Try to imagine for a moment that you have been in your workplace for more than ten years and a new employee gets hired and works the same job you do but receive ten percent more than what you get. Or try to imagine that in spite of your ten years in the job, you got laid off while that new employee got to stay and kept his. Well, maybe you don’t have to imagine them at all because that’s the reality in the workplace nowadays. My guess is that it would not or does not sit too well with you as you would most likely be on his defense for the obvious reason that it’s unfair!
Our sense of equality and our preferment for equitable distribution usually lead us to champion the cause of flying the banner of fairness. We totally support such a cause and, consequently, we would not entertain any second thought when it comes to matters of fairness or more importantly, on matters of justice.
We demand that we get what we deserve when it comes to our job; although there’s that great possibility that we would not be so overly concerned if we end up getting a little bit more than what we actually deserve. And that, by itself, might appear to have a veneer of unfairness. Why? It’s because, as is often the case, only when we appear “disadvantaged” that we get so enthused and tempted to bring into play the rules of fairness. We rarely hear of someone who, after getting paid for the hours she did not work for, still complains “What? I’m getting a full pay? But I was off for two days. It’s not fair.” It’s funny how that works.
The Gospel story (Matthew 20:1-16) for this Sunday alludes to this seeming inconsistency in the arena of fairness. The landowner in the parable pays all of his workers the same amount, even though they worked different numbers of hours. Listening to this story, many of us would readily think to ourselves, “Well, that doesn’t seem fair.” In the course of saying those words, we somehow pass our judgment as we observe the scale of fairness to be tipping not on our favor. Why? It’s because we side with those who have put in the most and naturally, we feel aggrieved. We could easily identify ourselves with them.
But what if we ally ourselves with the ones on the receiving end of the landowner’s generosity? Would we still be saying “Well, that doesn’t seem fair.”? We usually do not complain when it comes to bonuses, do we? In similar situations, we keep mum and let it fly. And so, how ironic it is that in one situation we become so resentful, and in the other we are more than pleased and grateful for the added blessings.
Having made that observation, I think there is the danger of “reading” this story along the terms we observe in our human experience which could lead us to conceive of God as being just with some people and overly generous with others, or that He lets some of us get exactly what we deserve while letting others get more, or that God is extra-kind to some people but less so with others.
If we view the story only in those terms, we might come to the logical conclusion that God, after all, doesn’t treat us all the same. And the moment we fall into this trap, we could not be more wrong. Part of the problem, I believe, is that we talk about these attributes and actions of God while employing a very limited tool: human language. When we try to say something about God; when we attempt to understand and explain that which is “Unexplainable”, we use words that we employ when describing human attributes, not realizing that such words are “limited” when used for a better understanding of God.
From our human perspective it can look as if God picks and chooses who gets the most and who gets the least, who gets immeasurable blessings and who must go without, who has a special place in his heart and who is just ordinary. What’s really happening is that God is simply being God doing exactly what He is supposed to be doing.
So how might we understand this story? Perhaps we need to re-read the story. You see, our tendency is to focus on the fact that the laborers did not put in the same amount of work. And that’s a simple reflection of our ways of looking at things. But what we probably should focus on more is the fact that each of the workers received a full day’s pay which the landowner promised to everyone he called to work on his vineyard; for the all-day laborers and for the newcomers, for the greatest and for the least, for the first and yes, even for the last.
Again, at times, we think God doesn’t treat us all the same. Well, from our human perspective, maybe not. But viewed from the lens of faith, God wants the best for each one of us. God loves and blesses us all, without any regard to what society might have thought of us. God wants each of us to experience the same fullness of life –the same “full day’s wage” – a full, rich, and meaningful life.
It’s interesting to note what Jesus said to those workers he approached later in the day. He asked them: “Why do you stand here idle all day?” Perhaps, the parable about God’s fairness is really meant for them and for us who might have also put off embracing the new life Jesus won for us through his death and resurrection. Finding affinity with those who “stood idle in the marketplace” should convince us that we’re the ones for whom God continually offers a full day’s wage. And while it might look pitiable, it actually points to a remarkable opportunity for hope, for it doesn’t matter how long we have been idle, how long we have refused the precious gift of new life.
And while there might be more than a few who had been standing on the sidelines for their entire lives, the Good News is that, as far as God is concerned, that doesn’t matter. God doesn’t care what transpired before or who we were yesterday and the day before. He only cares who we want to be today and whether or not we will accept his invitation to journey out into the vineyard and receive our full day’s wage.
That’s the God I have known and the God I serve. And He may not seem fair when viewed from our inadequate lens of human perception, although in truth, as this parable teaches us, God is much more than fair. God loves us, He is generous, and He is merciful. With this parable, hopefully, we can be as loving and as generous and as merciful, not just to those whom we have known much longer but to all, with no distinction of any kind.
So let it be our noble intention to continually strive for real fairness.