Did you notice the labor dispute that erupted in today’s gospel? Labor leaders express their dismay at what they perceive as the disproportionate manner in which this employer decides to compensate workers. “It’s not fair,” they grumbled, “for people who worked a full days-shift to be compensated same as those who worked merely an hour or two.” But notice that the quarrel with the employer wasn’t that he didn’t pay them the agreed upon wage; rather that he was overly generous to the latecomers. What’s at play here is envy, which is sadness at the good fortune of another. The envious person hides the evil in his heart by shouting: “It’s not fair.”
By the way, “Is life fair?” How is it fair for a child born with Down syndrome, with blindness or autism, through no fault of theirs? Is life fair when some are born into wealth and royalty—like little Prince George whose first day at kindergarten drew out the paparazzi—while others are born in poverty or rescued from the dustbins where their mothers dumped them. Some are tall and some are short; some pretty, and some not so pretty. Two friends get plastered at the bar and charge on the wheels; one is pulled over by the police and charged with DUI, the other goes home and sleeps soundly. Is that fair? By now you must have started to agree with me that life isn’t fair.
But if life isn’t fair, at least, God should be fair. I’m sorry; He’s not, and I understand that it can be chattering to hear that. Hence, Isaiah speaks for God in the first reading: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways.” But relax, the point is this: God isn’t (just) fair. He is rather good; He is merciful; He is loving; He is generous. I’m sure you’ll take goodness, loveliness and generosity over fairness, won’t you? If God were to treat us fairly and justly, many of us wouldn’t see the light of this day. He would have justly sent the tornadoes and hurricanes to the atheists and those who abuse him and spare the houses of worship built for Him.
Our sense of fairness comes from an unredeemed locus, represented by the resentment of the laborers of today’s gospel about the generosity of the vineyard owner. Hence, we, like them, often want to impose our short-sighted way of thinking on God. We should go beyond fairness in our dealings with others, so that we can encounter a God who is generous, loving, kind and merciful.
Jesus does not, however, abrogate the valid principles of justice; rather, He goes beyond that to let us encounter the extravagant generosity in God, which the mere rules of Commerce and Economics would demean. If you try to live by the divine economy, it’ll be possible to endure the trials of life with hope in God’s goodness; it’ll be possible to have understanding with your spouse and seek to outdo him or her in generosity and forgiveness; you can give without counting the cost. Constantly comparing yourself with others and seeking fairness makes you resentful and envious like the workers of today’s parable. Focusing on God’s generosity makes you a joyful steward. According to T.S. Elliot, Jesus doesn’t want us to be people carefully measuring life with coffee spoons; He wants us to be loving, generous and big-hearted.