone who might not have as much as I do. God is challenging us to see through God’s eyes.
Why were some workers left in the marketplace with no one asking them to work for them? Perhaps they are differently abled, or have a tough home life, or needed to get their children to school and ran late. Perhaps they do not speak the language or do not have transportation. Perhaps they were not hired first because they are gay or trans or Black or female.
Take a minute to consider how this parable would be read by those who have been at the back of the line. The workers who got paid more than we think “they deserve.” They must have been ecstatic. They can now go home and feed their families or pay their rent. They tried to get work all day but no one would hire them and then this generous landowner offered them a full day’s wage.
Because at the end of the day Jonah still has all the privileges that his life had before. The workers who got to the field early still got everything they were promised. At the end of the day God is more concerned with compassion than our perceived fairness. God is more concerned that all these workers maintain their dignity with a job and the security of a living wage.
I will be blunt. I do not often have the same vision that God has. My compassion has its limits. My fairness meter loves to make sure I am taken care of but is not as concerned about it being fair for others. But our God invites us into so much more than the individual. God invites us to open our eyes and ears and hearts to hear that not all of God’s children are safe. Who am I to be the gatekeeper to God’s love, to God’s compassion, to God’s generosity. Because I know that I have received more than my fair share.
Are you like me today? Someone who has received a generous share in this world. I would challenge you to join me in listening to the voices most affected by climate change, poverty, and racism in our world. They are God’s children as much as we are. Let us be like our God and be radically generous with what we have been given.
But I also imagine that some of you are not like me. You have had the short end of the stick given to you your whole life. You do not know where the next paycheck will come from. You do not know if you can make it one more day with all that is stacked against you. I would invite you to hear this message from God this morning. Nothing, no nothing, will stop God from loving you. Because you are worthy of a full share of the pie, a chance at a thriving and abundant life. God offers you life and life abundant.
Friends, our God is overflowing with radical generosity. There are times when we are at the front of the line and can share generously with others and times in our life when we are at the back of line and can rely on God’s abundance for us. Therefore let us go out and live lives filled with generosity. Amen.