“It’s not fair,” my student Julie repeated over and over to me, complaining about her last class. She had just come from history, where the teacher gave back the tests, and Julie marked the correct answer on the question sheet, but copied it down wrong on her answer sheet. “I knew the answer!” she stammered out with extreme indignation, but the fact was that her answer sheet was wrong, and so her answers were wrong. However, Julie’s outrage was in comparison to the teacher’s treatment of another student. “I get good grades, I do all my work, and Tara doesn’t do anything, yet she gets to do things over and I don’t.” It was a fair point. If one student gets extra chances, shouldn’t all? I asked how her usually high grades compared to Tara’s, and then found that the other girl was often times borderline failing and could probably use all the chances she could get.
Fairness is a concern for us our entire lives. When we are little, we measure the candy we receive against what others get, making sure we all get the same. Teenagers decry the concept 7-8 times a day, citing how some can stay out later than others. As adults, we resent other’s happiness and success, feeling that we are just as deserving, sometimes maybe more so. Years ago, Rabbi Kushner, whose own son died at age 14, attempted to tackle the concept in his book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” which touched a collective nerve and was met with enormous success. Yet, when we ask about life being fair, perhaps we are asking the wrong question.
In Matthew 20, Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who hires workers for his vineyard. In the morning, he finds townspeople, hires them for a day’s wage, and puts them to work. Midway through the day, he finds that he needs more people than he originally thought, so he hires even more townspeople on two later occasions, agreeing to pay them a day’s wage, as well. At the end of the day, the workers come to collect, but those who started work in the beginning of the day expected to be paid more that those who started towards the end of the day, feeling that it would only be fair that way. The landowner disagreed, “I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?…I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you…Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20. 13-15). Instead of paying what was fair, the man paid what was right, citing generosity as his motivation. Perhaps he felt that it was not right that the others were unemployed and denied opportunity earlier in the day. Maybe he felt that it was wrong that they couldn’t provide for their families. Either way, through righteousness, the landowner modeled mercy and grace, which may not be fair, but is right.
When we talk about equality, we should talk less like the Pharisees who cited the law and its fair adhesion to it, but more about God’s grace and mercy, and how being merciful is right and just. If we want life to be truly fair, then Christ’s death on the cross would not be allowed and because of our actions, we’d all deserve death. We cannot be both fair and forgiving, as fairness means we get what we deserve, not what we need.
Would Julie ever make this mistake again? Probably not. It was a hard lesson to learn, but because of grace, she was being taught it so that she would learn from it. Sometimes righteousness means having to suffer for our own good because it’s what we need, with the reason behind it being to mold us into better people. Through righteousness, God’s deep love for us is revealed, and through His mercy, we are shaped to be people who walk closer with Him. We can’t possibly fathom God’s plan, but we are certain as to His righteous intentions. Amen.