I learned one of life’s most important lessons in first grade—and it had nothing to do with reading, writing, or arithmetic…
It began right after recess. My teacher opened a package of Oreo™ cookies, and gave one to each pupil.
My classmates and I quickly devoured our treat. When she was done handing them out, I and several others asked for seconds—because we noticed that she had many left over.
But she said, “no. I don’t have enough to give everyone two.” Soon, we began to grumble and whine in disappointment. She replied, “I didn’t have to give you any cookie! Instead of saying ‘thank you,’ you’re complaining! How dare you!”
We were so busy wanting more that we failed to see her generosity—and the need to be fair.
We first-graders had no reason to complain—but I think we can all agree that the laborers in today’s Gospel have a legitimate complaint here.
Some laborers has toiled in the heat of the day for twelve hours—but a few have worked for as little as one hour. But all are paid the standard wage for a full day’s work. Surely, this isn’t fair.
But we must consider the tragic economic realities in play here.
In Jesus’ day, about ninety-five percent of the population lived in dire poverty. For most, “going to work” consisted of rising before dawn and going to the marketplace, in hopes of being hired for the day. The laws of supply and demand were never in the laborers’ favor—because there supply of workers far exceeded the demand. The “usual daily wage” was terrible: just one denarius. Maybe enough for a family to get by perhaps for a day… Naturally, the most able-bodied men were hired. So if you didn’t have work by nine o-clock, chances are you’d be going home empty-handed.
But many remain in the marketplace, on that slim chance of getting work… Then, the miracles happen. The landowner comes back at nine, then again at noon, three, and five! It wasn’t a full day’s work—but even a measly hour’s wage is better than nothing.
Then 6:00 rolls around—and another miracle: all are paid for a full day’s work, regardless of whether they worked one hour or twelve…
Naturally, those who worked just one hour are elated! Those who worked twelve, on the other hand, are furious—and for good reason. It’s NOT FAIR!! No one could argue that.
However, it’s also UNFAIR that the sweat of their brow and the ache of their back brought wealth to the elites, while the laborers lived on the brink of starvation. It’s not fair that the older and less-able-bodied men didn’t get much work due to circumstances beyond their control. The world of this parable is full of UNFAIRNESS—not unlike the world we inhabit.
If you wanted to argue that God is unfair, you wouldn’t have to look very hard for reasons. Go to St. Jude’s Hospital, or countries where children are dying of starvation. Go to a homeless shelter, an orphanage, a nursing home, a prison, a war zone.
But the message of this parable is that God is gracious and merciful. God responds in love to the unfair and unjust circumstances of people. God doesn’t make the laborers into royals and rulers, but God does give them what they and their families need to make it through the day. It doesn’t matter whether they deserved mercy. They got it because they needed it.
Deep down inside of us, we all want God to be fair. We want this world to be fair. We want a just world—and God does too. God is fair and just—but this life and this world show us only the beginnings of God’s fairness and justice. Yet God is merciful now. God’s mercies don’t necessarily make all our troubles go away—but God’s mercies get us through the day. And when we rise again the next morning, God will be merciful again. We meet God in those little graces and miracles that pick us up from the pit of despair keep us going. Faith is all about learning to see God doing good unto us, especially when we don’t deserve it.
But faith is also answering God’s invitation to work in his vineyard. If, by faith, you believe God has been good to you, you can be a miracle worker—just like the landowner. You can be generous with the wealth of God’s mercies to you to be merciful to someone else. Don’t ask if they need it or if they deserve it. Just say “yes, Lord,” as Christ takes you into the world—to do good with the good you’ve received. You won’t be able to fix all their problems—but you’ll meet Christ in each other. God comes to us in the little graces and miracles that get us through and keep us going.
Questions of fair and unfair only leave us sullen and despairing—and we can become so preoccupied by fighting for what’s right and fair us that we never see God. We’ll never win in the end—and we’ll succeed only in tearing this world apart.
This is an unfair and unjust world—but God is gracious and merciful. In our moments of desperate need; when our lives are in pieces even by our own fault, Christ brings mercy and grace. He carries us through our troubles and gives us new beginnings. Soon, God’s Kingdom will purge the world of all death and evil. Until then, Christ meets us in the morning—and sends us out for labors and mercy and grace. Today, God is gracious and merciful.