Anne Williams, Ankeny, IA
Think about Christmas; how does your family decide what “fair” is for presents? Is it the same number of presents to open? Is it the amount the presents costs? Why do you think your family does “fairness” that way?
Fairness is Relative
“When it comes to business, fairness is relative,” says banker John Norris. In a newspaper column, Norris, a banker in Birmingham, Alabama, tells the story of a friend who had done well all year and had reached his sales goal for the year by September. His boss told him that doing so meant he had also reached his cap on bonuses and commissions for the year. The boss felt that it wouldn’t be fair for Norris’ friend to earn that much more money than anyone else. Norris’ friend was none too happy with this decision and told Norris that he wouldn’t negotiate another sale for his company until January, when he could get commission and bonuses again.
Norris’ response to his friend was to say the company was stupid to max him out with three more months to go in the year when this friend could be making more money for the company. Both Norris and his friend know and understood that in business, those contracts and sales pay for everyone’s salary, everyone’s bonuses and cover things like overhead (what it costs to run the business) and health insurance. But Norris’ friend needed an incentive. As Norris writes, “He simply didn’t want to work for free. Why would he? That wouldn’t be fair, would it?”
- What do you think about salaries that are based on bonuses and commissions? Would you want a job like that?
- Who’s right, the boss who thinks bonuses above the goal is unfair or Norris who thinks his friend shouldn’t work for “free”?
- Does fairness seem difficult to nail down in this situation? Is it relative? Is it always relative? Is there objective fairness in the world?
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings
For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.
In this parable, Jesus tells us a story about the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s like a man who owns a vineyard who hires workers for that vineyard at three hour intervals during the day and then pays them all a full day’s wage at the end of the work day.
Here’s your fun fact for the day: a day’s wage, in the ancient world, was enough money to a family to eat for a day. Think about that: earning just enough money each day to buy the food you needed to keep you and your family alive. It’s called subsistence living (Google Dictionary definition of Subsistence: “the action or fact of maintaining or supporting oneself at a minimum level”).
Now here’s where things get sticky, could the workers who were chosen at 5:00 expect a full days wage? Were they dreaming of that, but trying to limit their expectations to something less? Can you imagine the surprise and maybe even confusion of the workers who got a full day’s wage even after working just one hour?
What about the anger from the other workers who had also been paid the usual daily wage? How would they feel? Here’s what the landlord has to say for himself (verses 12 – 15)
[The workers grumbled], “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.” But he replied to one of them, “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?”
The best part is that Jesus says only this by way of explanation: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Fairness doesn’t always look the same in every situation. It’s not about being first or last, it’s situational. In this case, fairness in the Kingdom of Heaven looks like everyone having work enough to feed their families. Now by our definition it’s not at all fair that enough work looks like all day for some and one hour for others. The words Jesus gives the God character in this story, the landlord, reflect fairness rules that are pretty foreign to us: It’s more important that everyone have enough to eat than to be fair about work hours, for example. It also implies that fairness has something to do with our values and morals. What’s fair in the Kingdom is that everyone eats rather than everyone being paid hour by hour for their work.
- Since we don’t yet live fully in the Kingdom of God, but we really want to, whose fairness rules should we be living by?
- What would it be like to live like God was our landlord?
- What motivates your sense of fairness? What values or morals do you think about when you think about fairness?
- Jesus seems to think that generosity is more important than what we usually regard as absolute fairness. Can you think of cases where you would agree?
Fairness exercise: hide a bunch of candy around the space you’re meeting in (Keep a full sized bar out of sight). When all of the students have found all the candy, give the “prize” to the person with the least candy. Debrief the exercise with questions like, does this feel fair? How does it make you feel that the prize went to the person with the least?
God of all things, you command us to love one another and to love you. Help us to show that love in our actions and how we share with others. Remind us that fairness should be looked at from your point of view, not ours and that you make the last first and first last. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.