A labor dispute erupts in today’s gospel. Labor leaders express their dismay at the disproportionate manner in which the employer decides to compensate workers. “It’s not fair,” they grumbled at their employer, “for people who worked a full days-shift to be compensated same as those who worked merely an hour or two.” And any fair-minded person will agree with them. We value justice and fair-play, and hate to see people violate it, especially against us. For us, once the rules of the game have to be laid out, everyone must follow to the letters.
Maybe you have wondered like me, “Is life fair?” How is it fair for a child to be born with Down syndrome or with blindness, 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 inebriated at the bar and charge on the wheels; one is pulled over by the Corps and charged with DUI, the other goes home and sleeps soundly. Two servers in a restaurant work the same number of tables, treat diners with equal courtesy, and one gets twice the amount of tips. Is it fair? A 45-year-old CEO’s compensation is greater than that of all 94-line workers put together… is it fair? A huge corporation in Wall Street goes under the rocks and government uses tax payers’ dollars to bail it out; a small business in Krebs goes under and no one pays attention. How fair is that? 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 equally not fair—by our standards. It can be chattering to hear that God isn’t fair; hence, He says through Isaiah in the first reading: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways.” The difference between God’s thoughts and ways from ours is so huge that the only comparison worth explaining it is that between heaven and earth. 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 repaid us with death, the grave, and hell fire for our innumerable sins.
Our sense of fairness comes from an unredeemed and sublunary loci, seen in the resentment of the laborers of today’s gospel about the generosity of the vineyard’s owner. Hence, we often want to impose our short-sighted way of thinking on God. That, too, is idolatry. It is we who should unmake our rugged, fallen human nature to be like God, not the reverse. When you go beyond fairness in your dealings with others, then will you encounter a God who is generous, loving, kind, and merciful.
For anyone living in a capitalist society like ours whose sense of justice is guided by the rules of business contract and exchange, today’s gospel poses a huge challenge. 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 cheapen. 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.
Fr. Chukwudi Jo Okonkwo