The Radical Unfairness of God
I love fairness. LIFE SHOULD BE FAIR. I think that seems right, don’t you?
Everybody gets the same size piece of cake in my house.
I am the oldest of four girls, and as a kid it was like my unofficial job in life to make sure everything was absolutely fair. No special privileges that weren’t properly earned, nobody shorted when it came time to divvy things up. The same number of m&ms in each hand, baby.
Fairness is important. When I was 16 I waited for three hours with my mom outside the NBC studio in Burbank, CA to get into the taping of the final episode of the Carol Burnette Show, and the two people who budded in front of us were the last two to get in. So completely unfair.
I like when the rules are clear and we all follow them. If you get there first, you get in first. If you pay more, you get a better seat. If you work longer hours, you get make more money. It’s only fair.
So you can understand why I HATED the parable about the laborers in the vineyard for much of my life. It is so very unfair. Like a good parable should; it got under my skin and made me uncomfortable.
Today’s parable is told in response to a question Peter asks Jesus. Just before it Jesus is approached by a very wealthy man, who asks him, What good deeds must I do to have eternal life? And Jesus answers, “Why do you ask me about what is good. There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” The man asks which ones, and Jesus lists them off. I keep them all, he answers. What do I still lack? And Jesus answers, if you wish to be perfect, sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor and follow me. And in the space between paragraphs, the man disappears, never to be heard from again.
Now Peter gets anxious, and figures that if the key to winning God’s favor is not by how well you do, then it must be by how much you give up. So he says, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What do we get?” And Jesus answers him with comforting words of future glory – you get taken care of in the end, but then throws in the zinger, that the last will be first and the first will be last. And then Jesus tells a parable to illuminate his point. Something like this:
You have a full-time job, and you like it fine; it’s not spectacular, but it’s reliable and fairly interesting, and you’ve been there for some time, and make a decent salary. You work a typical 9 to 5, 40 hours a week with an hour for lunch and three weeks vacation, negotiating for time off on various holidays, and you’ve done well, dutifully recording your hours, week after week, month after month, year after year.
On this sunny Friday afternoon, Fran, your coworker, has just arrived in the and the two of you are sitting down to lunch. You get along pretty well, but you don’t see her much because she only works half days Fridays. You open your lunch sack and pull out your tuna salad sandwich and apple. Fran gets up to put her Lean Cuisine in the microwave, and as she does she drops her stack of mail on the floor. You lean down and pick the papers up for her, and suddenly find yourself staring at her paycheck. It turns out that Fran makes exactly the same salary that you do. The Kingdom of Heaven is like this.
The first workers in the vineyard were there for the entire day, and when they see what the newcomers are paid, they are, naturally, outraged. We worked for you all day, and you gave them as much as you gave us. You have made them equal to us! But the landowner points out that he never wavered from his agreement with the first workers, they were paid what they’d agreed on. It only became unfair, when the others who did not deserve it, got the same payment. You had no problem contentedly working for our own salary as long Fran is paid appropriately less. It is only fair!
How will we know where we stand, unless we can compare ourselves to others? How can we tell how far we’ve come unless we can look back at those we’ve passed up? We understand rank and success, order and status; we know how to measure with this ruler. But the kingdom of heaven is different. It does not operate by what is fair. Not even close.
When I lived in Pasadena, every week I would drive past a corner where day workers waited for jobs. A truck would pull up and people would negotiate and discuss, and finally climb aboard – to go pick crops or help on a construction site. They got to that corner very early in the morning, and the good jobs came early too. If they were one of the first, they could take a job or pass it up for another one that came along, and when they agreed on a job, they agreed to a salary up front.
But what choices are there at the end of the day? There was no reason to hire them when the workday was almost over – and their chances of taking home any pay that day had trickled away as the sun rose higher and then began to set, and if they stood there still, on the curb, watching the work day come to a close, they were utterly without bargaining power. The last workers in our parable were entirely at the mercy of the landowner. They had no full or even half day’s work to exchange for payment, only their need. And yet both groups were paid the same.
For the first workers, the payment from the landowner was expected, anticipated, and earned; it was fair. For the last workers, it was inconceivable to expect it, unthinkable to anticipate it, and impossible to earn it; it was grace. And when grace came onto the scene fairness was flipped on its end. Suddenly, what had been fair for those first workers became completely unfair. “So the last will be first and the first last.”
