When Fairness Fails…

Earlier this morning, I was talking  to a buddy at Starbuck’s about the difference between fairness and justice. I suppose everyone of us has lived through circumstances we deemed to be unfair. Something inside of us chafes at a self-perceived inequality which we feel we have experienced, and we look outside of ourselves for “someone” to right the wrong we feel we have received.

I suppose you might be wondering why such a topic would come up during a cup of Pike at Starbucks… My first response to that would be to say:

“Where better to talk about deeper topics than at a coffee shop?”

My second response is a little longer…

I had a difficult week last week. I “stepped in a puddle” of sorts. “Stepped in a puddle” is the phrase I use to describe an unexpected event which is associated with divorce. As you begin to rebuild your life after divorce, there are often events which take you back emotionally to the grief of losing some aspect of “family” and “home”. 

You lose a little ground…

Your foot gets wet…

And you have to let it dry…

I don’t miss the relationship, honestly, because I now see how much it didn’t work for either of us. (It seems that my former wife is living the life she wants, and I hope it works for them. I truly want them to be happy.)  However, the dreams and expectations associated with family:


Time together…

Shared humor…

Secret language…

Shared heritage…

These are things that seem lost, but whose loss you don’t expect. My kids are older, beginning to live their own lives, and I fully expect that…intellectually… but I do miss the everyday interaction.

I can hear the pat answers/responses to my words in some of your minds, and understand that these are things I have some ability to keep in place… and you’re right. However,

 life gets complicated, 

 schedules don’t always synch,

 money is short,

choices are made which must be made when parents live in two different places.

So the subject of fairness must be broached…. over and over and over again.

We talk about this in the divorce support group I facilitate. Although I am the contact person for the group, it really is a joint effort in getting healthier. It is important for me to share my experience not only to help others understand that their pain is normal, and they aren’t alone in it; but it also is important for me to receive understanding and caring from them.

Ok…. so…. back to justice versus fairness…

Before the conversation with my friend, I had been reading the story Jesus told in Matthew 20:1-16, about a landowner/farmer who needed help in his vineyard:

“God’s kingdom is like an estate manager who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. They agreed on a wage of a dollar a day, and went to work.

“Later, about nine o’clock, the manager saw some other men hanging around the town square unemployed. He told them to go to work in his vineyard and he would pay them a fair wage. They went.

 “He did the same thing at noon, and again at three o’clock. At five o’clock he went back and found still others standing around. He said, ‘Why are you standing around all day doing nothing?’

 “They said, ‘Because no one hired us.’

  “He told them to go to work in his vineyard.

 “When the day’s work was over, the owner of the vineyard instructed his foreman, ‘Call the workers in and pay them their wages. Start with the last hired and go on to the first.’

 “Those hired at five o’clock came up and were each given a dollar. When those who were hired first saw that, they assumed they would get far more. But they got the same, each of them one dollar. Taking the dollar, they groused angrily to the manager, ‘These last workers put in only one easy hour, and you just made them equal to us, who slaved all day under a scorching sun.’

 “He replied to the one speaking for the rest, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair. We agreed on the wage of a dollar, didn’t we? So take it and go. I decided to give to the one who came last the same as you. Can’t I do what I want with my own money? Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?’

 “Here it is again, the Great Reversal: many of the first ending up last, and the last first.” The Message

The first thing that jumps out at me is how unfair the landowner must have seemed to the first workers. Their attitude is very similar to the older brother in the story of the Prodigal son, which Jesus also told. They had worked hard all day and accomplished what they deemed to be expected of them, yet the value of their work seemed to be disrespected and devalued by the landowner, because he had chosen to pay the same wage to those who had worked a much shorter time. So they became ungrateful for the job they had been given, and the wage they received which had been promised. How different must their attitude have been at the beginning of the day when they had been standing around looking for someone to hire them?

What changed for them?

What changed IN them?

The second thing I notice is how many times the landowner returns to the square, looking for workers. What seems to be his priority: giving more workers jobs?  Or getting the work done in his vineyard? How did the priorities of the landowner clash with the priorities of the workers? Did the generous action of the landowner to the later workers  change due to the response of the earlier workers?

I expect there are many times when I want my expectations for the fairness of life to be the measure by which God treats other people. Sometimes it is difficult for me to see how graciously God acts towards others whose life seems to be easier than mine. It doesn’t feel fair.

The third observation I make in the story, is really a question:

Why were the people still in the square so late in the day?

What was their experience?

Actually, the landowner asks them the same question:

“‘Why are you standing around all day doing nothing?'”

Their response is interesting:

‘Because no one hired us.'”

Why would nobody hire them?

Were they lounging around in the hammock at home, because they had been drunk all night last night?

Were they unable to find babysitters?

Were they physically disabled?

Were they of a different race than the rest of the community?

Whatever the personal stories of these late workers, I am amazed that they were still in the square so late in the day. How could they still hope that someone would hire them so late in the day?

After standing around so long…

When others were taken before them…

And the sun in the sky was beginning to sink…

What miracle of hope stayed alive in their hearts that SOMONE had work for them TODAY!

Today, they would still work to feed themselves and their families…

Today mercy would meet them in the square and reward their meager efforts with generosity…

This story is a beautiful example of how the Justice of God and the Mercy of God live in tension with each other. They are tied together.

What is necessary for me, is to receive God’s gifts with gratitude, no matter how those gifts appear at the moment, or how they compare with the gifts others have receved. I can make a determination to choose this attitude only by ruthless trust (Thanks for the wonderful phrase, Brennan…) in the goodness of God.

God’s Justice is always surrounded by grace…


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