Fun Facts of Lent, Day Thirty-Five: The Gospel of Unfairness

In the Prodigal Son, a man wastes his father’s inheritance and is rewarded with a great feast upon his repentant return. This wouldn’t be so bad, expect his brother has been working dutifully for years and was never treated to such a feast. It isn’t fair.

In the story of the Laborers in the Vineyard, a landowner hires day laborers to work his field at the usual daily rate. Later that day he finds some more workers and hires them as well. He keeps doing this throughout the day, hiring the last group at 5PM. When it comes time to pay his workers, everyone gets the same amount of money. The ones who were there early grumble, but the landowner reminds them that they were paid exactly what they were promised, and he’s allowed to do whatever he wants with his money. Still, it isn’t fair.

The teachings of Jesus are full of this sort of thing. While some stories end with righteously even scales, others do not. These were always the hardest stories for me growing up. At the end of the Prodigal Son I wanted the father to say, “You’re right! I’ll tell you what, let’s throw a big party for you and your friends next week.” I didn’t mind the young son being forgiven, but I wanted the dutiful son to be rewarded. After all, he’s the one I identified with the most.

I think Jesus’s stories are sometimes unfair to remind us that God did not build a fair world. The scales will not always be even. Some people will get all the luck. Some people will face tragedy when they don’t deserve it. That’s just the way of things.

But wait, what about justice? Doesn’t Jesus talk about justice all the time?

He certainly does. For me, I think there’s a big difference between justice and fairness. Fairness happens to the individual, but justice is systemic. If your boss passes you over for a promotion you deserve, that’s unfair. If people with your skin color are consistently turned down for promotions, that’s injustice. Justice is something groups work for and groups benefit from. But fairness? Fairness is just luck and the weather.

It’s not easy to accept unfairness. The need for things to be fair is one of the first and most fundamental needs we have. If you’ve ever worked with school children you know there is no objection more important than, “but that’s not fair!”

Sorry kids. Jesus didn’t come to bring fairness. Grace is not fair. Love is not fair. The Kingdom of God, whatever it may be, is not a fair place. It can’t be, because this is not a fair universe and it wasn’t built by a fair God. Sometimes you’ll get the short end of the stick. Sometimes you’re the guy who showed up to work at dawn but still got the regular daily wage. It happens. Be grateful it happens. One day you may find yourself sauntering in at five o’clock, hoping the almighty landowner will be just a little unfair today.