‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’
“It’s just not fair.” That phrase rises from playgrounds and penthouses; from nursery schools and national capitals; from classrooms and boardrooms and everywhere in between. Whether spoken with a child’s sense of outrage and astonishment or with a worldly-wise, done-it-all-seen-it-all sense of sorrow and weariness, “It’s just not fair” is less a complaint and more a statement of fact common to all humankind.
But if it’s a fact common to all humankind, yet it is not common to all people all the time. The clearly culpable criminal who gets off on a technicality doesn’t stand in the courtroom and shout, “It’s not fair!” The obviously corrupt politician whose comeuppance is postponed by a national crisis doesn’t call a press conference to announce, “It’s not fair!” The schoolyard bully who slyly provokes his victim into rule-breaking retaliation doesn’t stop the punishing teacher and protest, “It’s not fair!”
No, that great expression of grievance and frustration is voiced, not by those who benefit from unfairness but by those who suffer from it. “It’s just not fair,” says the old man defrauded out of his pension by a CEO floating away from a corporation’s wreckage on a golden parachute. “It’s just not fair,” weeps the young woman victimized by sexual assault when her college community rallies to defend her accused attacker. “It’s just not fair,” cries the child who finds his world utterly overturned by his parents’ bitter divorce.
So it is in today’s story. The people who are paid a day’s wage for an hour’s work aren’t the ones who cry out “It’s not fair!” Rather, it’s those who have borne the heat of the day; those who have labored hardest; those who have worked the longest and done their time. When they see they get no more than the eleventh-hour workers, they grumble against the landowner: “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us. It’s just not fair!”
We can sympathize with their frustration. We know what it is to be among the victims of unfairness. But what happens when we find we’ve drawn the lines wrong? What happens when we recognize that we are not, in fact, always victims but are sometimes—perhaps even frequently—victimizers? What happens when it turns out that we—in spite of our excellent credentials, our impeccable manners, our generous giving, and our devoted service—are the eleventh-hour workers? What if we are not actually the good guys by God’s measure, but are counted instead with the transgressors, the slips-ups, the failures and the faulty?
It is there that we find the great Good News of God’s unfairness. Not the unfairness of this warped, wicked, unjust old world, but the unfairness described in our Gospel reading: the astonishing unfairness of God’s grace. It is an unfairness rooted, not in the actions of victimizers or the wails of victims, but in God’s gift of himself to an unworthy race. It is an unfairness found, not in the exploiting strength of some and the wounded weakness of others, but in the amazing paradox of a mighty God who empties himself, and takes the form of a slave, and dies a death of shame—for us all.
In the final days of this holy season of Lent, may you be overwhelmed by the unfairness of what God in Christ has done. It may not be fair, O victimizer, but God has given you time to repent. It may not be fair, O victim, but God has given you grace to forgive. It may not be fair, O weary world, but God has drawn you to himself. So yield up your sufferings and turn from your sins. Then join the anthem that the forgiven and the free sing with grateful tears from the foot of Christ’s Cross: “It’s just not fair! Thanks be to God!”