My children and students are fond of telling me how life just isn’t fair. If I inadvertently seem to give a larger scoop of ice cream to one, the others will wail. If my students perceive that one of their peers won an award or a scholarship that “I should have received (after all, I worked just as hard)” they might be envious or angry that they lost out.
The question of fairness is a real sticking point for all of us, especially in a society where we’ve built laws and professional codes of conduct around the concept of fairness. When we say fair, we often mean “equal.” “Equal pay for equal work” is a fair treatment of our work – especially when considering disparities in pay among genders. In a hospital, a checklist of standards ensures that patients have been treated equally – that is, fairly – by all. And if someone fell short in treatment of others, then the code of conduct enables fair retribution.
When disasters happen, when someone treats another person wrongly and unjustly (as they do), fairness enters in as the concept that helps toward a good resolution of the problem, especially by paying careful attention to the rules and codes at hand.
For the record, I am in favor of a good set of well-designed laws and codes. Yet for moral theology, there are several difficulties with a view of fairness that emphasizes a kind of legalism. First, while this box-checking view of fairness may aim at ensuring disasters never happen, it also greatly limits our understanding of fairness. It can seem to make moral life mostly a matter of rule-following. Yet most of us would say that the best moral life is lived by those who follow the way of love – which often involves following rules, but which also knows when to bend or even disobey rules. The virtue of practical wisdom enables us to know when and how to respond well to others, according to the particularities of other peoples’ needs.
Today’s gospel only highlights the fact that a rules-based concept of fairness is insufficient. In the gospel, we find a landowner travelling again and again to a market to hire laborers. He makes sure that they all agree on the terms of the contract- they will each receive a day’s wages.
Yet the landowner does not stop with hiring laborers at 9 am. Crazily enough, he keeps going back and hiring more. At 9 am, he probably had the most fit, desirable workers. By noon, he’s getting to the less fit, the less strong – but people who still have some good characteristics. And by 5 pm, surely he’s reaching the least desirable of the workers.
It makes me think of when I was a kid, how I was always the last picked for the team games in gym class. The trouble was that I wasn’t much good at athletic things. More than that, I have a hearing loss – and just simply couldn’t hear the umpire’s cries, the shouts from my teammates, or anything else. I was a poor player – yet glad to be included in the game (even if the other kids were required to include me).
I imagine that by 5 pm, the people remaining are in a similar state – not at all strong, not wholly up to the task of hard labor in the vineyard. They’re the outcasts, the unwanted, the people with disabilities, the ones who get overlooked for every single job. They are going to contribute, but it will be a small contribution. The thing about the landowner’s generosity is that it isn’t just that he gives them all the same wages regardless of hours worked. It’s also that he’s probably giving wages to people who work differently and more slowly.
That’s pretty awesome and amazing – but it sure isn’t equal pay for equal work. Matthew’s gospel highlights for us just how generous our God is – and how amazing it is that all of us – first to dead last- get to be included, ALL of us, to the fullest extent possible.
That’s so crazy it can only be God and God’s love.
But that’s a reminder to us of the great difficulty of our task as Christians, as we seek to live a moral life. My word of advice is: if we at all begin to feel envy at another’s good fortune (in cases where we, too, are receiving good fortune, just not their good fortune) – it might help to double up our consideration of what it means to be in that last group of people – and to consider that if we see ourselves in that last group, how overjoyed we might be to receive a day’s worth of wages – security, food, justice.
Fairness looks different when it’s tempered by generosity, especially the generosity of God. Let us strive to be GENEROUS, fair people who know a God whose loving generosity knows no bounds.