I don’t know if families still do this today, but when I was growing up my parents assigned chores to my sisters and me. We had to do things like clean the dishes, take out the trash, clean our rooms, and any other number of things I can’t remember. As I recall, getting me to do my chores was itself a chore, so my parents added a little leverage called an “allowance.” If we did our chores during the week we received money. I recall my first allowance was 10 cents a week, which may not seem like much, but if I could get two pennies from my mother I had enough money to buy a comic book. While having many benefits, the chore/allowance system created at least one problem – my sisters and I fought over whose chores were too hard or too easy and whose allowance was too big or too small based on our assigned tasks. At its heart, it was battle was about fairness.
Fairness is very important to us. If you listen to talk radio or watch cable news programs, you will hear a lot of talk about fairness. What is a fair hourly wage? Is our tax system fair? Does our legal system treat all people fairly? The reason we argue about it is because, as with beauty, fairness is in the eye of the beholder. Whereas justice is rooted in higher, universally accepted principles, fairness is something open to debate.
Arthur Dorbin, who teaches applied ethics at Hofstra University, says there are three different ways to approach fairness. The first is sameness. It is fair when everything is equal. No one gets special treatment and no one has to bear an extra burden. A second way to look at fairness is deservedness. It is fair that you get what you earn and deserve. If you do your chores you get your allowance. If you don’t do your chores, you don’t get your allowance. If you do extra chores, you get a bigger allowance. The third notion of fairness is based on need. It is fair for those who have more to give more than those who have little because we are linked by our common humanity and have a responsibility to care of one another. It is not fair for one person to have abundance while another is in want.
Because it can be grounded in sameness, deservedness, or need, fairness can be something of a moving target. When I was a child and our family sat down at the dinner table, was it fair my father’s plate had more food on it than mine? If fairness means sameness, no. We should all have the exact same amount of food. If fairness means deservedness, yes. He worked to earn the money that bought the food, I didn’t. If fairness means need, yes. He was an adult, I was a child. He needed more food than I did.
When the school board meets to make a budget, should it (A) spend the same amount of money on each child, (B) put more resources into gifted and advanced programs benefiting students who deserve it, or (C) allocate the most resources to the students with the greatest need? What is fair?
A sales company with ten employees ends the year with a $100,000 profit. What is a fair way to divide it? Should each employee get $10,000 – sameness? Or should each receive a bonus based on his or her percentage of the total sales – deservedness? Or, let’s say one employ has incurred $50,000 in medical expenses because a family member has undergone cancer treatment. Should he get half the profit while the other nine divide the rest – need?
These different examples illustrate why there is so much debate about fairness in our society.
This morning we listen to Jesus telling a story raising questions of fairness. While the landowner is just when he pays the all-day workers the wage to which they agreed, they don’t think it is fair those who work less get paid the same. Sameness doesn’t seem fair to them. They deserve more than those who did not work as long.
Here is a small detail to notice in the story. The owner negotiates the terms of pay only with the initial workers. The rate will be the “usual daily wage.” This seems fair to both parties. Each time the owner returns to the market place, he sees people “standing idle” and sends them to work with the promise he will pay them “whatever is right.” I submit the owner’s sense of fairness is based on need. Each worker needs a daily wage to survive. And even more, each worker needs to move from idleness to productivity.
Arthur C. Brooks writes this in his book The Conservative Heart:
There is a widening divide in this country… but it isn’t the gap in income per se. It is the gap in dignity. At root, to have dignity means to be worthy of respect… We sense our own dignity most clearly when we have tangible signs that our lives are creating value in the world. This means ordinary work is a key driver of dignity for most people. Whether the outside world sees a job as extraordinarily unique or completely mundane is mostly irrelevant. “All labor that uplifts humanity” taught Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “has dignity and importance.” Inversely, nothing is more destructive of people’s sense of dignity than idleness and the suspicion that one’s life is superfluous.
Work is not punishment. It is one of the primary things we do to give us a sense of our value and worth. Those standing idle in the marketplace don’t need a handout, they need an opportunity; for their self-esteem as well as to meet their material needs.
We understand that while Jesus tells a story about workers, he is not necessarily giving a lecture on labor practices. He is describing how God’s abundant love, mercy, forgiveness and blessing is the same for everyone, but some people think this is not fair. Some people believe they are better than others and thus deserve more from God. Some people hold we are a Christian nation and have earned God’s favor, while others fear we are no longer a Christian nation and will no longer receive God’s blessing. Through this parable Jesus is telling us God loves each person and God loves every nation. So, as an example, every North Korean is as precious to God as every American. This is kind of challenge today’s parable lays before us.
The story has a lot in common with the parable of the Prodigal Son. Both have someone being grumpy at the end of the working day. You may recall I told you once the word prodigal has two meanings. The first is “spending money or resources freely and recklessly.” The prodigal son was wasteful and imprudent. The second meaning is “having or giving something on a lavish scale.” Thus, it is entirely appropriate to talk of the prodigal father whose love and forgiveness is well beyond generous.
This is the same kind of person we meet in the landowner in today’s parable. He is fair because he gives to each as each person needs, not as each person deserves. We ask God to answer our prayers “not as we ask in our ignorance, nor as we deserve in our sinfulness, but as you know and love us in your Son Jesus Christ.” Our prayer is not, “Dear God, treat us all the same.” And it is not, “Dear God, treat me as I deserve.” Our prayer is, Oh God, see me for who I am and have mercy on me. Please meet me where I am, love me, and stay with me.” We want God’s fairness to be grounded in our need.
So what does this say about how we advocate for fairness in our family, in our church, in our community, in our society, and in our world?