No Fair | Matthew 20:1-16
Take this parable of a man hiring workers and paying them all the same, the ones who worked all day and the ones who only worked a little while. They all received what they were promised, but the ones who worked the longest complained that it was not fair.
We would agree with them. In fact, most countries have laws in place to protect against such treatment. It was not fair.
Was it wrong? That’s a different question.
The landowner, in whom we may easily see God, honors the promise of a daily wage. The promise is kept, but the wages are not fair, not in the eyes of the people who worked all day only to receive the same wage as those who only worked a little while. Never mind that everyone received everything they were promised. A coin may look like more in some hands than in others.
Those people who were given work and a living wage at the beginning of their day know nothing of the anxiety and despair of those who sit and wait, worrying about how to feed their families, how to buy clothes for them, or medicine. It may be that those who are hired late in the day have already worked harder than those who did not have to worry. When we have what we need, it is easy to think it is because we are somehow better, more deserving, than those who have nothing. We forget the poor. You know, the ones we always have with us.
God is God, and we are not. Many would say so and be right. So God gives more than what was promised—what is wrong with that? Is it not an expression of grace? God has promised us nothing that we have not received or at least might still receive, for good or bad.
There is another side to the coin. Think of the old stories of the descendants of Abraham, the exodus from Egypt, and the entrance into their new homeland. How about the Egyptian soldiers swept away by the sea—were they all evil? What about the people who were displaced and killed when the Israelites entered their new land—did they all deserve such treatment? And there are other stories. How about the boys who teased Elisha—was that enough to set the bears on them, if that is what God did?
God is not fair, it seems. Sometimes God paints with a brush that is far wider than we would like, or with one far too narrow. That person is helped, but we are not. We are blessed, and our neighbors appear to be forgotten, overlooked by God. Some of us are born free and live well in rich lands. Others are born into poverty and eke out a living in the poorest places on earth. None of us has any say in where we are born, for good or bad.
And neither we nor they, the blessed nor the overlooked, can say anything. If God were fair, if we each received what we deserved, the earth would have been rid of all of us long ago. At the same time, we might say to Isaiah that we are not clay pots that have no voice in how we are shaped. The potter may make or break the pot, but we may do something that the clay cannot—we may choose how to respond.
And what choice makes sense in the face of the unfairness of God? There is only the response of Job, who lost everything except the things he wished were gone—trust, and faith that God is worthy of it.
Meanwhile, we might remember the people who are still waiting for a day’s wage or a place at the table.