Sermon by Pastor Joel Crouse
Sunday October 29, 2023
This morning’s gospel hits a note that I imagine all of us can relate to: the idea of fairness in life. We hear a story about a landowner who is paying people to work in his vineyard. He finds people at the start of the day, ready and willing to work, with no persuasion required, and he agrees to pay them a wage. At noon, he finds more workers at the gate, and he hires them as well. Again at 3 pm. And at 5, just when the work was ending. When evening comes, and it is time to get paid, the workers line up. The ones who started at 5 receive the same wage as those who started at 9. The all-day workers are angry – and who could blame them? They worked all day and ended up exactly the same as those who worked for a couple of hours. How is that fair? But the landowner is unrepentant and can’t be persuaded to reverse his decision. Instead, he says to the 9 am workers – you got exactly what we agreed. You gave up nothing so that others could get a wage. So why do you care? Are you envious of my generosity? And this, Jesus says, is the Reign of God: where the last may be first, and the first last. In other words: the landowner in the kingdom may not be fair – at least as we see it. Because this landowner is more concerned with being equal.
Now let’s be honest with one another: this still chafes. Just ask anyone with a little sibling who is always getting out of the dishes or getting special treatment, while they, as the eldest, are asked to do more chores. That’s not fair. Or ask those people who believe refugees shouldn’t be allowed a shortcut into our country, with health care and benefits and support from taxpayer dollars, while the rest of us work to get ahead. That’s not fair. Or what about the people who get social assistance but could get jobs if they just weren’t so lazy? That’s not fair. Or just ask any woman who has learned that the men in her office get paid more than her for doing the very same work. That’s not fair. No, seriously, that last one is really not fair – but we’ll get back to that.
Here’s the thing: and doesn’t every parent eventually get around to telling their child this: Life just isn’t fair. You learn it at school when the mean but pretty girl gets all the attention. You learn it at work, when the charmer who shops online all day at his desk gets promoted. You learn it in life when you stay healthy, and still get cancer. Life is not fair.
But actually, this is not the point of our gospel. We already know that life isn’t fair. The gospel is trying to get us to look at what’s behind that perceived unfairness – context, and perspective. Sometimes what seems unfair is just. And what looks fair is an injustice.
For one thing, I bet when you heard that gospel, you probably saw yourself as the worker who showed up at 9, and did the right thing, and still came out the fool at the end. But, come on now: have you never been the person who showed up at 5, who sneaked in the door, and received just as much benefit? Maybe you’ve been the person whose parents knew someone that helped you get a job. Maybe you benefited from a friendship, or a random circumstance? Maybe you just lucked out on genes, something no one can control. Even if none of those examples apply, we can’t say no, that’s not me: because we were born here in Canada, so right away that random circumstance puts us ahead of most of the rest of the world. A while back I was listening to an interesting radio conversation about whether the United States should have to pay reparations for slavery. One of the guests made an interesting observation: in the U.S., the discussion often focuses on the long-term disadvantage that African Americans suffered because of racism and slavery. But what is less often pointed out is the long-term advantage that White Americans gained by being the ancestors of plantation owners, or people who could always vote, and always had access to the best schools. To make things equal, you would want to consider not just the losses of one side, but the gains of another. We could have the same discussion here in Canada about the history of Indigenous Canadians. Non-Indigenous Canadians could do the same. The point is that maybe the worker in our gospel who arrived at 9 am had a car, and educated parents, and was the right sex, with the right-coloured skin and spoke the right language. And maybe the worker at 3 or 5 had no child care for their sick baby at home and couldn’t get to work on time, or didn’t know where to go for the job. The landowner in the gospel balanced their fortunes.
Does this mean we never have to fight for what is fair? If it all works out in the end, why does it matter? Of course it does: this parable doesn’t negate the call of the gospel to right injustices. But what it reminds us is that fairness and equality are complicated, and oftentimes so are the solutions. As parents, we instinctively know this: we don’t always treat our kids exactly the same because we see them as individuals who don’t always need the same thing. But we also need to remind ourselves that what is fair and equal changes with time and circumstances. We have to ask ourselves: what’s behind this picture? What am I not seeing? How does being seemingly unfair in this circumstance make life, my family, or society more equal and just? That’s why many argue that quotas – for gender and diversity – are fair even when they might not seem that way – they remove the disadvantage to the worker who showed up at 3 through no fault of their own and no true measure of their ability. Or why we allow in refugees to share our benefits – they came late because of wars they didn’t start and disasters they didn’t cause. Someday, we might be the ones late at the gate, looking for an unfair hand to make things better.
And ultimately, that’s what God, the landowner in the Reign of Heaven, is really saying when we find ourselves arriving early or late at the gate: You made it, and that’s what matters. It’s not that the first person gets bounced to the back of the line, or that the last person gets to sneak up to the front. That the last become first and the first become last is a way of saying, that before God, we’re all equal. There is no first, and there is no last. Our stories shape us, our lives define us, but they don’t decide our spot in line. A line – a rank, a title – are all human inventions. Not divine ones.
Listen, life isn’t fair. If it was, why would we need the gospel? But God wants us to remember to think carefully so we don’t mistake equality for unfairness, and to look clearly so we see unfairness that we can make more equal. And also to know that whether we arrive first or we come last, whether we get lucky or misfortune falls, in our relationship with God, there is always a place saved for each of us. We don’t need to get in line for it. Amen.