Fairness is a highly subjective matter isn’t it? As Rev. John Claypool once noted, “Most of us never complain about injustice when it falls in our favor. In the game of poker, the player who has four aces rarely calls for a re-deal. Do you ever remember someone in such a situation saying, “Look, this really isn’t fair. I have this incredible hand. Let’s reshuffle and start all over”?
No, that isn’t how human nature works. If we wind up with the best hand of cards, the first place in line, or the biggest slice of the pie, we’re not likely to protest or challenge the rules. But what happens when someone else is the recipient of good fortune and we are not? Then we tend to scrutinize everything with the sneaking suspicion that something’s just not fair.
Jesus’ disciples were not so different from us. Anxiety about being justly treated and fairly rewarded certainly plagued them, too. So Jesus addressed their concerns one day by telling them a puzzling parable about a landowner who hires laborers for his vineyard. Some he hires at the beginning of the day, telling them he will pay them a denarius apiece, the average daily wage. Then the landowner continues to hire more workers throughout the day, promising to pay every worker what is right. He hires some at nine, more at noon, still others at three, and a final group at five, just an hour before the close of the work day,
Finally, at the end of the day, the owner of the vineyard has his manager line up all the workers to receive their pay, beginning with those who were hired only an hour before the end of day. These late-comers are paid the full daily wage of a denarius. Imagine how excited the workers who were hired first must have been by that! They were probably downright gleeful, anticipating the hefty bonus that was store for them, after having put in a grueling 12-hour day. But when those who had worked longest and hardest are finally given their daily pay, they too receive a day’s wage, one denarius. Needless to say, an uproar results, as those who believed they were undervalued and underpaid cried, “unfair!” To their complaints the vineyard owner responds that he has wronged no one. He fulfilled every promise he made, and has simply been especially generous to some.
Well, if that little parable is supposed to tell us something about our claims to fairness and rank and position, it challenges more than a few assumptions, doesn’t it? If the landowner represents God, and we are all the workers, then maybe the parable is urging us to overcome our envy of one another by giving us a glimpse of God’s wider perspective on our worth and what God’s ultimate generosity to us will look like.
So in our scramble to tally up what is due to us, to justify what we deserve, to challenge the fairness of someone else’s situation, let’s not overlook the blessings God wants to give us all. God may even now be calling us to come, whether at daybreak, nine, noon, three or five, to give us a wealth of grace and love in quantities that are far more than fair.