To Hell with Fairness!

As imperfect people living in a broken and corrupted world, our culture and our society has developed and given us an important concept to manage our lives together.  From the time each of us were toddlers, playing on the rug with our neighbours while our parents sipped their afternoon tea at the table, we’ve been reminded – time and time again – to be fair

As we grow and move from our mother’s arms off to school, the importance of fair play only becomes better reinforced, as we learn the rules that allow us to play together on the playground – the rules that allow us to know which team has won, and which team has lost, and which allow us to agree whether the referee or the umpire or the judge has acted fairly.

And, of course, any educator or psychologist would tell you that the sports and games we play as children are just as important, perhaps even more important, than what we learn from our textbooks.  At the end of the day you can know all the right answers, but if you don’t know how to work with others, those answers won’t get you very far.

As we leave school and enter the workforce, fairness takes on a whole new level of importance.  So much of our lives centers around working our way into a job that we believe pays us fairly, we all want to work for a boss who treats us fairly, and, even in a pandemic, the one key phrase you can absolutely count on finding in each and every news story about government restrictions, wage subsidies, relief programs, and economic bailouts is – simply – “it’s not fair”.

Fairness is the central virtue of our modern society.

Yet, as we’re confronted with ending of the work of the prophet Jonah,[1] and as we’re confronted with the difficult and challenging teaching of Christ in the Parables of the Workers in the Vineyard,[2] we should find ourselves facing a troubling question: is God fair?

What is “fairness”?

If we dig in and actually read these passages as they’re presented, we should be shocked at what we find.

We all know the beginning of the story of Jonah, that whiniest and most toddler-like of all the prophets, who threw a tantrum and ran away when God asked him to go to Ninevah; but, at least if your Sunday School education was like most, you probably never spent much time on the end of that story because, well, it’s unfair.

Jonah’s people, God’s chosen people Israel, had been overrun and taken captive by the Assyrian Empire, whose capital was the city of Nineveh.  The absolute brutality of the Assyrians was known throughout the world; when they attacked, they leveled cities, murdered civilians, and took survivors home to be put on display as slaves. 

Jonah, the descendant of those who had been humiliated, shamed, and had their land, prosperity, and freedom taken so brutally by the Assyrian Empire wanted the one true God of his fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to give the Assyrians what they deserved; to overthrow their Empire, and mightily restore the kingdom to Israel.  That would show the nations who the true God is; that would teach them their lesson for messing with God’s chosen people.

But, that isn’t God’s plan.  God wants Jonah to march into the capital city of the nation that has stolen Israel’s land, killed off most of a generation in battle, overthrew the kings who sit on David’s throne, and continue to oppress and strike fear into the hearts of the entire known world… and preach forgiveness. 

God wants Jonah to march in there, tell them that they’re on the path to destruction, but, if they repent, if they ask for mercy, God will forgive them their sins.

And that’s the background that leads Jonah on this wild goose chase, taking a boat in the opposite direction, being caught up in a storm, winding up beached, and ultimately wandering in the desert wishing that he would die, while God sends shade to thwart his spitefulness. 

God’s people had been humiliated.  It’s only fair for God to overthrow Nineveh and restore his people’s glory.  Why would God forgive them after all they’ve done?  It’s not fair.

And then, at the same time, a close reading of Matthew 20 rubs every one of us the wrong way.  It’s harvest time, and the vineyard owner goes out at dawn and hires labourers to work in the field; they agree to a fair wage and get to work.

…but the owner has more work to do; he needs more labourers.  So he goes back later in the day and hires more, and they get to work.

This goes on, and finally, one hour before closing time, he sees some guys standing around outside, so he goes out and hires them too, even though the work day is practically over.

It’s time to and out paycheques at the end of the day, and these last guys are called up first, and lo and behold, they’re given a full days pay for an hours work… an hour in the evening, when the heat was gone from the sun, and most of the work was already done!

The first guys get excited.  ‘Wow!  They got a day’s pay for an hour of easy work.  We’ve been here all day; we’re gonna be rich!’

But no, they worked twelve times longer, and worked through the heat of the afternoon sun, but when they’re called up the owner hands them the same as those last guys.  They’re outraged.  It’s a good thing they didn’t have shop stewards and union reps, or we’d have the first recorded walkout. 

“It’s not fair”, they cry… and, really, our whole world joins with them. 

It just isn’t fair. 

But the owner looks at them and says, “guys… Sorry to disappoint you, but you knew exactly what you signed up for.  You agreed to this at the start of the day.   It’s my money; if I want to be generous, I will… it’s not your decision”.

…But… it’s not fair!

Is God fair?

One of the hard lessons in scripture is that, as much as it makes our world go around, fairness is not a Christian virtue.

Aristotle and the Greek philosophers spoke about fairness;[3] the secular ethicists of the 1800s wrote extensively about fairness;[4] but, you can read your Bible cover to cover: it’s just not an idea you’ll find there.

