It’s Not Fair…Or Is It?

Bible Text: Luke 15:11-32, Matthew 20:1-16 | Preacher: Rev.M. | Series: Getting to Know You | Okay so here we are again. It’s week number two with the new guy. No one threw anything or screamed out last week, so I’ll take that I didn’t scare or upset too many people last week. All joking aside I do want to again thank everyone for the warm welcome, the generous gifts, and the love you continue to show my family and me. We are thankful to be with you here, working together in God’s ministry. I have already attended some meetings and a small group gathering, and it has been truly great to start to get to know many of you and this faith community much deeper.

So, this morning we are going to continue in our second week of our first sermon series together titled, “Getting To Know You” where I will be preaching on many of the scripture passages that you submitted a few weeks ago. As I mentioned last week, some of these are favorite passages that bring comfort or joy for some of you, and some of these may be passages that have challenged you in one way or another and you are looking for another voice to speak about it.

Last week using the story of Samuel’s calling from God, and the words of Micah chapter six verses six through eight, we talked about how we all have a calling, and that there are differences in those callings, but also some similarities. Remember we are called to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. This week’s message is called “It’s Not Fair…Or Is It?” and we will be using the verses from the Gospel of Luke chapter fifteen verses eleven through thirty-two and from the Gospel of Matthew chapter twenty verses one through sixteen that we just heard a few moments ago.

Now the concept of fairness can be a very hot button issue, especially among siblings. “Hey, she got more ice cream than I did, that’s not fair!” “Wait a minute, he got to pick what we watched before bed last night, it’s my turn, this isn’t fair!” I am sure these, as well as similar arguments, are ones that many parents, care givers, and others have heard before. It is not just children though who argue about and for fairness. We have all probably heard at one point or another a politician or advocate group talk about fairness. Where we get into trouble sometimes is when fairness and justice are used interchangeably.

You see the problem is that many people believe that fairness and justice are the same things. But I, along with many others, would argue that while they are related to one another, they are not in fact the same things. Justice is really a moral concept and an ethical or normative obligation, as in the idea that one should always be just. But fairness is a technical concept and an ethical consideration, as in the idea that sometimes it is right not to be fair, but one should take account of that unfairness in working what is right.

Now this may seem like simple semantics, and to some it might be, but I think too often we can fall into the trap of using words that both sides of a position or argument understand to mean different things. And I think it is helpful to examine situations that might help us to understand those meanings better in relation to what is going on in a given context. So, let us start with our parable from Matthew’s Gospel, “The Laborers in the Vineyard.”

Here we have the story of a vineyard owner who hires workers into his fields for the harvest, and as the day goes on, continues to hire more and more people. Now at the end of the day, the owner pays every single person the exact same amount, regardless of whether they started working for him early in the morning and worked some twelve hours, or if they were hired late in the day and only worked an hour or two. And those hired first begin to grumble about it and the owner says to them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? So, the last will be first and the first will be last.”

Now many people may be thinking, well hang on a second that still isn’t fair! How can there be such a discrepancy in wages? Someone call a lawyer quick! These are unfair hiring practices!! I think this might be one of those situations where the outcome maybe wasn’t totally fair, but it was within the bounds of justice as the workers were paid what they were promised, so no one was cheated out of their promised pay. But it doesn’t seem fair still! And well…maybe it’s not.

But see we too easily get caught up in the story itself and the question of fairness a lot of times and instead we miss that the story was meant to illustrate something bigger than the story itself. This wasn’t about how much money people earn. This parable is about how God treats humanity. God loves all humanity. And despite what our culture tells us and views as “fair”, God does not hold those who have come to know God sooner than others any more special or holy.

And this is still an area where we can struggle and push back against. The idea that it doesn’t matter if you became a follower of Jesus at a young age or lying on your deathbed does not change your value in God’s eyes. And many people think that is not fair. We have situations in our churches, across all denominations and cultures, where long time members will believe themselves to be more important or worthy of more authority than those who have only joined recently. But that is not how God sees it.

And truth be told, we should be thankful that God does not follow the rules and expectations of our cultures. What we sometimes fail to realize with this parable is the truth being shared that if God treats no one unfairly, he also deals with many far more leniently than they deserve. That is God’s grace folks. God and God alone in God’s sovereignty freely chooses whom God will favor and in what ways. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”

Then of course we have our second reading from the Gospel of Luke with the parable of “The Prodigal and His Brother” or maybe the more commonly known, “The Prodigal Son”. Although I’ll be honest, I have a colleague who once said this parable should really be renamed to “The Grace-Filled Father”. But I’ll come back to that in a second.

