This Gospel lesson is hard for those of us who are concerned about fairness. It seems to tell us that God is not fair. The story is simple: Jesus describes a hiring process. Some workers are hired early, some at mid-day, some in the afternoon, and some just before quitting time. At the end of the day, they were all paid the same wage.
Those who had worked all day felt that they should be paid more than those who had worked only part of the day. But the employer said, "You all agreed to the wage before it was paid;" and more significantly, "it's my money and if I want to pay everyone the same thing, I can."
From this we learn that God is not fair.
Rather than being fair, God is lavish.
One priest, in commenting on this text, said, "I am so glad that God is not fair. If God were fair and gave me what I truly deserve, I would be tortured slowly before being consigned to hell for ever."
But fairness is the highest ethical stance of many in our culture. Some would even choose fairness over lavish love.
Children see fairness as the standard. They are especially keen on fairness if they believe that they have been treated unfairly. All who are parents are familiar with the cry of outrage, "That's not fair!" This may be accompanied by that other great ethical benchmark of children, "But all the other kids get to..." All good parents have a set of responses to these statements that they heard from their parents.
Children seldom raise the issue of fairness when they are being favored. In fact, almost no one raises the issue of fairness when they are favored or privileged.
There have been some first class church fights grounded in unfairness. Sometimes it is a group of spiritually aware folk trying to guide the life of a congregation in a more "holy" way. And they are not treated fairly in the decision making. Sometimes it is a group of long time church members who have labored long for the sake of the congregation and they are excluded from decisions about congregational life by a newer group of members. Sometimes there is even conflict between the clergy and laity. Frequently all of these problems are identified as "fairness" problems. And they are.
There is a lot of unfairness in churches. There is a lot of unfairness in life. Anyone who wants to fill their heart and life with resentment will have ample opportunity to do so.
Jesus invites us to move beyond fairness and into boundless love. The kind of love Jesus calls us to is grounded in, and in fact, is his own sacrificial love. This love was won on the cross. Suffering preceded Jesus' death. Jesus' death was unjust. We might see it as a cosmically unfair event. But that awful death became the door to Resurrection for Jesus. In Jesus' Resurrection we see the meaning of suffering, the meaning of injustice, and the meaning of death transformed by God's power into our experience and knowledge of God's limitless love. Even in the process of death, Jesus was transforming meaning. He said to the thief on the cross, who admitted that his death sentence was fair, "Today you shall be with me in paradise."
Jesus said to God about those who were killing him, "Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing." Both of Jesus' statements were cosmically unfair. Both of Jesus' statements are signs of God's lavish love for us.
Jesus' Ascension may have been the most extreme example of God's lavish love. In the Ascension Jesus left a particular time, place, and group of people to be present for all time and in all places and with all people. This act insures that we, even 2,000 years later, thousands of miles away, and without any personal knowledge of Jesus' disciples can know that lavish love in the deepest and most personal ways.
So, when you are treated unfairly, rejoice because it reminds you that God loves you lavishly. And then do something to make those who treat you unfairly feel really crazy -- forgive them and share with them the love you have received.