Jesus told his disciples this parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. Going out about nine o’clock, the landowner saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’ So they went off. And he went out again around noon, and around three o’clock, and did likewise. Going out about five o’clock, the landowner found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’ When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’ When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage. So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’ He said to one of them in reply, ‘My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’ Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Let’s just set it out there again: life often is not fair. That’s one of the things that we learn early on. It’s the result of the Fall of our First Parents: Adam and Eve. Resentment was the sin of Cain that led him to kill his brother Abel. It wasn’t fair, Cain thought, that God chose Abel’s offering over his. Our Lord Jesus acknowledged this ubiquitous unfairness when He said in Matthew 5:45 “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” Why should the evil and the unjust get the benefit of sunshine and rain?
We’ve got this issue of fairness in the parable this morning from Matthew 20.
Let’s set the stage. As in so many of Jesus’ parables, the Landowner represents God and the workers represent both Israel and the Church. You see, among other things, Jesus meant this to be a warning to his disciples and by implication to us, the Faithful today, to be careful of our attitudes, especially our resentments and grudges, even in the face of obvious unfairness.
In the preceding chapter, Matthew 19, Peter showed that he was worried about fairness by stating that “We’ve left everything and followed you, so what is our reward?” Jesus promised great return for their sacrifices, but in this lesson today, he also seems to be giving a warning to the disciples and to us. Do not be resentful of folks we think are unfairly rewarded. We the faithful, the disciples of Jesus, are not to be overly concerned about whether or not things are fair. It’s right here in today’s parable.
You’re familiar with the story, so let me paraphrase:
A certain prosperous farmer needed some day laborers. At 6:00AM he went to the employment agency and picked out his crew; they agreed on a fair day’s wage and he put them to work. At 9:00 he went back and picked up a few more. At noon he came back, and then at 3:00 and finally at 5:00, one hour before quitting time.
Now the climax of the story is the anger and resentment of the workers who put in a long twelve hours; these were the guys who bore the heat of the day, who worked harder and longer than the others and they received no more than the guys who worked only for one hour It just wasn’t fair.
Sometimes you and I have a tough time with this, especially when life is unfair and specifically when life is unfair to me. It’s bad enough when life is unfair to you, but when life’s unfair to me, that’s really awful. It’s easy to slip into this kind of thinking, isn’t it?
Some years ago I saw the movie “Amadeus.” It was the story of that great musical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The movie depicted Mozart as a really irritating spoiled and crude sophomoric brat who also happened to be a musical genius. His social skills were almost non-existent. In the royal court of the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, Mozart acted the buffoon.
In contrast to Mozart was Joseph II’s chief court musician, a man named Solieri, a man of impeccable grooming and manners, but whose musical abilities were rather pedestrian compared to Mozart’s. Solieri despised Mozart. He resented him. He obsessed over this thought “How could God permit such an obnoxious person to be so gifted? It just wasn’t fair.”
What made this story particularly interesting to me was that Solieri was a pious Catholic. He was a man of deep faith, so he was seriously anguished when he could not understand why God did not make him more gifted instead of squandering all that talent on that boor Mozart. In a moment of despair and frustration, Solieri takes his crucifix off the wall and throws it into the fire. In his mind, Christ had forsaken him, so he was going to forsake Christ.
Most of us don’t do such dramatic gestures when we think God has forsaken us, or shown more favor to someone else who is much less worthy in our eyes. In response, we generally don’t burn our crucifixes or rosaries. But we may quit saying our prayers, we may stop attending Mass, thereby ex-communicating ourselves. After all, it’s just not fair.
Clinging to our own interpretation of fairness may very well reveal how we can easily misunderstand God’s ways. God’s kingdom is not based on fairness, it is based on love. And God’s love is not fair. Why? Because God’s love extends to people we think should not receive it: Muslim extremists, murderers, molesters, members of that other political party. When we are honest with ourselves, there are a whole lot of times in our lives when we aren’t deserving of God’s love, either, but we receive it anyway.
You see, what all this means is that God is doing business on his terms, not ours. That’s the lesson from the parable. God, speaking through the voice of the landowner says “am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’ I suggest that there are 4 primary difficulties in the human condition to which this parable speaks.
1. Self absorption: This is a theme I go back to frequently. Some years back I saw a bumper sticker that described perfectly the human condition. It said: “It really is all about me.” There’s a similar phrase from my friends in Alcoholics Anonymous: “I may not be much— but I am all I think about.” This is the basis of sin. This is the manifestation of our separation from God and others. This is not always the case. We are capable of incredible altruism, but there are plenty of times when we complain and grumble about inequities. Each one of us has been known to focus more on my work, my leisure, my problems, my wants and needs and less on God and his kingdom and his overwhelming love and graces. That is what leads to alienation, especially when things go sideways. It’s so easy to be self-absorbed. After all, it’s not fair.
2. Comparison: Growing up with siblings makes us constantly aware of comparison. Like many of you, we had a rule at our house when i was a youngster, that if there was one piece of cake left and two of us kids wanted it, one would cut the cake in half and the other would have first choice. My brother and I would literally get out a ruler to measure the cake. We were figuring height and width and depth and volume long before we ever heard of geometry. As adults we get into the comparison stuff so strongly that we all too frequently ignore God’s grace completely. We may not say the words, but we often think, “Hey, he got more cake than me.” It’s not fair.
3. Presumption: We often presume too much when it comes to getting rewards. Somewhere along the line we have learned to assume that we are entitled to every blessing, forgetting that blessings by definition are gifts. The biggest problem with presumption is that we neglect to say thank you from the heart and we may tend to be tightfisted with the gifts that God so generously has bestowed upon us. After all, what’s mine is mine, I’ve earned it or at least I deserve it, and if we don’t receive what we think we deserve, we get resentful and affirm in our hearts that it’s just not fair.
4. Distortion: When we judge others as unworthy and receiving more than they deserve, we misunderstand that the Kingdom of God is built on Grace and not on our efforts, no matter how much exertion we have extended. If we work hard and play by the rules and we are not rewarded in the way that we think we are entitled, we grouse that it’s just not fair. We identify with the people who worked all day and got paid the same as the workers who worked only one hour. It wasn’t fair. This kind of thinking brings a distorted view of God’s kingdom.
Here again are the 4 reasons why we so often think things are not fair:
So in closing, it’s not fair that folks should suffer, it’s not fair that little kids get cancer and that old people get ripped off and their retirement funds are embezzled, it’s not fair that folks are victims of terrible abuse and that all too often perpetrators go free. It’s not fair that earthquakes and hurricanes and forest fires should savage so many. And I would remind you that it’s especially not fair that God gave his only son to die on a cross for our salvation, but that’s what love does. It forgoes and sacrifices and serves in the midst of such horrible unfairness. That is the way of love. It’s not about fairness, it’s about gratitude and grace.