What is Fair?

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By Martin Jackson

[1] For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. [2] After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. [3] And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, [4] and to them he said, You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you. [5] So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. [6] And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, Why do you stand here idle all day? [7] They said to him, Because no one has hired us. He said to them, You go into the vineyard too. [8] And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first. [9] And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. [10] Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. [11] And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, [12] 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. [13] But he replied to one of them, Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? [14] Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. [15] Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? [16] So the last will be first, and the first last. (Matthew 20:1-16 [ESV]

We certainly seem to have a very clear sense of what we consider fair. I don’t think I can remember playing, as a kid, for more than two hours without hearing someone complain about the fairness of what we were doing – whether it was playing football, Monopoly, or video games. Who gets the good controller? Who gets to go first? Who gets to pick first.

I’ve seen my own children question the fairness of whether or not they should do chores. Someone gets more dishes to do one night than another one, and suddenly it’s not fair. As adults, it isn’t that much different. I’ve seen very similar complaints at work; there are a whole series of hot-button issues right now about people being treated differently based on which building they’re working in.

While fairness itself seems to be exactly about treating a whole group equally, it seems that we only have cause to complain about it when we feel we’re being treated badly. I have to confess, when I was a kid, I didn’t often complain about getting to use the good joystick when we were playing Atari games. I don’t remember any of my kids complaining about not having to do the dishes. And I don’t remember hearing anyone complain that people in other buildings aren’t getting some of the same perks for being in one building or another. In other words, we seem to notice fairness only when we think something is unfair to us, we don’t seem to notice as quickly or at all when something is unfair to someone else.

Our workers in the parable find themselves in a very similar situation. The master of the house needs workers for his vineyard. He makes a deal with a number of men early in the morning for the standard day’s wage – one denarius. The Romans counted time from dawn, so the third hour would be about 9, the sixth hour would be around noon, the eleventh hour would be right around 5 p.m. As the day wears on, he hires more and more men – right until the literal eleventh hour of the day. The only ones for whom he has negotiated a specific rate are the ones he hired first – the rest he offers “whatever is right”. As far as the parable goes, they were probably happy to be hired at all, and anything they might get would be better than nothing.

When the time comes to pay the men, the master starts with those who spent the least amount of time working for him – and pays them a full day’s wage. Those who started first thing in the morning are upset about this – they clearly did more work, and harder work, because they worked during the heat of the day. But the master of the house is only honoring the deal he made with them – the deal didn’t mean he couldn’t hire more people later, and it didn’t specify what they could or should receive for their efforts. So what the master did may not have been equal, but it certainly wasn’t unjust to anyone, and it was certainly very generous to those who started later – generosity that was well within the rights of the master of the house since it was his money to pay as he saw fit.

So it is with us, as believers in Christ. Some of us are fortunate enough to grow up in the faith, to be baptized and called to faith as infants and grow up in a Christian household. Some of us attended Christian schools, too.

Others are called later, as older children, as teenagers, or even as adults. In the most extreme case, we have the example of the thief on the cross, who confessed his faith in Christ even as they both were about to die. Christ’s promise to him? “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

It is so easy to believe that God should reward us for our labors. But what if we got what we really deserved? Just like we don’t like to point out when we’re getting the better end of the deal, unfairly, we don’t like to think about the things that we’ve done that deserve punishment.

And the truth is that we all have done those things. The jealousy and strife of the calls of “That’s unfair” – they’re easy examples to use because we can all relate to them. We’ve all seen them, and we’ve all participated in them. That kind of jealousy leads to covetousness, where we desire to take things that don’t belong to us. That covetousness led King David, who had more of everything than anyone else around him, to conspire to murder a good and loyal soldier and commit adultery with his wife Bathsheba.

But Nathan the prophet came to David and told him a parable: 2 Sam. 12 The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, 3 but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him. 4 “Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.” 5 David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! 6 He must pay for that lamb four times over because he did such a thing and had no pity.”

David certainly recognized the unfairness of that situation. But he didn’t immediately see how it applied to him. Nathan’s next words immediately made him recognize the truth of the situation – “You are the man.” David would face other, temporal consequences as well, but his next response is the one we should remember and emulate: 13 Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan replied, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. David doesn’t try to hide or make excuses. He doesn’t try to minimize what he has done. He simply acknowledges his fault and confesses his sin.

And Nathan’s response to David is also God’s response to us when we confess our sin. Not because we confess our sin, as if that is some kind of merit, but out of God’s pure mercy and grace: “You are not going to die.” Instead of dying, we will live with him forever. Someday, Christ will say, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Some of us grew up in the faith. Others of us didn’t. We need to remember that we are all only here because of God’s mercy and generosity. When we enjoy eternal life, it will not be because we endured more, or worked harder, or were better Christians than any others It will be because, and only because, Christ paid the price for our sins, by suffering and dying and rising again from the dead.

So let us thank and praise God for his generosity, and be thankful that he has dealt with us as we deserve. In Christ’s name, Amen.

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