Is God Fair?

A Cookie, Divided

The short answer: No, and this is a good thing!

When I was a lad growing up with my older brother, fairness was at the forefront of my thinking. A considerable amount of effort was expended by my parents to ensure that we were both treated equally, along with refereeing our disputes when we’d accuse each other of the cardinal sin of “unfairness”. We always had enough to eat, but it seamed that there was always some last bit of food that we’d fight over. The rule at our house was that one person would cut the food item in half, while the other would select the piece he wanted. The “cutter” would go to great effort to ensure that the pieces were exactly equal so he wouldn’t be “cheated”.

Sometime toward the beginning of junior high (AKA middle school), my parents mantra of “life isn’t always fair” sunk in. I can’t remember the moment I became aware of this, but there were many, many incidences that reminded me that life wasn’t fair, and it was always interpreted as a “bad” thing.

Studying the Bible didn’t help either… God often seemed to act capriciously in the Old Testament, but, when spoken of, was always praised for his sense of justice and fairness. Fast forward to the New Testament, where Jesus challenges our concept of fairness.

“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 this 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 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.”

Matthew 20:1-16, The Message

I’m going to go out on a limb and split some hairs: God may be just, but he isn’t necessarily fair (at least from our perspective). Our concept of fairness often implies getting something – almost an entitlement, if you will. And to quote the wisdom of Miss Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, “Entitlements is bad”. They foster a sense of “deservedness” that just isn’t healthy.

Note that this parable works just as well if the stakes are raised arbitrarily. The estate manager in the story could have negotiated a much larger daily wage and there still would have been grumblings when the foreman paid each laborer. Today, we have athletes, movie stars, and company executives arguing for ever increasing salaries, bemoaning the unfairness of prematurely signing contracts before they came into their prime. The feeling of deserving something based on our perceived “worth” compared to someone else is the error here. The act of being slighted merely exposes our flawed character.

How should this change the way we go about our lives? How should our thought patterns change in order to have a Kingdom view of life? How do we respond when the tapes of our childhood fairness doctrine are played back? How do we answer our post modern culture with it’s warped sense of fairness? I have few answers. I’d really like to here from you – your comments are greatly appreciated!

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