September 2, 2012: It’s not Fair!

Posted on : Aug 30th, 2012 | By | Category: This Sunday's Service

My older brother and I were notorious at getting in trouble when we were young.  We had a pact that we would never squeal on each other, which most of the time worked to our advantage.  However, when things were broken or missing or the neighbors called our parents to complain about something we did, it was especially frustrating to my parents not to know which child deserved a “time out,” getting grounded, or some such other punishment.  We were so good at this game of deceit that my mother used to say, “Well I guess Mr. Nobody did it.”  And then she’d add, “But since Mr. Somebody did do it, if you don’t tell me which of you did, you’ll both get punished.”  And that was often the end result.  We both got punished.  In reality, it was usually my older brother that got us in trouble.  And when I lost a privilege or got punished for something he did, the first thing I’d say is, “It’s not fair to me!”  And then of course, to cover his butt, my older brother would say the same thing.  “No, it’s not fair to ME.”

Little did I know, those words were going to be a constant refrain throughout my life.  There is so much in life that is just not fair.  Mike Stanley, bless his soul, used to say, “If you want Fair, go to Pomona!”  [For the truly urbanites among us, Pomona is the site of the LA County FAIR.]  Mike was right.  If you want fair, go to Pomona!

This past week as we observed the flooding and devastation from Tropical Storm/Hurricane Isaac, we’ve heard those painful words, over and over again, “It’s not fair!”  The waves suddenly ravish a Louisiana “parish” that has never had flooding, crossing over and breaking an eight foot levy.  The new 12 foot levies that cost over 10 billion dollars held fine, but they were surrounding another section of the city.  It’s not fair!

The Gospel for this Sunday is a wonderful example of how unfair life is.  It’s also quite a commentary on how slowly some things change.  The context of this story that Jesus tells is quite similar to the plight of day-laborers in our country today.

The other day I went to one of the big-box building supply stores to buy something that we needed at church.  It was about 2 o’clock in the afternoon.  As I pulled in the parking lot, my car was literally surrounded by a hoard of day laborers, each asking if I needed any help.  There must have been another 50 or 60 workers who lined the road, each also hoping that someone would hire him for the day.  What I saw made my heart ache. The day was almost over and there were just so many people hoping for a day’s work, that it was clear most of these men (they were all men) were going home without work and therefore having earned no money for the day or perhaps even the week.  The sad reality was these men most likely had families at home and many of them would go hungry that night.

In Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus tells a story about a landowner who went out at dawn and hired a bunch of workers for the vineyard.  About mid-morning, the landowner came and saw another group standing around waiting for work.  He hired them.  At noon the landowner want back into town and found more workers hoping for a day’s labor, and the same in the early afternoon and late afternoon.  Each time the landowner hired the workers.

When the day was finished, the landowner went to pay the workers.  He paid them each the same wage, the wage that was the normal wage for a full day’s work.  The folks that worked only 2 hours were ecstatic that they received a full day’s wage.  But the folks who worked all day long – in the hot sun and dust of the fields – were not happy.  They immediately complained to the landowner, “IT’S NOT FAIR!”  “It’s not fair!  We’ve worked all day and all the rest of these guys worked only part of the day.  We deserve more!!!  And the landowner says, “I paid you what we agreed to – a full day’s wage.  Why are you so jealous that I was so generous with these others?”

This week as I’ve suffered through the onslaught of political bickering on both sides of the spectrum, I’ve thought a lot about this parable that Jesus taught.  Here’s the hard lesson:  What if God’s understanding of what is “fair” and my understanding of what is “fair” isn’t the same?  Who’s right?  Who wins?  We’ll explore that this Sunday – and why it feels so different when you are the person looking for work vs. the person who has worked all day.




Workers in the vineyard







~  This Sunday’s Scripture ~

Matthew 20:1-16

The kingdom of heaven is like the owner of an estate who went out at dawn to hire workers for the vineyard. After reaching an agreement with them for the usual daily wage, the owner sent them out to the vineyard.  About mid-morning, the owner came out and saw others standing around in the marketplace without work, and said to them, ‘You go along to my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is fair.’ At that they left.

Around noon and again in the mid-afternoon, the owner came out and did the same. Finally, going out late in the afternoon, the owner found still others standing around and said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day?’

‘No one has hired us,’ they replied. The owner said, ‘You go to my vineyard too.’

When evening came, the owner said to the overseer, ‘Call the workers and give them their pay, but begin with the last and end with the first.’ When those hired late in the afternoon came up, they received a full day’s pay, and when the first appeared they assumed they would get more. Yet they all received the same daily wage.

Thereupon they complained to the owner, ‘This last group did only an hour’s work, but you put them on the same basis as those who worked a full day in the scorching heat.’

‘My friends,’ said the owner to those who voiced this complaint, ‘I do you no injustice. You agreed on the usual daily wage, didn’t you? Take your pay and go home. I intend to give to this worker who was hired last the same as you. I’m free to do as I please with my money, aren’t I? Or are you envious because I was generous?’

Thus the last will be first, and the first will be last.

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