September 24, What's fair?

What’s fair?

Matthew 20:1-16

You’ve got the basic concept of the story, right? There is a man who owns a vineyard and he hires workers at five different times of the day: first thing in the morning, at mid-morning, at noon, in the mid-afternoon, and late in the afternoon.

Although in our scripture litany we read an adaptation of the scripture story this morning that was written as if the workers were of different ages (and alternately we could have done it in terms of different genders, or different races, or any other difference in our culture that puts some people to the front of the line and some to the back of the line) the actual scripture does not specify what kind or category of people come early to work and what kind or category of people are still waiting around to be hired late in the afternoon.

What we do know, is that different people get hired at different times throughout the day, and so some of these workers end up working all day, while some end up working only an hour or two.

Then, at the end of the day, all the workers line up and the owner of the vineyard gives them each their pay, beginning with those who were hired in the last round of hiring late in the afternoon, and therefore who worked the least. And what do you know, he gives those workers who only worked the last hour of the day a full day’s wage!

“Oh boy!” think the workers who were hired first thing in the morning, “if he paid those people a full day’s wage and they only worked an hour, imagine the money we’re going to make!” But that’s not the way it works out. The owner of the vineyard gives each of the workers the same pay, no matter how many hours they worked – he pays a full day’s wage to everyone.

“Not fair!” cry out the ones who worked the most hours. “We did more than they did! We worked the hottest part of the day! (Actually, they say it this way: “We have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.) They are all stirred up about this “unfairness” as they sharpen their argument for more “just” treatment. “How can this be?” they mutter, “Why does everyone get the same wage for a different amount of work?”

The owner’s answer is this: “Friends, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?” In other words, he’s saying, “I kept my bargain with you. What I choose to do for someone else is my own business. What makes you think that I have mistreated you? Are you jealous that I am generous with the ones who were hired last?”

Well…yes. That’s exactly it. They got the same pay! They only worked an hour at the end of the day, but they got the same pay, so when you figure it out, that means they got paid more per hour for working in the vineyard! And that’s not fair!

Do you understand where that frustration is coming from? I do. I want what I think should be coming to me. I want to be rewarded for my work. If someone else gets something that I don’t get (like a lucky break, or preferential treatment, or more attention, or more respect, or some good thing in greater proportion) I don’t like it. And I’m not the only one who is like that. I think to we’re all that way. We compare ourselves to others. We don’t want to be paid less per hour (compared to a neighbor or a co-worker), or get less attention, or less of anything.

But why? Think about it. Why are the early workers angry? Why do they feel cheated? Because the owner didn’t cheat them. He’s right. He paid them exactly what he agreed to pay them.

But…that’s not what they are focused on. They are focused on what he paid someone else. They aren’t paying attention to what they got; they are paying attention to what someone else got. And if someone else got something in a different proportion (no matter that in total, it’s exactly the same) well then, that’s not fair! And being treated fairly – well, this is very important to us.

Well, if we are being totally honesty, too often it’s only important to us when we think that we are being treated unfairly.

That’s the underside of our obsession with fairness, isn’t it? Do you notice it in the story? It’s subtle, but it’s there.

The chosen ones, the advantaged ones in this story are the ones who are hired first. And it is easy imagine a scene where there are a bunch of workers standing in the marketplace that morning, but only a few are hired.

These ones who get hired first thing in the morning are the lucky ones (or maybe as they think of themselves, they are the deserving ones). They get hired for a full day’s work. Meanwhile, there are others who are still standing there, left to watch those lucky ones who now have a job for the day head off to the vineyard. And what are the workers who are not chosen, who are left behind, thinking at that point?

Maybe they are thinking, “This isn’t fair. Why does that guy get a job and I don’t? Why does that worker get hired with a contract for a full wage and I’m still standing here?” Or maybe they are thinking this: “Well, here I am again. At the end of the line; not one of the ones chosen. How am I going to feed my family? I am such a failure.”

But do you think that the ones who are chosen first thing in the morning are worried about those who are left without work, still waiting there in the marketplace? Do you think they are feeling guilty about being chosen for the day? Do you think they are saying to themselves, “Well, it sure isn’t fair that I got a job and that poor guy didn’t!”

Do you see? That’s the other side of it. We do this comparison thing all the time. And when we come out on top, we think somehow that we got it because we deserved it. But then when someone else finally catches a break, maybe even for the first time, we think that somehow it isn’t fair.

The parable is brilliant in terms of the realities it exposes, because when the day-long workers complain, the landowner has an accurate but unsatisfying answer for them: “I didn’t cheat you. I paid you what I agreed to pay you and what you agreed to take as compensation.”

He calls them out: You aren’t angry because you didn’t get your wage; you’re angry because I was generous with someone else. You’re angry because your measurement isn’t “I got what I needed,” but rather, “I didn’t get more than the other guy.”

Let’s think for a moment about the workers who waited in the marketplace all day – waiting to be hired, and no one came to hire them. What is more stressful, what is more demanding? Working and knowing that you’ll get a day’s wage at the end of the day, or standing in the marketplace all day, watching others get hired and go off to work, and seeing the day slip away with nothing to show for it.

