It’s not fair!

37519192 - man is working in a vineyard

Matthew 20.1-16

If you’ve had anything to do with children you’ve heard them say it. Whether as a parent or as a teacher, you know that one of their most frequently uttered phrases is, ‘It’s not fair!’

The issue may be the amount of food on plates, or turns with the ball, or bedtime, or possession of the best crayons, or any number of things, but the cry is still the same: ‘It’s not fair!’

And you find yourself dealing with it by either giving in, or by gritting your teeth and saying such ridiculous things like: Life’s not fair – get used to it!

Parents will be aware that the incidence of the phrase “It’s not fair” increases proportionally to the number of children in the family. At least, with three children, we seemed to get a lot of it. Let me give you an example.

As they grow older there is a tendency to be less strict with the second or third child than you were with the first. You know how it is. The eldest had set bedtimes at a particular age. When the second child gets to that age the eldest is, of course, going to bed later. And so it starts. You try to get the younger child to go to bed and out it comes – It’s not fair, they’re going to bed later than me! And so you give in and say they can stay up a little longer. And then, from the older child – It’s not fair – you never let me stay up that late when I was that age! Whatever you do will be seen as wrong – and if you have three or four children it gets even more complicated.

Whatever you do there is a feeling of injustice – even though the eldest child has not lost anything they were promised, nor had anything taken away. Where do children get this sense innate sense of what is and what is not fair? The sense that It’s not fair even if adults can see that it’s perfectly fair?

Well, it seems to be built into human nature, a sense that the world should be a fair place, but often is not, and that human beings have the right to protest if things are not fair. And this sense stays with us as we grow up. We might be better at rationalising why we feel something is unfair – and sometimes we may be right – but we can be just as bad as children at protesting at the unfairness of it all even when there is no justification.

We grumble if we feel someone else has got the promotion we deserve. We protest if what we feel are our rightful needs are not met, especially if those of our neighbour are. That sense of fairness is all too often manifested when we feel that we have lost out somewhere, but all too often not seen at all when we have something the other person hasn’t. I don’t remember my children saying “It’s not fair” when one of the others had to go to bed earlier, or had fewer sweets, or less pocket money.

This human sense of fairness is what gives the parable of the workers in the vineyard its shock value. The landowner hires some labourers at the beginning of the day, and agrees with them their pay, the normal daily wage. He goes again and hires some more at midday, some more in the middle of the afternoon, and some more still at the end of the afternoon. When their pay time comes, those hired last are paid first and get the normal daily wage. Think about that – they’re not paid pro-rata but are given a whole day’s pay!

The first to be hired see this, and expect more. It seems only fair that they should be paid more, for more work. They are angry that they are to be paid only the normal daily rate, even though that was what they had initially agreed and even though they have no right to expect more. They have received a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work – but their reaction is It’s not fair!

I wonder whose side you are on when you hear this story. Do you think that those first workers have a point? They have slaved all day in the sun, but they have only earned as much as those who have only worked for an hour. Think of your workplace. Would it be fair for everyone to be paid the same, without regard for the effort they put in? The landowner’s response to the objection perhaps seems to be thoroughly unsatisfactory; he can do what he likes with his own money. True, but interestingly it does not address the issue of fairness, which is the problem here for the labourers. They do not appear to be able to cope with the generosity of the landowner – yet each has received what was promised and what they agreed.

How might Jesus’ first listeners have reacted? Parables are usually designed to shock in some way, and this one is no exception. Imagine the reactions that Jesus might have got from his audience. You can imagine them agreeing with the first workers. ‘But it isn’t  fair,’ someone in the crowd might have muttered, ‘they should have got more for all that extra work, or the later workers should have got paid less’.

But perhaps a more thoughtful person in the crowd might say, ‘But the first workers got what they had agreed to. And the workers who were hired last, how were they to feed their families if they were paid only for an hour?’

‘Ah,’ someone else might reply, ‘but that’s their own look out if they hang around the market place all day instead of doing a good day’s work.’

‘But perhaps it wasn’t their fault,’ says someone else, ‘perhaps they did their best to be hired, but there wasn’t enough work to go round that day. Isn’t it better that the landowner should be unfair than that children should starve?’

You see where our imaginary discussion has taken us. It has shifted the ground of the debate from issues of individual fairness, to broader issues of justice in society.

But this parable of Jesus is not just a story about fairness in society generally. It’s a story about heaven. It is prefaced with the words, ‘the kingdom of heaven is like…’

This is a story about God, clearly represented by the landowner. And it is, of course, a story explaining that whether you have spent your whole life following God, or have only been converted on your deathbed, the result is the same – God’s gift of a place in his kingdom. It’s a concept that doesn’t sit easily with some people. In God’s eyes everyone who follows him, everyone who works in his vineyard is valued equally and gets the same reward.

Two stories that highlight how Christians can so easily forget that.

Malcom Muggeridge was a well-known broadcaster who died in 1990 – for much of his life a non-believer, an agnostic, he was ultimately converted to Christianity and became outspoken on religious and moral issues. I remember, back in my teenage years before I became a Christian, my mother complaining about him. “He spends his whole life,” she said somewhat indignantly, “being an atheist, and then he goes and becomes a Christian when he’s old and thinks that’s alright! Of course it isn’t!” – and manages to reject a central tenet of the Reformation, that of justification by faith alone.

And we can be the same even within congregations. I remember, in a previous parish where I was helping out, having a conversation after evensong with a few people from the congregation. They were talking about who they could get to join the Parochial Church Council, because they were short of applicants. It so happened that a young man had recently joined the church. He had moved into the area, and had left his previous church where he had been active for many years including serving on the PCC. He was a very faithful Christian, worshipped at least once a week, and people really liked him. “How about John?” I asked, “He would be a valuable addition to the PCC – he has lots of experience.” “Oh no,” said one lady, “We’re not having that! We don’t allow anyone on the PCC until they have been coming at least five years in case they start changing things!”

Those kinds of views are amazingly common among people who have spent their whole life in the church. The idea that the longer you’ve been a Christian or the longer you’ve been in a particular church, the more valuable, the more important, you somehow are or ought to be in God’s scheme of things. But that is seeing things our way and not God’s way.

Because that’s not how God sees things at all, is it? That’s not how God works. God – the landowner in the parable – treats those who have done a full day’s work the same as those who have only started work at the end of the day. Those who had done a day’s work say It’s not fair! Perhaps we too want to say It’s not fair! But in God’s way of working it is totally fair.

Just look at how the parable ends. The last will be first, and the first will be last. That’s how God works. Remember the penitent thief who hung on a cross next to Jesus – as he died he turned to Jesus as was admitted to Paradise. That is God’s idea of fairness.

‘Are you envious because I am generous?’ the landowner asks the workers, and by analogy God asks us.

‘Yes,’ we might reply, ‘we want to get what’s rightfully ours.’ But we might then remember how little we deserve God’s generosity towards us, and be willing for him to share that generosity with others.

For ultimately we are all called, like the workers in the vineyard no matter what time they were hired, to do the work God has called each of us to do and to all be valued the same as each other and to receive the same reward. An equal place within the love of God, and an equal place in heaven.