Do You Really Want Fairness?

Happy childhood. Two brothers little boys drinking tea

“That’s not fair!”

My daughter was quite upset over what she perceived to be a bigger piece of cake given to her sister. The depth of indignant and obvious heartfelt wound was unmistakable in the tone of her voice, her crossed arms, and the tears welling in her eyes. She was righteously fighting for what was “fair.” She would accept nothing less than absolute equality so as to affirm her equal status in the family structure. Fairness was absolutely necessary to communicate her worth and place in the family.

In today’s culture fighting for “fairness” seems to have become a major concern. But is the concept of “fair” real?

To be sure, treating each other well and working for honorable and respectful treatment of all people is an absolute value. Because we are all created in the image of God, to deny another respect and dignity is tantamount to rejecting the image of God that resides undiluted in each person. Even in the face of grave sin, human failings can never overpower the image of God in the most horrible behaving human. The image of God remains; marred but intact. The purpose of God’s grace and salvation is the restoration of that marred image and then to move us to His likeness.

But what of this fight for “fairness?”

There seems to be a poison lurking in all these demands for fairness, and that makes me question the value of the very concept itself. Do I want fairness or righteousness? Fairness may reduce all of us to mere machines. Fairness always runs the risk of a lowest common denominator mindset that eventually means spreading equal amounts of misery to everyone “to be fair.” Demands for fairness always seems to be tainted by the sickness of envy, and that sickness poisons the whole desire.

In today’s Gospel Lesson, our Lord confronts humanity’s weakened understanding of what’s fair. In Matthew 20:1-16 our Lord tells the story of a man who owns a vineyard, and he hires workers for a day’s wage to go and work in the vineyard. As the day progresses he finds other idle men who he then sends into the vineyard to work the rest of the day. Finally, just a bit before the day is done, the owner finds men at the last minute still idle, so he sends them into the vineyard to work.

Read this:

The Lord said this parable, “The kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing; and he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the householder, 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.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or is your eye evil because I am good?’ So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few are chosen.”

At the end of the day, all the workers line up for their pay. The ones who just worked a few hours got a full day’s wage. The other men who had worked all day thought to themselves “If he’s paying them a full day’s wage then surely we will get more!” When it comes time to pay them, they receive the wage they were promised. Indignant, they demand to know why the owner is being so unfair!

Listen to the owner’s response: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or is your eye evil because I am good?” What a stark invitation to look at our own motivations and desires!

A desire for “fairness” tainted by envy, selfishness, and pride will never produce harmony or even justice, because the “offended” group always devolves into revenge and becomes the very thing they hated when the shoe was on the other foot. In fact, this demand for “fairness” is a never fulfilling desire because if “fairness” is achieved then the feelings of anger and woundedness are no longer necessary, and for most groups asking for “fairness” they have come to understand themselves based on these feelings of woundedness and wrong. That’s how they know themselves and so no matter what others do, it can never be enough.

Today, allow the Holy Spirit to enlarge your desire for righteousness, and dismiss the fantasy of “fairness” from your hearts. Strive for justice in the truest sense of the word and not the “I want what they have” poverty of “fairness.” Our hearts, our homes, our communities, will never become truly loving and peaceful while the tyranny of false “fairness” drives our desires and behaviors. We were made for so much more than “fairness.” We were made for mercy and grace! We were made for righteousness. We were made for a purposeful Orthodoxy!

God please don’t be “fair” with me; be merciful and gracious to me!

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  1. Good blog. Perhaps you may find it interesting to contrast this parable with the reaction of the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. I wonder who represents Israel, who represents the cradle orthodox, and who represents American high achievers?

  2. Fairness vs. Righteousness. I like that distinction. I can’t help but jump to my own conclusion that those who are asking for “fair” treatment today are among the LGBT community. That being said, I wonder whether it isn’t both fairness AND righteous that they are being denied by the church.

    Can you comment at all? In other words, has the church’s approach to this community actually denied them the opportunity to pursue Christ and the righteousness he alone can provide?

    1. Chad, thanks for your note.

      I confess to being highly suspicious of the modern trend to divide folks up into convenient acronyms for the purposes of “group politics.

      That being said, all persons are created in the image of God. This is true before any of us come to realize we have this or that attraction or desire. Therefore, being created in the Image of God precedes all other identifications and supersedes all other identifications.

      Adding to this the all too easy corruption of the concept of “fairness” in our hyper politicized society where identity politics drowns out even basic discussion, I have come to see the demand for fairness as absolutely useless in remedying perceived wrongs.

      Let me quickly add that it is a modern affectation that assumes the Church has been particularly “unfair” to any modern distinction or current gender identity. On the contrary, the Church has been historically the safe haven for those who are different or outcast. The convenient, albeit wrong, slander against the Church to push a particular societal and political agenda is particularly onerous and actually unhelpful to struggling persons created in God’s image.

      The fact is no one is being denied, or has ever been denied, what the Church offers to all humanity – salvation through Christ to finally become in His Likeness because we are created in His image.

      Chad, thanks again for the note, and be assured of both my respect and my attention.

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