Heather Hansen

Warm-up Question

When have you been a part of a decision that seemed unfair?  How did that feel?  What made it seem unfair?

  • Bonus Warm-up Activity–Come prepared with enough prizes (like a candy bar or treat of some kind that everyone would like) to give to each person in the group.  Ask for volunteers (to equal about ¼ of the group) to do 10 minutes of jumping jacks and tell them that you will give them a prize for finishing that is worthy of their time and activity.  Allow them to jump for 3 minutes then recruit the same number of volunteers you did before to join them.  Tell them that they will also receive a prize that is worthy of their time and activity.  Wait three more minutes and recruit a third group, and finally with one minute left recruit a final group.  Once the 10 minutes is up, have them line up in order of who came into the activity with one minute left to the ones who jumped for 10 minutes.  Give each person in the line the exact same reward, then have them return to their places.

What is Fair?

When I was in high school, I was blessed with parents who both had good, full-time jobs that allowed us to have everything we needed and still prepare a little for the future.  However, while they did have a little beyond basic needs, the “extra” in the budget was still not going to be enough for my full college tuition.  My parents made too much money for need-based scholarships but did not make enough to pay for the whole four years.  I had a highly praised resume and applied for almost every scholarship I could.  Since I applied to a very competitive state school, I did not receive any scholarships. I was SO CLOSE!

While I was disappointed, I accepted it fairly well until I started finding out about the scholarships a number of my friends were receiving.  A large number of my friends had parents who made a lot more money than mine.  In many cases, their resumes were slightly less accomplished and often a few grade points below mine.  However, they WERE getting generous scholarships.  I was hurt and confused and didn’t understand why because they had more money and their qualifications, while good, were not necessarily as impressive as mine.  Then I learned that because of affirmative action, there were numerous scholarships available to them which were not available to me since I was in the white majority.

I have to admit, unfortunately, that it took me a long time to truly understand and become more compassionate about this seemingly “unfair” event in my life.  However, through stories in scripture – like the parable of the lost son and the parable of the vineyard workers – and through the wise teaching and mentoring of compassionate pastors, leaders and very patient friends, I was finally able to see that this was a case of equity and not of equality.

Discussion Questions

  • Have you ever experienced something that seemed unfair or “unequal” to you?  How did you feel?
  • Have you ever experienced something that you felt was just or right, but others argued that it was unfair?  How did you feel?
  • What are other examples in our world of issues that people fight about as to whether they are just or unjust; fair or unfair?
  • Recent Supreme Court rulings (Students For Fair Admission vs Harvard and SFFA vs UNC) have called into question many affirmative action programs in higher education.  What do you think of that change?

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Jonah 3:10—4:11

Philippians 1:21-30

Matthew 20:1-16

(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 A at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

This week’s gospel is a story about a group of workers recruited by a landowner to work in his fields.  In the end, some of those workers feel they have been treated unfairly.  They have put in a full day’s work, while another group of workers only put in an hour or two.  Yet they all got the same pay. The landowner reminds the workers that he is not obligated to pay anyone any more than what is “right,” which he did.  He pays the early workers the normal daily wage, but chooses to be generous to those who start later.  

We don’t really know the circumstances of the workers in the marketplace that day.  Perhaps they all gathered early in the morning, and some received jobs while others did not.  So, when the landowner came back and saw there were people not working, he gave them an opportunity too, so they could take care of their families. Perhaps their jobs finished early and they had worked early, but were also finished early, which would not allow them to make what they needed.  

Of course, it’s possible that some of them were lazy,  slept in,  and took advantage of a generous man.  However, it seems unlikely that the entire group of workers left in the center of town were late only because they were “lazy.”  Generally, most people who come to work come because they need to.

This story doesn’t really differ from the experiences of people in our own time, does it?  I can think of a number of examples like this in my own community that are almost exactly like this.  I live in San Antonio, where there are a large number of people who come into the country looking for work from Mexico and all parts of Latin America.  They risk their lives to come to a place that might provide a little more money, safety, or opportunity for them and their families.

There are also people in my city who have lived here for generations but have only been able to find work that pays a minimum wage and not a living wage.  In these cases, their children also have to work as soon as they are old enough to support their family, and the younger ones often care for even younger children while the older members of the family work.  They are caught in a cycle of poverty that feels impossible to break out of.

Education is one way people break out of poverty.  But it is hard to succeed if you do not have a parent at home to supervise you.  Furthermore, an older child who has to care for siblings or work in the community before school, after school and late into the night, is less likely to succeed.  Even if a person wants  to succeed, they must overcome greater obstacles  than a person like me.  Even though I didn’t have a lot of extra money growing up, I had what I needed and then some.  I also had the opportunity to use my time to do extracurricular activities and outside learning with my family, which contributed to my performance in school. 

In the U.S. according to a study by the children’s defense fund, in 2021, at least 1 in 5 Black children were poor in 42 states and the District of Columbia; Hispanic children, in 36 states; and American Indian/Alaska Native children, in 29 states. Not one state had a white child poverty rate above 20%.

When I listen to the story of the parable in the vineyard and compare it to the stories of poverty in our own culture today, it helps me understand why I didn’t get those scholarships in high school.  More importantly, it teaches me to love with the compassion of Christ.  The workers in the morning were paid “what is right.”  Perhaps the landowner recognized the plight of the later workers and wanted to give them equal opportunity.  To do so required him to pay more than what was the appropriate hourly wage.  But what a gift to receive what you need when you otherwise would not!  

God’s sense of justice and fairness does not always look just or fair to us because we are often unable to see with the same compassion, generosity and understanding.  Thank goodness we believe in a God that looks past that and gives what is “right” to all people.

Discussion Questions

  • What were your first reactions when you heard the story of the workers in the vineyard?  What did you feel in your gut or your heart?
  • Did those feelings or reactions change after comparing the story to the ways that we live today?
  • What does this story inspire you to see differently or to learn about in order to show the kind of justice and equity that God shows?

Activity Suggestion

Watch the following video about the disparity in equity that still exists today in our culture.  What would the members of your group do in response to the leader’s questions?  Talk about what it would feel like to step forward or stand still.


Closing Prayer

Compassionate God, help us to look around and find ways to be compassionate.  Teach us that we should only look at what’s in another person’s bowl to make sure they have enough, and not just to see if the distribution is fair or equal.  Teach us to see the best in our neighbor, to recognize when things are unjust, and to work for sharing your grace and abundance with others.  Finally, God, may we rejoice and celebrate the gift of your boundless grace, which you bestow in gracious and loving measure to all people, saint and sinner.