No, “fairness” is a human concept that assumes that compromise is necessary. 

And rightly so – if we didn’t teach kids to play fair, the biggest brute of a toddler would be sitting on a hoard of toys while the smallest one had none.  If we didn’t teach fair play in sports, the meanest team would literally claw and scratch their way to the top while everyone else trembled at the thought of playing against them.

But fairness isn’t a heavenly virtue; we need fairness only because our instincts and our wills are so terribly deformed that, left to our own devices, the strong would hoard and fight their way to the top.

But the hard lesson for all of us as we re-train ourselves to see the world as God sees it, is that fairness – that great safeguard against our sin – only comes into play when our sinful, prideful desires to put ourselves first are at work.

No, God is not fair.

Seriously.  That’s a truth we can proclaim.

Rather, God is just.  He is righteous.  He is merciful and kind.  He is slow to anger, and he is unimaginably generous.  

No, thanks be to God, He does not treat us fairly.  If He were to repay any of us as we deserve, what an awful state we would be in.

Instead, like the owner of the vineyard, He is just, and He acts righteously.

As much as we might hate it, as much as we might think it’s unfair, as much as we might wish it was another way, like those labourers, we work for the wages for which we and all humanity were hired: the price of missing the mark is death; those are the terms we’re born into and, along with taxes – about which scripture also has something to say – death is something we can all count on.

The issue – and where we need to allow our minds to be retrained as disciples, as students of Christ, is that, while fairness is a human concept, God is at once perfectly merciful and unthinkably generous.

The hard truth for all of us in the Church is that none of us, in spite of what we might think, are those first labourers who worked all day for a fair day’s wage.

Each and every one of us was invited into a work already begun.  The fair wages of sin is death, yet each of us has been given second, third, fourth, dozens, hundreds of chances; each of us has needed forgiveness not seven, but seventy times seven times.

God has been merciful to us.  And while sometimes we wish that the ways of God were a little more black and white like the fairness of the world, thanks be to God that He doesn’t treat us the way we sometimes wish He would treat others.

A God who was fair would be a terrible thing, because all of us require mercy, and all of us have received more than the fair wages we deserve.

How then shall we live?

As the Church, this is a lesson we must constantly keep before our eyes.  But, it’s especially important when we are people who are active and engaged in our mission to grow the Kingdom of God.

Earthly wisdom, earthly fairness has taught us all that those who were there first are worth the most; that seniority matters.

Yet, our Lord said this morning, “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matt. 20:16).

The challenge for the Church is that, like Jonah, worldly standards would demand that we deserve something for our efforts, for our patience, for our faithfulness through the years.  Yet, God extends the same mercy that we rely on – perhaps even more mercy to cover a multitude of failings – even to those who have actively worked against us.

While the world would say that the opinions and comments of those, like me, who were raised in the Church and have followed Christ my whole life, should be worth more – that our seniority and experience should matter as we plan our activities and the mission and ministry of our congregation, Our Lord says a resounding “no”.

The Lord says, ‘those whom I called in a few years ago, or last month, or who finally said yes and started working for me yesterday, or even those who come into my vineyard in the moments before their final breath all receive the same mercy; for all of you were due the same wages, but my mercy is more, my grace is sufficient so that I can have mercy on whoever answers my voice and agrees to work in my vineyard, and pay you all not what is fair, not what you deserve, but what is just, what is right, what none of you could earn no matter when you started working: a new life full of grace and mercy.’

That’s the challenge. 

For each of us, the purpose of learning to turn the other cheek is not about being passive; it’s about becoming those who have overcome the goal of “fairness” and instead understand mercy, both in what we’ve received, and in what we’re called to give.

And together, as the Church throughout the world, we should be the most nimble and adaptable of all institutions.  While the truth we proclaim is unchanging, our Lord and Master, whose mercies are new every morning, tells us that we’re in this together; where we undo the worldly yoke of “fairness” and instead work side-by-side, those who worked through the heat of the day alongside those who’ve just come in, working as equals, sharing the load, outdoing each other in mercy, until we become a body whose new members are given a vision for our mission, and whose oldest members dream dreams of a thriving ministry for the Kingdom of God which they will pass to those who come after.

My friends – and I choose these words carefully – to hell with what the world teaches about fairness.  Let us rejoice in the mercy we’ve received, and eagerly get to work, for the harvest is plentiful and the labourers are few, and we have to work, for night is coming.


[1] Jonah 3:10-4:11

[2] Matthew 20:1-16

[3] See Book 5 of Nicomachean Ethics.  An introductory discussion is available here: https://koukis.org/index.php/philosophy/aristotelian-virtues-ethics/fairness/

[4] I’m thinking specifically of John Stewart Mill’s utilitarianism, with fairness being a catch-all phrase for bringing the most happiness and avoiding the most pain for the most people.