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The Trouble With Fairness

A lot of people have trouble with this parable.  How did it strike you?  I think for a lot of us this parable offends our sense of fairness.  Why should everyone get equal pay for unequal work?  It doesn’t make sense.  This parable enters our hearts like cod liver oil or Buckley’s cough syrup— you know Jesus is right, you know it must be good for you, but that does not make it any easier to swallow.  

It certainly would have been difficult to swallow for Jesus’ audience.  Anthropologists have estimated that 90% of Jesus’ people came from the peasant classes like the workers in the parable.  They were landless day labourer’s whose livelihood depended on the need and whims of landowners; there was no job security.  These people listening to Jesus’ story could well identify with the group that worked all day under the scorching sun only to be paid the same as those who worked only a few hours.  But here’s the difference between them and most of us: They could also understand what it was like to be hired at the last hour.  They knew what it was like to stand around, waiting anxiously to be called.  They knew what it was like to watch the sun come over head and then start to sink in the sky, wondering how their families would be fed if they weren’t soon called.  But the story takes a turn, something happens that subverts the rules of fairness and lifts up the rule of love and mercy; everyone standing around waiting for work is hired and not only that but everyone has been paid a full day’s wage.  

Here is a story that might help us approach this parable a little differently.  It concerns a family that owned an apple tree.  When the apples ripened, the parents would sit all seven children down, with pans and paring knives until a mountain of fruit was reduced to neat rows of filled canning jars.  The parents never bothered keeping track of how many apples each child prepared, though the younger ones undoubtedly proved more of a nuisance than a help: cut fingers, squabbles over who got which pan, apple core fights.  But when the job was done, the reward for everyone was the same: a large chocolate dipped cone from the Dairy Queen.  A stickler might argue it wasn’t quite fair since the older ones actually peeled more apples.  But no one complained about it.  A family understands it operates under a different set of rules. 

The grace of this parable lies in the simple fact that the landowner looks at these poor workers and sees them not just as workers but rather as people like him, as children of the same God.  That makes all the difference, because in that realization there comes a further realization.  He can’t stop at fairness, to give integrity to his life, to be true to what he knows, he must surrender the control that the rules of fairness give him and allow grace to take him and others to new uncharted, chaotic territory.  While there was likely outrage among those first listeners I can imagine that there were also a few tears in that crowd gathered around Jesus; can we possibly imagine what it would have been like to be in that kind of need, and then this gift of mercy that lifts the day’s burden.  Can you imagine the lightness and joy and the sense of pure gift that you would experience.  

That’s what the kingdom of heaven is like Jesus says.  We need to say something about this “kingdom” so it’s clear what Jesus is saying.  I think traditionally we hear this as what life after death looks like.  But the way the gospel writers have Jesus use the phrasing, the kingdom of heaven is not so much something you die into as something to which you awaken when reality is clearly perceived.  In Luke’s account the kingdom of heaven is among us (17:21).  Earlier in Matthew the kingdom is at hand (3: 2, 4: 17).  The kingdom of heaven is a state of existence when love rules above all other considerations, it’s possible here and now.  

According to Jesus’ story, when love rules, in the kingdom of heaven sometimes fairness just isn’t enough.  Most times love and fairness are aligned but not always.  When love rules above else people are treated according to their needs, not according to judgments about what they deserve.   

This got me thinking about what I’ve read in the last few months about the spike in drug overdose deaths.  It’s not surprising, who among us faced with the trauma of this pandemic has not wanted to escape reality if even for a few moments or hours.  But too often empathy and understanding is lacking when it comes to these siblings of ours.  Too often these folks are judged based on surface reactions as people with weak moral fibre or poor judgement who deserve to be locked up or whose deaths, though regrettable are of their own doing.

Increasingly it’s become clear that beneath the surface of addiction’s presenting behaviours lurk years of trauma.  Dr. Gabor Mat, a leading addiction specialist who has worked for years in the drug ravaged downtown eastside of Vancouver says, “I’ve never met a single person who ever chose to be a drug addict.”  “In 12 years, I worked with hundreds of female patients, and every one had been sexually abused as a child. Men were physically, sexually and emotionally abused, suffered neglect, were in foster care.”  First Nation’s people were dealing with the lingering trauma of residential schools.  Dr. Mate says we’ll begin to turn things around when we see ourselves in the addict.  When we begin to recognize our common humanity.  When we recognize what we share.

That’s what the landowner did, that’s what the kingdom of heaven is like.   When I see support for safe injection sites, when I see the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police call for the decriminalization of small amounts of drug possession so we can stop treating addicts as criminals but as who they really are, hurting people with profound mental and physical health issues, I see us being awakened to the kingdom of heaven among us, that parallel state that is always possible when we set aside judgement to meet people where they are.  The kingdom of heaven, that state where fairness and just desserts gives way to mercy.  That state where the lesser gods of fear and judgemental morality give way to the God of love.

You see, this parable is not a story about the rewards of work for those who’ve earned it.  It’s a story about the grace of God for those who need it.  The question for us is, “do we need it?”  Are we content with the self-satisfaction of identifying with the “successful”, of reaping the just rewards of a system that has benefited us or do we yearn for more?  Do we yearn for understanding, compassion, for the breaking down of barriers that keep us separated from one another?  Do we yearn for the kingdom of heaven among us?  The kingdom of heaven operates by a different set of rules; the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  We aren’t rewarded for what we do, we are loved for who we are.  May God bless us with a deep need to hear this good news.  Amen.

Rev. Joe Gaspar