If you have children, or nieces and nephews, if you have ever spent any amount of time with children and teenagers, you have heard this sentence: It’s not fair! Usually said after reminding them of a chore or saying no to a request, this sentence has the power to start a tick in my left eye. It really does. It has the power to turn my usual love for my kiddos into a vicious snarl: life isn’t fair, get used to it. Life isn’t fair, get used to it.
Only, I’m 44 years old now, and I’m not used to it. I’m telling you, sometimes I still get upset at how unfair it is that my friend Carolin got to go to ballet lessons, and I did not. In first grade. I think it’s unfair that a friend of mine has gorgeous dark curls, and my hair is not. It’s unfair, that another friend of mine knows how to work a spreadsheet like her brain was set up like one, and I manage to lose my analog planner… And that’s just my personal stuff. When I dare to take a closer look at the news my cries of: It’s not fair! can be heard in space. Get used to it? Who am I kidding?
It's not fair, said the laborers in our Gospel reading today. And you know, I agree with them. It’s not fair, that the laborers who toiled the whole day in the hot sun should get the same wages as the laborer who only worked the last hour of the day. This is certainly not up to Union standards. They actually have a really good cause to go on strike. So, why would Jesus tell a parable where people get treated unfairly, and the landowner, presumably the stand-in for God in this story, is the one acting unfairly? I have to be honest, I struggle with this. Guess I’m not used to it. And then, the landowner goes a step further even, and says: are you envious because I am generous? God is asking: are you envious because I am generous? I want to say no to that question, no, of course I’m not. I’m not that shallow. Who would be offended by generosity? Not me!
But, you know, I was really envious that Carolin’s parents generously paid and supported her wish to go to ballet lessons. I really do think that God should have given me dark beautiful curls and a spreadsheet for a brain. Let’s not go into who I am envious of when I read the news, but I’m telling you it’s not a pretty picture. Apparently, I am that shallow. I’m envious when other people have what I want. From hair to freedom, I want what’s mine. The question is, why does this translate to envy? Why do we, like the laborers of the vineyard, envy and covet our neighbor’s possessions?
I think the answer is that we have created a world that operates under a paradigm of scarcity. Our society plays a competitive zero-sum game. The zero-sum game is an economic theory that assumes there are at least two sides. The advantage of one side automatically turns into an equivalent loss for the other side. In other words, it’s your fault I don’t have what I want and it’s not fair.
The world we created isn’t fair. Our economy is not fair. That is why I think, this Gospel reading is so irritating. Shouldn’t God’s economy at least be fair? Was Jesus himself unfair?
Some people actually make that case, when they see him eat with tax collectors and other sinners. The Pharisees don’t understand why Jesus respects known sinners. Doesn’t Jesus know that the Pharisees are the ones that work so hard to please God? These other people, these sinners don’t deserve to be given the same respect the same worth as us, they argue, it’s not fair. The original audience of the Gospel according to Matthew, was a predominantly Jewish Christian sect and some of them did not think it’s fair for gentiles to join them as equals. They were persecuted for their faith so much longer, they had put in so much more work. It’s not fair that the newcomers should get the same benefits. How about today’s audience? Oh boy. How worried are we that money goes to undeserving people? There are children in our schools today going hungry watching their friends eat. Because their parents haven’t proven to us that they are worthy of our help. As a society, we are not a generous people. No wonder God’s generous Grace disrupts our sense of fairness.
If that’s our attitude about the work it takes to make it in this world, what is our understanding of the efforts we make to serve God? How do we feel about working for God’s kingdom? Do we view our good works as a benefit to God? Almost as a kind of bargaining ship. My good works for your Grace. Deal.
No wonder we suffer from anxiety. Daily we wake up believing that we must be productive, we must prove ourselves worthy, no mistakes are allowed, every day is a win or a loss. Whether it concerns our career, family, or spirituality, we believe we must do good or else we’re worth less. And people with not enough worth lose in life. Can you feel the anxiety rising?
But see, the thing is God has no need of our good works. Our good works are just that: ours. They are actually our gift from God, not a benefit to God. God does not pay us with his Grace and Mercy, he showers us with it. And isn’t it mostly when we do that good work that we are fully aware of this generous and unconditional Love? And don’t our good works make this tired earth feel a bit more just and fairer? What a gift. It is indeed a good thing we don’t get used to this unfair world. It inspires us to do God’s work.
Hopefully, when I hear “It’s not fair” again, I’ll join their cry. You’re right. It’s not fair. Let’s figure out how to make it better. And then, while we’re at it lets figure out how to let go of the notion that people must prove themselves worthy to live with dignity. Let’s figure out how to stop playing the zero-sum game. Let’s figure out that the root of our anxiety is a lie because scarcity is a man-made concept. There is no scarcity of God’s Grace.
God’s economy indeed has no need for fairness. Because God’s reality has no sides, no winners, no losers. No podiums or gated communities are part of God’s kingdom. There is no race we have to run, no test we have to pass, no one to impress, nothing to own, there is no one we have to be better than. There is no need for spiritual competition, because our reward is already as good as it could possibly get. The generosity of God doesn’t have a need for fairness because God’s generosity is all grace. All mercy. All love. And no one goes without. It’s not fair. It’s better.