I’m always struck by the zealous insistence of fairness as a rule that ﬁrst appears in childhood when parents pronounce a decision that some child renders unjust: “That’s not fair!” Growing up with three younger brothers, this experience was all too common throughout my early life. Sometimes it was an older brother like me who was given extra leeway, which upset the younger siblings who wanted the same freedom. Other times it was the younger brothers who were permitted to do something or stay up later than the older siblings were at that age, which seemed unfair in retrospect. In both cases, the feeling was one of personal slight.
Though this sort of protestation arrives on the scene during childhood, the socialization that led to this way of viewing the world surely began a very long time ago. Sometimes one is, in fact, not treated fairly and that is certainly an injustice. One only has to take a close look at the disturbing realities of racism, sexism, and the like to recognize the real unfairness in our societies. However, fairness as a rule tends to be more subjective than most of us would like to admit and it’s almost always, at least when invoked by the comfortable or privileged, a cover for selﬁshness. We see this sort of cloaked selﬁshness in the way ﬁnancially secure and socially privileged individuals and groups rail against political institutions that aid the poor and disabled, calling such necessary acts of solidarity and charity “handouts” in the most pejorative sense.
The Gospels are replete with illustrations that uncover our selﬁsh impulses—those impulses that are so often and so easily masked by the ruse of fairness. Here is an example from the Gospel of Matthew (20:1–16) that does exactly this sort of thing.
You will perhaps recall the story, how Jesus announces, “The Kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard” (Matthew 20:1–2). This ﬁctive landowner, the usual stand-in for God, then goes out periodically throughout the day to hire more laborers. He orders that all the workers be paid the same wage, which provokes the ire of those who were ﬁrst hired in the morning. This is how it goes:
Now when the ﬁrst came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 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.” (Matthew 20:10–12)
The fairness rule rears its ugly head in the contestation of the workers who labored all day. Surely, they insist, we deserve more than those who worked but a few hours.
But why? As Jesus’s narration makes abundantly clear, the landowner has cheated absolutely nobody.
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? (Matthew 20:13–15)
Or, consider another Gospel illustration, this time from Luke 15:11–32. One of the most famous parables of Jesus again reveals what’s really at play in our own self-righteous thinking. This is, of course, the narrative of the Prodigal Son. After the younger child wishes his father dead and demands his inheritance, which he squanders, what would be fair is for that son to be dismissed and left for dead. Or in the best-case scenario, as the son himself imagines, he might be hired as a servant on his father’s estate.
However, what happens in the Kingdom of God is the opposite of our base human impulses disguised as fairness. The gratuitous father is entirely unfair by worldly standards and welcomes the son back without punishment or shame. Like the vineyard workers who began early in the day in Matthew’s narrative, the older son in Luke’s parable seethes with anger at the spectacle of his father’s blatant unfairness. Surely something he learned in childhood!
Human Sense of Fairness
What is to be learned here? What does this say to us?
Let me suggest a few things. First, God’s sense of what is fair and what is not fair does not, at all, align with our human sense of fairness, which again is typically a thin veil covering our own self-centeredness. The reign of God is marked by everybody having what is necessary. In both parables, God does not withhold anything from anyone. All parties are accounted for and given what is necessary for human ﬂourishing. Yet, it is a sense of selfishness and entitlement that drives those who have what is from the outset fair (an agreed-upon daily wage or all that already belongs to the father) to feel they deserve so much more. Perhaps this impulse goes all the way back to our mythical parents in Genesis, who were not content with their humanity and desired to have and be even more.
Second, these parables and an awareness of the selﬁshness that is called “fair” today spawns other narratives that then tend to justify real injustice in our world. The wealthy, comfortable, and powerful spin tales of fairness that are supposed to then accommodate their grandiosity in the shadow of poverty and injustice around them. Like the vineyard workers hired in the morning, many people seem to justify their greed and desire for more as a comparable reward for their hard work. But unlike the parables, the landowners and father (or mother) ﬁgures are usually not prodigal in their generosity and or love. Most landowners operate according to the logic of those ﬁrst-hired workers. The rules then get set to beneﬁt a few, while the system and the rhetoric of society explain inequality, abuse, poverty, and injustice as merely a real-world reﬂection of fairness.
It is difﬁcult for us to accept the gratuitous love, generosity, and mercy of God. We hold one another accountable to rules of fairness, sometimes even baptized in the water of religion, but it is not the radical unfairness of God; it is not the radical justice that is equivalent to God’s inﬁnite mercy. I suggest that what our world desperately needs is a serious reconsideration of what we consider to be fair.