One of my favorite columns in the New York Times Magazine is the “Ethicist”. People write in to tell about what ethical and moral quandries they are experiencing and ask the Ethicist, philosopher and writer Kwame Anthony Appiah, what is the best action they should take. In today’s column, Jessie writes in about her concerns about her twin daughters I and J. J has become a professional actor and earns money – much of which gets put in a college savings account. Daughter I is on the autism spectrum. The parents wonder how to be fair to both kids – should they give more to I’s college fund to offset J.’s earnings? Or is this favoring one child over another? How do they avoid potential jealousy – J having more opportunities, parents giving more resources to I? How do they keep things fair?
But it just isn’t fair, is it?
I wish I had a dollar for every time one of my kids said: “No fair!” You love him more than me. You gave her the bigger slice of cake, you like brother better. I’d be a millionaire many times over if I counted how many squabbles between my two kids I’ve had to moderate over the years. Anyone with me on this? Think of how many families get torn apart over contested wills – where one child seems to get more than the rest of his or her siblings. Bill Gates tells the high school students he talks to, “Life isn’t fair. Get used to it!”
The Landowner in the parable Jesus tells us this morning faces the same predicament. The Landowner needs workers for his vineyard. So, he goes out at 6:00 am to the village square, where the day laborers congregate, and employs them on an agreed-on upon daily wage. Then the Landowner does something unusual. He returns to the village square at 9an, then at noon, then at 3pm and then again at 5 pm.
When it was time to pay the wages, the 6:00 am folks were in for a rude awakening. The 5 o’clockers, the 3 o’clockers, the nooners, the 9 am-ers, all got the same daily wage.
It’s not fair! The 6:00 am-ers protest. And they got a point, you know. They toiled in the hot sun for 12 long hours. They got up extra early. They were hard at work while the others were still in bed or loafing around. They were responsible. They were reliable. They were on time. And they get paid the same wage as those good-for-nothing’s who worked an hour and barely broke a sweat? Why should those late-comers be rewarded for their bad work habits? It’s just not fair!
However, we know what’s really not fair. That 25,000 people die from hunger, hunger-related diseases, each day. That’s not fair.
We know what’s not fair – during the COVID pandemic – the 10 richest persons in the world more than doubled their fortunes while over 160 million people were forced into poverty. They now have six times more wealth than 3.1 billion people.
A new report from the Institute for Policy Studies says that the C.E.O. of Live Nation Entertainment, a concert company, earned $139 million in 2022 — while its workers earned a median of $25,673. And that’s common in American business. On average, CEOs received about 398.8 times the annual average salary of production and nonsupervisory workers – the highest discrepancy in the world. That’s just not fair!
The unfairness of life in even our wealthy country, the US is keenly felt. How many of you are familiar with Anthony Oliver? He wrote and sang one of the most popular songs from this summer, “Rich Men North of Richmond.” This guy, out of nowhere, with no training, wrote and home produced a song about the working class being left behind, being jerked around by the powerful elites of the country. The song has its share of harshness, of mean stereotypes of obese people using their food stamps to buy pastries at the hand of the taxpayer. What is astonishing, however, is that over the summer Oliver was the first artist to chart at Billboard number 1 with absolutely no prior chart history. Oliver struck a chord deep in America. So much is just not fair. While Republicans have been quick to claim this song as a rallying cry for their cause, Oliver insists the song is not partisan; it addresses all the powerful and their treatment of those down and out.
There is so much that is not fair in life. It’s enough to make us angry. Bitter. Envious. It’s enough to drive us crazy!! Each of us could probably point to something that feels unfair in our lives. I wonder, why did two dear friends die of brain cancer in their thirties and I’m still alive? We wonder, w hy do my efforts go unrecognized at work? Why does my child have to live with illness? Why do we have food to eat, and others go hungry? Jonah in our first reading is mad with God because he showed mercy to his enemies, the Ninevites. God loves our enemies? The people who hurt us? Who malign us? How is that right, God?
The truth of the matter is Jesus teaches us another way. A way out of the madness of it all. It isn’t about life being fair or not. At the core, that’s really not the issue. Even the New York times Ethicist says that treating people equitably doesn’t mean they should be treated identically. The fundamental issue Jesus wants us to see is that it is about the encounter with grace. To be touched by grace, until it pours over our hearts and seeps into the world around us. Grace that helps us let go of the anger at the unfairness of it all, the bitterness, the envy. Grace proclaimed by Jesus, who embodies divine generosity. Grace that gives us what we need, which may differ from person to person. Jesus shows us an outrageously generous God -- a God who toils so that all get what they need -- even us -- a God who pays everyone a living wage to all no matter what time we show up. No questions asked.
Just imagine what our lives would be like if we lived by values of grace and generosity instead of worrying about what was fair or not – or comparing ourselves to others -- or judging others. Jesus teaches us that God’s generosity embraces all people, rich and poor, sinner and saint—for what does Jesus say? -- “God causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45) All are equal in the sight of God. All of us fall short, at one time or another. All of us need God’s mercy. And thanks be to God -- all of us are recipients of God’s generosity and grace.
No matter if we a 6amer, or a 6pmer. We are all loved by God. The grace poured out in Jesus is available to all, in whatever degree is needed. Can we stop looking at what others are getting and look at all the blessings God pours out in our own lives? Jesus tells us to stop comparing, because we simply don’t know what is going on in the hearts of others. Have we walked in each other’s shoes, and really know what others have gone through? Only God know that. So, let us rejoice that we have a God that sees all, cares for us all, and pours out grace indiscriminately on us all. A God that is kind and generous. Let us leave the judging to God and be thankful for the grace we have received, through the mercy of God. Amen