So here we have Jesus telling another parable, trying to help his disciples and followers to better understand God, God’s relationship with humanity, the kingdom of God, and so on. So here we have a man who has two sons and the younger one asks for, or demands depending on how you read the passage, that his father give him his inheritance. So, the father does so, splitting things between the two sons and the younger son takes all his possessions and leaves with his new property and wealth. But after a short time of “dissolute living” as the text says, he has spent all he has and is left destitute.

They young man then hires himself out to a citizen of the country he had traveled to and is sent out to the fields to feed the pigs. And this young man is so hungry he’s actually thinking about how he would eat the pods the pigs were eating and how no one had given him anything to eat. He then reminds himself that all of the people who work for his father are well fed, so why is he sticking around this place. At least if his father would hire him to work in the fields, he would have enough to eat.

So he says to himself, “I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.'” And he sets off on the journey back to his homeland. But we are then told as he is still a far way off his father sees him walking, is filled with compassion, and runs to his son and hugs him and kisses him. Now I want to point out something especially significant in this interaction. Besides the fact that the father would have every right to be upset with or disappointed in this son, the patriarchs of the families in this time would rarely, if ever run. Not because they were lazy, but because they were the head of the family. People ran for them, they didn’t run. And yet, he was so overcome with compassion and love for his child, he runs to him.

As the father embraces his son, the young man beings to recite his planned speech to him saying, “’Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” He doesn’t even get to the next part about being treated like a hired hand, as his father cuts him off and says to one of his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”

And they begin to celebrate. Then, the oldest son comes in from the field and hears the music and dancing. He calls over to one of the slaves to ask what is going on and is told that his brother has come back and their father has killed the fatted calf because he has gotten his son back safe and sound. And that’s when the trouble begins…The oldest son becomes angry and refuses to go inside. His father goes out to him and pleads with him.

But the older son says to his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Doesn’t seem all that fair does it? I mean, I think a lot of us, if not all of us, can see where the older son is coming from right? But his father replies to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

Now here again, we are not really talking about money or possessions just like with the parable of “The Laborers in the Vineyard”. We are of course again talking about God and how God loves humanity. The point being made is that even when we stray from God, God’s love for us never lessens or dies. And when we find our way back to God, God is joyous and celebrates because we have come back and come back to the love and grace God gives.

And for anyone who wants to argue that it’s still not fair because they have never strayed from God, I am calling shenanigans. None of us has gone our entire life with a moment of doubt, a personal failing, committing some sin – no matter how small, and so therefore we have all strayed in one way or another. So, we should really read this parable and be excited. This parable is really more about a grace-filled father than a prodigal son. This parable tells us so much more about God’s love and grace for us. We should be thankful that in this instance the father was not really fair but was just based on the father’s love of his children.

These two parables can really be challenging to our idea of fairness and justice. Many people see them as examples of slackers and degenerates getting away with something or not being held accountable. But the truth is that we ALL, and I mean ALL of us, we are the slackers and degenerates. While it often is a situation where we think we relate more to the first hired workers or the older son because of how long we have been Christians or members of the church, we don’t. We are the end of the day laborers. We are the child who strays from our loving parent in heaven. And I again say that we should be thankful that God gives us grace and we are not treated with the “fairness” we deserve.

So, here is my challenge to you this week, and I hope you carry it forward. The next time you feel that something is not fair when it comes to faith or the church, take a step back. Try to remember that we are all God’s children, seen as equals in God’s eyes. And that just as God treats us justly, not holding one above the other, and God loves us the same, not one better than another, we should embody that same way both in our church, our faith community, and our world.

Try not to get upset that someone else was asked to serve on a committee instead of you. Try not to be annoyed that someone else was asked to sing one Sunday and you haven’t been asked yet. Try not to be angry that someone else has been given an opportunity to serve that you have been wanting. Instead, try to be joyful and excited. Be joyful for that person. Be excited for that person and the opportunity they have before them. Be joyful and excited that there is another person joining in the ministry work we are called to by God. Show love and grace to those who come back after being gone and dead, the lost and now found. Do not hold that over them but push it away and instead embrace them and celebrate their return. God does that with each and every single one of us. I think we can at least make the effort on God’s behalf to do that for one another. Amen.