We tend to have a stereotype in our head of a child coming in from trick or treating on Halloween clutching his or her stash of candy. When mother says, “Why don’t you share some of that with your sister” there is immediate resistance. “This is my candy.” What researchers into child psychology have found is that the resistance does not come out of selfishness but out of a sense of fairness. I did the work to get this candy going from house to house and it is only fair that I get to keep it. In fact, there have been studies where one child, sometimes as young as three, is given four candies and another child is given one. More often than not the child with four will share some of their candy with the other child. It didn’t seem fair for her to have more than him. Think how often you hear “that’s not fair” from a child. How come Johnny gets to stay up later than I do? That’s not fair. We watched her program last night; how come I can’t watch mine tonight? That’s not fair. How come Sally is always the pitcher? That’s not fair. I finished my chores but he didn’t finish his. That’s not fair. From our earliest childhood things being fair is a value that we insist upon.
However, often in life things are not fair. Most of the social ills that we are dealing with arise because things are not fair. It’s not fair that the children in this school have all the latest technology, newer buildings, and the best educated teachers while the children in that school have to scrounge for school supplies, use buildings from before the war (that’s the World War not the war on Terror), and have teachers with limited background and experience. It’s not fair that men get paid a higher salary than women for doing the exact same work. It’s not fair that Black men are 2.5 times more likely than white men to be killed by police during their lifetime and the Black men who were fatally shot by police are twice as likely as white people to be unarmed. It’s not fair that a person in this job has health insurance and the person in that job doesn’t. You get the idea. Creating a fairer society will go a long way toward making a more perfect union.
All of which serves as background to the parable of Jesus that we usually call “the workers in the vineyard.” An initial reaction to the story is that the landowner did not treat the workers fairly. If “equal pay for equal work” is the motto of fairness then the landowner is blatantly unfair. Those who “bore the day’s burden and the heat” were paid the same as those who only worked an hour. You can imagine them thinking, “Tomorrow I am going to stand around in the marketplace all day like those johnny-come-latelies did today and get the same wages.” Was Jesus in favor of being fair? The way to interpret this parable, as with so many others, is to name it the way that Jesus named it. For example, what we call the parable of the Prodigal Son actually begins in Jesus’ telling “A man had two sons.” The parable we call the Pearl of Great Price begins by talking about a merchant searching for fine pearls. Both the father’s sons and the merchant’s search are the keys to understanding the meaning of those parables. So how does Jesus begin this story? “A landowner went out at dawn to hire laborers.” Jesus wants the parable to focus on the landowner. The landowner hires laborers. The landowner agrees on “the usual daily wage.” The landowner keeps hiring workers all through the day, promising “to give what is just.” The landowner pays all the workers – those who worked ten hours and those who worked one hour — a living wage. The landowner disagrees that he is being unjust – he is being generous. The landowner does not give the late arriving workers what they have earned but what they need. The landowner challenges the complaining workers not to think merely about themselves but about their co-workers. This parable, Jesus says, tells us something about the kingdom of God. In the kingdom of God it is not fairness, not justice, not evenhandedness that is the highest priority but generosity, kindness, goodness.
So our reflection: what kind of God do we want, a God who is fair or a God who is generous? If God were only fair we would earn our way to God by keeping the commandments, stopping at red lights, petting dogs and helping little old ladies cross the street. But God is more than fair, God is generous and comes to us with love, naming us beloved and calling us precious even before we have taken one step. God loves us because God is good, not because we are good. If God were merely fair when we messed up we would be written off. You had your chance and you blew it, But since God is generous we are given chance after chance, not matter how often we mess up God always takes us back. If God were merely fair, we would get to heaven by being baptized, attending Church on Sunday, saying our prayers and paying our tithes. Since God is generous all God’s children Catholic and Protestant, Jew and Gentile, Muslim and Buddhist are somehow included in Jesus’ redemptive welcome. Reminds me of the old joke: when Mary died and met St. Peter at the pearly gates he welcomed her into heaven. “Would you like a tour of the many mansions?” Mary readily agreed. They went past one mansion where there was stately organ music and congregational hymn singing. “That’s the Methodists,” St. Peter said, “There will be cookies later.” Another mansion was filled shouting and drums and foot stomping and Alleluias. “That’s the Pentecostals.” They came to another mansion and Peter motioned for Mary to be quiet and tip toe past. “That’s the Catholics,” St. Peter said, “They think they’re the only ones up here.” I don’t know about you but I’m glad God isn’t limited to being fair but our God is good all the time and all the time God is good.