First Reading: Is 55:6-9; Psalm: 145. R. v. 18a; Second Reading: Phil 1:20c-24. 27a; Gospel: Mt 20:1-16
GOD IS NOT FAIR
BY FR VALENTINE NNAMDI EGBUONU, MSP
“That’s not fair!”
I bet that the above statement is readily what we use to express our dissatisfaction to perceived treatments of injustice. Part of what makes us rational and moral as humans is our sensibility and quick responses to unjust treatments meted out to us knowingly or unknowingly. We say “That’s not fair!” to register our displeasure against unfair treatments in a bid to rescind the perceived unjust act. A worker is promoted after one year of service in preference to us who have worked for two years; we say, “That’s not fair!” A teacher chooses his son as class captain over another student more deserving; we revolt and say, “That’s not fair!” “My Dad loves my little sister more than he loves me. He buys her more gifts. That’s not fair!” “Father, I am not Sotho speaking. Why must you celebrate Mass in a language I don’t understand? That’s not fair!” We can go on and on. Whatever spites us is often not fair to us.
We hear similar complaint in the parable of today’s gospel. The labourers hired at the early hours of the morning grumbled at the vineyard owner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” In other words, they were saying, “That’s not fair!” But do we think that these labourers are fair in their judgement and complaint against the vineyard owner? Are they justified in their accusation? God’s blessings often oppose human calculations. For God sees the whole picture; but we see in parts. However, this parable of the kingdom is more about God’s justice than it is about fairness. And God’s justice is of mercy and compassion; and inclusively so. This was the crime of the vineyard owner.
Perhaps, there is something about these labourers hired at the eleventh hour (5pm) that we are not seeing. There could be a subtext to their persistence in waiting and hoping. In the days of Jesus, labourers gather by the marketplace as early as six o’clock in the morning waiting to be hired. A denarius was the just wage for a day’s labour.
Now, this parable narrates that the vineyard owner hired labourers at 6am, 9am, 12 noon, 3pm, and the last to be hired, at 5pm before the close of the day by 6pm. I think it will be careless if we overlooked whatever it was that persuaded this group of labourers hire at 5pm to wait for eleven hours unhired but didn’t despair or choose to go home. It could be that they were in debt and needed to work to pay what they owe. It could also be that their families had no food to eat or that a relative was sick and needed money for medication or treatment. Whatever it was that kept them unmoved for that length of time must be something serious. A self-sufficient labourer cannot wait for that long in search of a job. This justifies the generosity of the vineyard owner. Our God sees the whole picture. We only see in parts.
The labourers hired at the early hours of day therefore cannot be justified in their protest over the wage they received or over the equal treatment meted out by the vineyard owner. Because they received what was due to them and are limited to seeing the life challenges of their fellow labourers who depended on the generosity of the vineyard owner to survive. God’s kindness to us is not measured according to our inputs but according to his grace. God comes through according to our needs in time. So, if we felt that God is not fair to us because a neighbour or a friend is more favoured than we are; then it means we do not understand the anatomy of God’s justice which is of mercy and compassion.
The reason we sometimes feel unsatisfied with what we have, or think we are not favoured enough as deserved is simply because we compare. We see in other people what we do not have or yet to have, and begin to grumble over life. We cannot see and appreciate our own blessings until we stop comparing and start reflecting. Comparison keeps us busy counting the blessings of others while we turn a blind eye to our own blessings. So, the moment we stop comparing and start reflecting, our eyes are turned to the numerous blessings of God unacknowledged. The early labourers were busy comparing themselves with the labourers hired at the late hours of the day; and failed to see and appreciate the generosity of God who blessed them with a job and a pay for the day.
Do not build or evaluate your life around the stories of others because you do not know their whole story or the burden they carry. God’s blessings defy human calculations. Those we feel are not deserving of good things because we judge them to be wicked and evil may actually be more fortunate than we are in life. Those we regard as mediocre and slothful can suddenly get a better job and trump our financial standings and expectations. Should we then say that God is not fair? If God’s all-inclusive love is what we judge to be unfair; then it’s fine for God to be unfair. We can only have a reasoned and just evaluation of the justice of God if we knew the whole picture. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Is 55:8-9). Do not begrudge God’s generosity.
Remember, the early labourers were rebuked by the vineyard owner not because of their dissatisfaction for what they were paid but because of their dissatisfaction that the late labourers received equal amount as them. Likewise, God calls us today to pluck out every envy eye so as to see and appreciate what we have. That eye that judges our blessings contingent upon the stories of others. We can do this when we stop comparing and start reflecting. Then, we will be able to see that though we may not have a lucrative job but we can afford to feed. Though we may not have a peaceful and understanding spouse but we have beautiful and promising kids. Though we may not have found love but we are loved and cared for. Though we may be facing some crises in life but we are strong and hopeful. There is always something to be thankful for.
Karl Rahner highlights that the wage of the vineyard owner to the labourers is the gift of our very selves from God: “Our own selves, just as we are: with our life, with our temperament, with our destiny, with our surroundings, with our time, with our heredity, with our family . . . so, when we complain about others with whom God has dealt differently, we are really refusing to accept our own selves from the hands of God.” God frowns at this form of ingratitude. God is fair. It is just that we fail to acknowledge our own blessings. But if we felt that God’s generous love is unfair; then it’s fine for God to be unfair.
PRAYER FOR THE DAY
Lord Jesus, we ask pardon for your numerous blessings unacknowledged. Grant us your grace not to envy the blessing of others but to be thankful for your all-inclusive love. Amen.