WHEN LIFE IS NOT FAIR
Matthew 20: 1-16
In our world many people, and not just children, make the naïve assumption that life is fair. Certainly you have found times when life has not felt fair to you. The topic of the unfairness of life has been addressed through the ages, from the times of the Bible until today. The general unfairness of life, its cruelty, and its injustice sometimes torment people. The story of Robin Hood perhaps had its roots when people saw the rich turning their backs on the poor. In England such perceived injustice also fueled the writings of Charles Dickens. For example, in his book Great Expectations, he wrote:
My sister’s bringing up had made me sensitive. In the little world in which children have their existence whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt, as injustice. It may be only small injustice that the child can be exposed to; but the child is small, and its world is small, and its rocking-horse stands as many hands high, according to scale.
In recent years, novelist Sue Monk Kidd, in her first book called The Secret Life of Bees, wrote: “Nothing is fair in this world. You might as well get that straight right now.” Nicholas Sparks is a novelist whose books and films, like The Notebook, have warmed the hearts of readers and moviegoers. In his book called Three Weeks With My Brother, he wrote these words:
Jill had three basic statements about life:
- It is your life, usually with some added social commentary.
- What you want and what you get are usually two entirely different things.
- No one ever said that life was fair.
And finally, in a book from my son Chris’ favorite author, cartoonist Bill Watterson, who penned the comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes,” has Calvin’s dad say this to his young son:
“The world isn’t fair, Calvin.”
“I know Dad, but why isn’t it ever unfair in my favor?”
I used to own a stereo system that I got by getting to a store at 6:00 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving one year! It was disheartening to see a line of people there already, and with the ad saying that only 50 systems were available, It looked hopeless. I got up early and wouldn’t get my 5 speaker sound system at the great price. Some of the crowd dispersed grumbling because they could also tell that more than 50 people were in front of them. Suddenly they opened the doors and we poured into the store, but the first 50 had the right to buy the system. All the boxes went into eager customer’s hands. I stepped over to the department manager in the hope against hope that he might have some more come in. He looked at another stack of systems that was an upgraded model. With a sigh, he took out his pad and wrote “Same price as sale” then signed it and handed me one of the better systems! What would the early birds think about the advertised price they got, and me, arriving late, got something better than advertised? I didn’t ask them! The manager offered merchandise at the advertised price, but he also had the power to adjust the price on something else. Being a manager of any business can be difficult work, trying to please customers without making others feel cheated. Like the workers who arrived at the last hour in Matthew chapter 20, I left tickled with my deal. But, like those who arrived early for the merchandise, there are plenty of times when someone else got the deal instead of me. You know how that is, don’t you? No laws were broken, nothing was unethical; it’s just that one response was “as promised,” and the other was “more than promised.”
Life is filled with situations like Jesus’ story of the workers in the vineyard; it is an “everyman” parable. We have grown up thinking life should be fair and some learn the hard way that it is not. In Jesus’ parable, the issue really isn’t fairness, although we make it that. Did the owner keep his commitment to pay those who arrived first? Yes. Does he have the right to be generous with those who arrive last? Yes. Would it matter to you if managers of labor pools sent some people out to a job and left others without work? How are such a decision made; by a process; first come first served; by a payoff; by favoritism? People wonder. Today’s story is almost a labor pool story. In our day a person might arrive late to a labor pool office for several reasons; he could be hung over, or maybe his truck did not start; he could be late all the time, or maybe the bus he takes was late. In Jesus’ day this story had similar complications: A man went to a labor pool, (or a place where people needing jobs congregated) and hired the men he thought he’d need. They went. Then through the day, either out of pity or compassion, or need, he returned to that place and hired more workers. Hungry and in need, they gladly went. Today’s lesson deals not just with fairness, but with justice; not just with jealousy, but also with generosity.
