By Paul Mueller
What are Christians to make of the radical disparities between the rich and the poor; or even between the rich and the middle class?
Does it not seem obscene that some people own two, three, four or more enormous houses that sit vacant while many people can’t afford a single small house?
Is it fair that some people have fancy cars, can take multiple vacations a year to exotic places, and have access to the best healthcare money can buy while many are trying to hold down two jobs simply to pay the bills with only a few days off a year?
No, it’s not fair.
But should fairness really be our goal? Is it fair that Christ took our sins upon himself and paid our penalty while we walked away free? Talk about the greatest example of unfairness you could imagine and God is at the center of it. The only sinless man suffering and being punished for the sins of the whole world and sinners being given grace they don’t deserve. We are called to emulate Christ, and Christ didn’t act based on what was fair or what people deserved. He was concerned with displaying God’s generosity and authority. We should care more about acting consistently with those ends than whether our (or others’) material circumstances seem “fair” to us.
Consider the parable in Matthew 20:1-16 of the landowner (who I think we can assume is a wealthy man) who goes out to hire laborers to work in his vineyard. He went out early in the morning and hired some laborers offering to pay them a denarius for their day’s work. They agreed and began working in his vineyard. Then he went out at the third hour (9AM) and found men standing idle in the marketplace. He told them to go work in his vineyard and he would give them “whatever is right” and they did. He went out again at the sixth and ninth hours and did the same thing. Finally he went out at the eleventh hour and still found some men doing nothing. When he asked them why they had been standing around all day, they responded that no one hired them. So he told them to go and work in his vineyard.
So here we have men working different amounts during the day. Some worked the whole day, about 12 hours, but the latest workers were only there for 1 hour. At the end of the day the workers came to the landowner to be paid. He began with the last workers hired and paid them one denarius. When the people who had worked the whole day saw that, they expected to be paid more since they had worked much longer. Yet, when their turn came, they also received a single denarius for their whole day of work!
They grumbled against the landowner saying it wasn’t fair! “‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’” But the landowner responds “‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Is there fairness here? Not at all. The initial workers knew their wage and thought it was fair at the beginning of the day. They changed their minds after comparing what they received to what the laborer who only worked one hour received. But the landowner rightly rebukes them for their envy and says that they have received what they agreed to work for and he has the right to do as he wishes with his own money.
So where does that leave us today? Well, for one thing, it means we should be thankful that God is unfair to us in taking our punishment and offering us eternal life. But in a worldly sense, we should not look at fairness as an ideal. There is no distinction between rich and poor in Christ and an obsession with fairness and equality in a material sense seems to be thinly veiled envy and discontentment with what we have. Let us be content with managing our own affairs well and not judge the “fairness” of what other people have and do with their own money.