Pentecost 18, September 18th, 2005
“It’s Not Fair!”
A million dollar golf tournament was held which drew contestants from near and far. Many experienced golfers who had worked for years and years on their game came for their shot at the jackpot. The winner would be the closest to the pin. Golfer after golfer tried for the hole, and one skilled veteran made it within six inches. Not too shabby.
Then he watched as a certain hacker came to the tee, and swung the most horrible looking swing had ever seen. But luck was with this amateur. His ball bounced off a nearby photographers’ cart and landed just one inch from the hole. He won the contest. He won the money. Who ever said life was fair?
There’s an old farmer’s saying about people who just stumble into good luck without working hard – “The dumber the farmer, the bigger the spuds”. It’s another way of saying, life is not fair.
I. “It’s Not Fair!” Said the Servants
Jesus knew the same, that life isn’t fair. And so he told a parable about it.
The parables of Jesus are masterful. He takes a common situation and tells a story we can remember. He puts heavenly meaning into earthly things. And we can all relate to it. This parable is no different.
The situation is common enough – an employer is hiring. As was the norm in the ancient world, and even in some places today – the employer hires day-laborers. The vineyard owner hires men to help him at 4 different times during the 12 hour work day. Now this is a little strange. Especially the hiring at the 11th hour.
The first workers are promised a denarius, a typical day’s wage. The terms of the subsequent hirings are a bit vague, though. “whatever is right” will be what they are paid.
When payment time comes at the end of the day, those working longest begin to wonder – what will I be paid? “Whatever is right!” in their mind, was more than those latecomers. So when they received the same – they were upset. And we can relate to that feeling. It didn’t seem fair.
But after all, it was the agreement they made, it was the owner’s money, and his right to pay others in line with his own sense of fairness.
Where is Jesus going with this parable? What does it mean? He’s talking about fairness in the kingdom of God - the vineyard, that is. God, of course, is the owner. And we are the workers. But what kind of workers, and what is a fair price? It seems this parable raises many questions. Chief among them, “what is fair?”. Let’s ponder fairness today in light of God’s work in Christ, and gain a deeper understanding of just how unfair – and just how fair – our God is.
II. When We Say “It’s Not Fair!”
Fairness is a concept we Americans are familiar with. From an early age, we learn what “fairness” is all about. Soon after the words “No!” and “Mine!”, children learn that handy phrase, “It’s not fair!”. And we find ourselves echoing our own parents, “Who ever said life was fair?”
Still, we have an expectation that it will be! When someone cheats and gets ahead of us, we feel indignant. Slighted. It’s not fair!
“I’ve been at this company for years, and that young upstart gets the promotion while I’m passed over? It’s not fair.”
“I’m a good parent. I really, really love my children. How come everyone else has perfect kids, and mine have all the problems? It’s not fair!”
“I lived a good, clean, life. No smoking – I tried to eat well. And now the doctor says I have lung cancer. But my sister-in-law has smoked a pack a day for 40 years, and is just fine. It’s not fair.”
Or how many other examples of UN-fairness could we think of? In the end, our sense of fairness is most keen when we feel WE are the victims of an injustice. Or when we feel someone is treated more favorably than we are – for no good reason.
The common thread in this thought process is this:
1) I am good. I deserve good things.
2) I am not receiving good things.
3) Something must be wrong.
4) Who’s going to fix it?
But is this the way the Christian should think?
1) Am I that good really? Not according to the law, and my sins it shows.
2) Am I receiving good things? We all do, in abundance. Sometimes just not the ones we want when we want them.
3) Is something wrong? Yes, but with us, not with God.
4) Don’t worry. God will fix it. He already has.
III. God Says, “You’re right, it’s NOT fair!”
God is supremely unfair and supremely fair at the same time.
Unfair – “he does not treat us as our sins deserve, or repay us according to our iniquities”. Some would say this is not fair. You might look at the sinner over there and WANT God to punish him or her. You might expect that a fair and just God would mete out due punishment to THOSE people. If he doesn’t, it’s not fair!
But if the bank error is in YOUR favor, you are usually not the one to complain about it. Was the servant who came last to the field the one complaining about receiving an entire day’s wage? No. It is the other servants who felt they deserved more – they spoke up.
Perhaps one lesson in this story is the great danger in comparing ourselves to others. We risk losing sight of our own faults and failings.
So which servant are you? Which one am I?
We should see ourselves , with humility, as that final servant – the one who deserves it least. We should all say with Paul, “I am chief of sinners”. For, in all fairness, none of us deserves the blessings God gives. Perhaps this is where the extension of the parable must end – for workers deserve a wage, but sinners deserve punishment, not grace. We deserve damnation not glory. Even our so-called “good work” is disgusting to God on its own. For us to receive a wage at ALL is definitely not fair.
So God is, in a sense, unfair. He is unfair to US, and that is something to be thankful for. But God is, in another sense, ultimately fair.
Fair – he demonstrates his justice in Christ, who bears the wages of sin for all men. God’s divine wrath is meted out, but it is focused on one many, channeled through his cross. All the righteous anger and punishment that – in all fairness, we deserve – is executed. But not on us! That’s the wonderful twist in God’s sense of fair play. He satisfies his own demands himself.
So now, in Christ, we rightly claim a place in God’s kingdom. We claim the inheritance of sons. We have, by Christ’s work, an earned credit with God. His work on the cross, and his perfectly lived life – we get the credit for all that. Like the workers who slaved in the fields all day, and the latecomer benefits from their efforts – how much more do we latecomers benefit from the work of Christ? In fact we bring nothing to the table.
We are beneficiaries of his “unfair fairness”.
Reflecting on this parable of Jesus, we could say: In God’s kingdom, life isn’t fair. If it were, we would all be in deep trouble. But Jesus took what we deserved, and gave us what we don’t. He satisfied God’s sense of fairness, and brings us the wages of His death – which are eternal life, forgiveness, and peace. It’s not fair! Thank God. In Jesus Christ, Amen.
We put a premium on fairness in our world, but God’s view of fairness is much different from ours. But in Jesus Christ, God’s sense of fair play is a true blessing to us.