Because God’s way is not about fairness. The kingdom of heaven judges and condemns our sense of fairness. “Fair” compares people to each other, and rewards those who those who earn it. “Fair” maintains a hierarchy. “Fair” says that by what we invest or accomplish, we can deserve to receive more than another. God does not respect the rule of fairness that we have set up to keep life orderly. The kingdom of heaven levels the playing field. It brings us all back to our common denominator, our humanity, and it upholds it. In the kingdom of heaven, if nowhere else, we are made equal.
And the beauty of the parable is that the landowner’s action redeemed not only the last workers, but also the first. Because the landowner’s actions said to all of them, You are worth the same as one another. You are all valuable to me.
We like to feel in control of our own destinies. But we’re not in control of our own destinies. We may not be wondering from day to day where our food will come from, but we may be wondering how long our health will hold out. We may not be stuck waiting to be hired for work today, but we may be stuck waiting for test results, or word that the grandbaby is out of surgery. We invest our money wisely, and then the financial markets crash; we work for 30 years for the same company and get pink slipped without warning. We follow all the advice and steps for a good marriage and end up divorced.
Putting our trust in the rules is a dangerous mind game. It is like the rich man trusting his wealth, and Peter trusting his sacrifice – it’s thinking that something we do can make or keep ourselves secure, or worthy, or good, or safe, somehow other than vulnerable human, in it alongside everyone else.
The big picture, the kingdom of God, shows the illusion for what it is. That no matter how fair we may try to make things, they are never really fair. It’s easier to do well and go far, for example, if you’re raised with enough resources, with tons of people who believe in you, in a culture where you speak the dominant language and look like the majority. It doesn’t hurt at all to have an extra dose of math skill in your genes, or the good looks and athleticism that opens doors, or to know someone who knows someone. On top of that it’s handy to avoid any genetic conditions, serious illnesses, or unforeseen accidents in your lifetime.
And when the system is working well for us, it is easier to swallow the lie that we are somehow earning our worth or securing our lives. But the truth is, that while life is a lot of things, fair is not one of them. Life is precious and scary and holy and messy and precarious, and no matter how we feel about the matter, according to this parable, God doesn’t care at all about being – or even appearing to be – fair.
Instead, “God is” as the Psalmist says, “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” (Psalm 145:8) All of these parables we will encounter this Lent invite us to peel back the surface and step into something deeper, something troubling, something that is risky and life-giving, but at first it is going to feel like dying. It is going to feel like losing your life instead of saving it, it is going to feel like being last instead of being assured you are first. The kingdom of heaven is like this. It confronts the kingdom of earth, the way of fear, and strips away all illusions and all false security, and it leaves us standing exposed in our true and simple humanity – with the lies we tell ourselves and the invitation of the truth right before us. It invites us to let go of fairness and join in generosity instead.
And for some people, it’s simply too terrifying of an invitation, or too offensive, and they walk away grieving, or leave grumbling.
But to the last worker, the thief on the cross, the lost sheep, the son who returns, and really to every single of us at one point or another in our lives and everyday, if we are extremely honest, this is the good news of the gospel. God’s way is not interested in fairness, it’s interested in life. When you are beyond hope, God is there. When you have wandered so far that you can’t find your way back, God will rescue you and nurse you back to strength. And when you have squandered all that God has given you and you limp home ashamed and miserable, God will run to you with open arms and embrace you as his beloved child. Because we are not paid by what we have earned; we are paid by the generosity of our God.
I hope that this makes us brave. We’ve got nothing to prove and nothing to lose. We are loved and called to share in the joy and the work that God is doing in this world that God loves and claims. And we are part of the kingdom of heaven, where all people really are equal, made in the image of God, and every single person is loved by God without earning a thing, and is meant to be part of God’s redemption and hope in the world.
But lest we begin to think we have earned it, lest we ever begin believing that in any way we deserve something that others do not, there is the parable of the workers, the story of the last receiving the same reward. Those who clearly couldn’t earn it, and obviously don’t deserve it.
And lest we ever begin to doubt our place, suspect that we don’t belong, that God can’t use us, we have nothing to offer, or that others are more valuable than we are, this parable reminds us that we are all recipients of the unfair grace and outrageous mercy of our generous God.