Methodist minister J. Ellsworth Kallas once wrote the following account: “There is an experience deep in my memory which helps me understand these workers [in Jesus’ parable. I have a vivid memory of a] sun swept October afternoon in 1932 when I came bounding home from school, eager to tear off school clothes and put on playground stuff. But to my surprise, Dad was at home. This was unthinkable at three-thirty in the afternoon. Mother and two of my older sisters were standing with him. No one was seated; three were leaning against the kitchen sink and the other against a chair. “Why are you home, Dad?” Dad was generally slow to speak, but especially so at this moment, and Mother quickly filled the gap. “Daddy’s lost his job.” [Kallas then says:] Until then, I didn’t know that good people could be unemployed. I thought only lazy people were without jobs, people who wouldn’t apply themselves or who didn’t deserve a job. This was the sort of ethic in which I had unconsciously imbibed while listening to adult conversations. But for the next eight or nine years I was to live in neighborhoods where many, from time to time, for shorter or longer periods, occupied themselves any way they could because no one had hired them.’”
[PARABLES FROM THE BACK SIDE, Abingdon, 1992, p. 89.]
Shortly after I came to Daytona Beach many years ago, some people who needed to be shown grace and generosity were GE workers. GE, once a vibrant presence in Volusia County, closed its offices here, and hundreds of excellent, loyal employees lost their jobs and even their pensions. It happened with Eastern Airlines in another year. Some unemployed persons were in our church. They were living the dream and it turned into a nightmare. In recent years the bankruptcy of Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, New York, the photography giant for generations, created not only unemployed hard working employees, but also made some retired employees who had put in their work lose their pension. That is but one modern-day nightmare for those workers and retirees. What does Jesus’ story want us to learn? Is this about understanding the saying “There but for the grace of God go I?” Is it about controlling feelings of jealousy when someone, according to the text, has simply not been hired until the 9th hour, and then gets a wage that reflects the power of supply and demand? Whatever the crop, if it is not picked in the peak of the season, it does not bring the best price. Last spring our “Dinner and a Movie” church group watched the 1984 movie “Places in the Heart.” In order to keep her farm, Edna Spalding hires Moze, a man in need, to help her pick her cotton in order to win the prize for the first bale of the season being brought to the gin. When they see that the task is too much, Moze suggests that Mrs. Spalding hire more pickers, even though he knows that she will have to pay them even more than she pays him. The hiring is done and the objective is achieved: the crop of cotton is the first one in, the monetary prize is won, and the farm is saved. Sometimes companies are forced to pay some workers overtime in order to achieve an objective. There are any number of reasons why an employer might need some extra workers to get a job done.
Back in 2005, this parable spoke to another situation: the last people found in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina were not all shiftless, lazy, and stubborn; they were just last. Some were sick or trapped or afraid: For the most part, their situations were pathetic. Clearly there were some who were con artists among them, but by and large our Presbyterian Disaster Assistance gave on-the-scene help where help was desperately needed.
Over the years, some people have asked me if I believe that criminals who confess their sins on their deathbeds get into heaven like those who have lived Christian lives for years. Jesus answered that question, I believe, in two places: in today’s parable about God’ generosity and grace, and in the prodigal son parable, when the father says to his older son as his younger son is found: “Everything I have is yours. But it is right to celebrate this day; for your brother was dead, and is alive again; was lost and is found.” Thanks be to God that some of us will get into heaven by the grace of God and our love for Jesus, even if we are selected last. Thanks be to God that Heaven longs to welcome the first, the last, and the lost ones who get found! Jesus came from heaven to earth and showed what his Father’s love was like.
God has buckets of blessing for you …and for others: the first, the last, and for those in between who pray to and honor Him. And remember: God gets to choose who God wants to choose: perhaps some choices are made because God is righteous; and maybe other selections are made because God is generous! However God chooses me, I want to be in that number, whatever the number, when those saints go marching in. How about you?
Jeffrey A. Sumner September 21, 2014