The workers who are still waiting when the landowner comes back one more time late that afternoon have spent the day dreading the moment when they have to go home and will have nothing to show for the day.

Who is the advantaged person in this story? And, who would you rather be? The person who works all day or the person who is overlooked again and again as others go off to work? And yet, the all-day workers are angry when the one-hour workers get a living wage. What’s wrong with this picture?

What’s wrong is that we have a very hard time celebrating someone else’s good fortune. We have a very hard time not comparing our stuff or our status with someone else, but sadly it seems only to worry us when we feel shortchanged – not when we are in the lead.

We are irrationally dependent on seeing our own well-being primarily in terms of seeing ourselves as being ahead of others. We get easily confused – thinking everything we do and have is because we are good, or we are deserving (rather than ever seeing grace as a factor). We seem to think that our hard work is the measure of worthiness, without a second thought about how much the matter of our access or our advantage plays into our “success” and recognizing instead that we are privileged to have opportunities to do that work or to earn that wage – privileged in ways that many people are not.

Some weeks ago, when I was paging through my notes in my worship folder, I wrote these words next to today’s topic: “participation vs. payment.” I wish now I had written more because I can’t remember exactly what all I had in mind when I jotted down those words. But if nothing else, I think those words serve as a reminder that all too often here we are worrying about payment (so to speak) when we could take the point of view that we are blessed to be able to participate. So, instead of thinking, “Did I get what I deserved?” can we make a shift to thinking, “I’m just so glad I got to be part of this!”

That’s a radically different perspective, isn’t it? “Did I get what I deserved?” versus “I’m so glad I got to be part of this!” If the characters in the parable could make that shift, then the day-long workers would be happy for those who almost didn’t get hired at all but then did, because they would recognize that it means that at the end of the day, everyone will have bread on the table, everyone will have money for school books, everyone will have shelter over their heads, everyone will have the needed things that a living wage can buy.

Instead of complaining, they would go home saying, “Wow, that turned out great!” and going forward they would forever be telling the story like this, “Let me tell you about the time when everyone got a chance to work and everyone got paid and everyone had food on the table. What a day that was!”

The last couple of weeks when I’ve done announcements on Sunday morning I’ve looked at the list and I’ve thought – Oh my goodness, how many announcements can we do asking for money or resources, before it’s too much? Hurricane relief, Blessings in a Backpack, community suppers, Church World Service clean-up buckets, CROP walk! As I’ve been running through those announcements, I’ve thought, “Oh my, it’s asking a lot!”

But I have to stop and say to myself, “No, it’s not too much. Until people who have lost their houses to the forces of nature, and until children who don’t have enough food to get through the weekend, and until people who need seeds for crops and clean water to drink, and until hungry folks in our community who need a good hot meal – until all these people get what they need, we cannot complain; we cannot say to ourselves, “Well, it’s not fair that I be asked to share or even sacrifice something for others. It’s not my fault those folks are short on resources. It’s not my problem.”

We can’t say that! Instead, let’s instead put ourselves in the parable in the best way: We may have been hired early in the morning for a day’s wage, but others are still standing and waiting in the marketplace, and whatever blessing comes their way, is a blessing we should celebrate too, because everyone needs what they need to live.

We don’t need more of anything to validate us. And we certainly don’t need to complain when anyone who has languished at the back, moves up the line. If anything, we need to raise a cheer when others get a bigger share of what we already have. We need all the boats to rise on the tide. And if we feel compelled to take measurements, then the measurements we should consider aren’t measurements of deservedness or comparison or equality, but rather the markers of humanity, and need, and opportunity.

Everyone needs the day’s wage, no matter what hour they started working. Everyone needs the work, and everyone needs the wage, and everyone needs to be able to go home at the end of the day and feed their family. The greedy impulse to wish for more for me and less for you is not the way of Christ. But neither is the fear that more for you means less for me…neither is that fear the way of Christ.

In the kingdom of God, there is enough for you and me, for us and them. We are not made to compete with each other for God’s love and God’s blessings. We are made to help each other and to celebrate each other’s successes and to desire each other’s well-being. And when I say “each other,” that is not just the “each other” in this room. It is the “each other” that is included in the entirety of God’s family.

If it takes less for you so that I feel there is more for me, then we will always be in competition with each other – not just for the landowner’s wages, but for our own sense of well-being.

If, on the other hand, I am glad when you get what you need, and I recognize that when you are well, I am healthier too, then something amazing begins to happen, and this is what it is: instead of being competitors, we become partners.

And God knows, more partners would make the world a better place. More partnership and less competition would bring God’s kingdom here on earth.

When we wish each other well, we are on our way, aren’t we? When everyone gets the full day’s wage, we are on our way.



Benediction: I’m not sure what comes first – an open heart or open hands. But may God give you both, so that you let go of the question, “What’s fair?” and in its place you ask, “What helps?” Amen.


Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

September 24, 2017