Sermon: Nov. 15, 2020 -- "What's Fair? What's Right?" -- Clara Thompson

Psalm 105:1-6                                                                        

Matthew 20:1-16                                                                    


What’s Fair?  What’s Right?

By Clara D. Thompson


            At the time it certainly didn’t seem fair.  Not to me, at any rate.  I was a child, maybe in 4th or 5th or 6th grade, I don’t quite remember.  My brother Steve was a year and a half older.  When I was growing up our family used to have a cottage on a small lake in south-central Michigan.  We would spend our summers there and my father would commute back and forth to Ann Arbor each day for work.  I remember the summer that we were going to learn how to water ski.  I was really excited, as only a young child can be.  I was sure that once I had those shiny new water skis on and that boat started to pull me, I was going to fly!  It was going to be great, and I couldn’t wait until it was my first turn, ‘cuz I knew I could do it.  My brother, however, was not very athletic as a youngster.  He was actually a bit of a klutz.  A great guy, but not very gifted athletically.  My parents had made a pretty good guess that I would catch on to water skiing fairly rapidly and with relative ease, and that my brother, a year and a half older, would really struggle.  He had the desire to do it, he wanted to be able to water ski, but his body was not quite coordinated enough to make learning to ski a simple process.  I was in for quite a surprise, more like a major jolt as I recall, when my parents informed me that Steven was going to learn how to water ski first.  I couldn’t even try until he had mastered it.  Now my memory is that, consequently, I wasn’t even allowed to try water skiing until the whole next summer.  Reality may have been more like a month later, or even a couple of weeks later.  But my memory is that it was a whole season of water skiing later that I could finally sit in the water with those now not-so-new skis on my feet, the tow rope in my hands, my heart pounding with excitement (and a little bit of nervousness, having seen my brother struggle for so long!), hear the roar of the engine, and feel myself lifted up on top of the water and then go skiing for the first time.  It certainly didn’t seem fair to me that I should have to wait until my klutzy brother learned first, but that’s the way it was.  It wasn’t fair.  But my parents just may have done the right thing.  You see, they were correct in their assumption that I would learn to ski pretty quickly, and that my brother would struggle for quite some time before he got his arms, legs, and balance all worked out at the same time.  And even though I missed perhaps a whole season of water skiing in my life, my brother was given the time to learn without feeling squashed down by his little sister who would catch on more quickly.  It wasn’t fair (to me!), but it was probably right.

            The parable of the laborers in the vineyard is about what’s fair versus what’s right.  It’s about the harsh reality that sometimes things are not fair, but they may be the right thing to do.  In Palestine the grape harvest ripened towards the end of September.  If any of you have ever grown grapes you know what it is like when they ripen.  You have to pick them quickly before the birds, or the neighborhood children, get to them.  In Palestine they had to rush to pick the grapes quickly before the rains came.  If the harvest was not brought in before the rains broke, the harvest was ruined.  And so it was often a frantic race against time in order to bring in the grapes, and any worker was welcome, even if he could only give an hour to the task.

            Most of the people who picked grapes in Palestine were day laborers.  They were among the lowest class of workers; life was always desperately precarious for them.  There was no such thing as a temporary job agency that would help them find work for the day, and so they were completely on their own.  To work for the day was to feed one’s family for the day.  To be unemployed for the day was to look at the faces of one’s wife and children when one walked in the door at the end of the day with no food for the table.  You see, the wages for the day laborers was just enough for that day, without anything left over to save to the morrow.  It was literally a life of feast or famine.  During the time of Jesus, the market-place was the gathering spot for all those who wished to be hired in the fields for the day.  The men who gathered there were not street-corner idlers, lazing away their time.  The marketplace was equivalent to the labor exchange, and the men who were standing there were wanting to work, waiting for work.

            The landowner in our parable went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.  The grapes were ripe and they needed to be harvested immediately.  Rain which would destroy the crop was expected soon.  The landowner made a contractual agreement with those whom he had hired, early in the morning, agreeing to pay the usual daily wage.  We presume they went off content, grateful for a full day’s earnings.  But the grapes were ready, and apparently enough laborers had not been hired to bring in the entire harvest.  So the landowner went back to the marketplace at about 9:00 in the morning and called some other laborers to “go into the vineyard and I will pay you whatever is right.”  In this instance no figure is set for the wage, but the owner of the estate says he will do what is right.  From the laborer’s perspective, even a portion of a full day’s wage is better than no wage at all, so agreement was quickly reached.  The landowner went out again around noon and again in the middle of the afternoon, each time hiring more laborers from the marketplace, each time saying, “Go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.”  At about 5:00 in the afternoon – with only an hour of working time left in the day – he went out and found others standing in the market-place, and calls them to go into the vineyard as well.

            According to the parable, when evening came the owner of the vineyard told his manager to pay all of the laborers their wages, beginning with the last and then going to the first.  Those hired at 5:00, who had only worked for one hour, received a full day’s wages.  When the first ones came, those hired early in the morning, those who had borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat, when they received the same wages as the others, they were quick to grumble and say, “That’s not fair!”  Why should those who have worked for just one hour receive the same wage as those who had labored all day?  Ought not the full day laborers receive more?  Many of us, I suspect, would be quick to chime in with the full day workers, “That’s not fair!”

            The owner of the vineyard was quick to remind the workers that he had done nothing wrong; he payed them what they both had agreed upon.  It was certainly within the landowner’s rights to be as generous as he chose, so long as he at least paid what the agreed upon figure was.  He payed the full day laborers their rightly agreed upon pay, but then chose also to give to the others the full day’s wage as well.

            What’s fair?  What’s right?  You see, the employer was thinking of the workmen’s needs.  If they had gone home with wages for only a single hour, their families could not be fed that day.  Their stomachs would be hungry.  Having promised to pay the latecomers “whatever is right” he chose to pay what was right for their individual and family needs, as opposed to whas was “fair” by proportionate standards.  The landowner was putting the needs of the workers and their families first.  He went beyond justice and gave them more than was their due.  He wanted to insure that all received of the bounty, even those who had come late.  “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or are you envious because I am generous?”  You’re right, it’s not fair.  But it was generous, and it was the right thing to do.

            We hear “That’s not fair!” so often in life, we think it so often, that many of us have fallen unwittingly into a misdirected mindset.  The parable of the laborers in the vineyard reminds us that fair doesn’t necessarily mean equal.  Sometimes it means doing what is right. 


Prayer:  Benevolent God, thank you for your generosity to us and to all.  Thank you for looking at our needs and for gifting us with much more than we could ever earn, and more than we could ever deserve.  We ask that you would keep  us from comparing what we have been given with what others have and that you would lead us once again to lives of gratitude.  These things we pray in the name of Jesus, the one who encourages our greater understanding through parables of the kingdom of heaven.  Amen.


  June 2021  
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