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What Kind of Fairness?

Judge's gavel

A sermon on Luke 12:13-21

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here.]

In her commentary on today’s gospel Debie Thomas cuts right to the painful heart of this reading: She writes “for me, the biggest take away from the week’s gospel lesson is this: I need to stop assuming that my nearest and dearest concerns are also necessarily Jesus’s.”[1]

There’s just no way around it. Jesus’s teaching in this reading is hard. Maybe even offensive. Jesus is riding rough-shod all over values that are important in our culture. A man who is being denied his rightful property by his brother comes to Jesus to ask for fair treatment, and instead Jesus gives him a verbal smack-down, calling him out for greed. And then Jesus follows this up with a parable of a man who has made the most of his resources and is making plans to save for his retirement, and apparently, God kills him for it!

It seems a little harsh, doesn’t it? I mean, of course we should all try to avoid greed, but is Jesus really saying that asking for our fair share is greedy? Or that saving and planning ahead are morally wrong?

Well, at least in part… yes!

Jesus is not operating from the same moral assumptions that we have been taught to value. As Debie Thomas says, our “nearest and dearest concerns are not necessarily Jesus’s.”

This past week, while I was serving as the chaplain at Cross Roads Youth Camp, we ran into a similar sense of disconnect between our values and Jesus’ values during one of the Bible study times. The theme for the day was about how God’s “fairness,” God’s way of justice, transforms community. In and of itself that’s not a controversial claim, but then we read the Parable of the Laborers (Matthew 20:1-16).

In the parable, Jesus tells the story of a landowner who goes out early in the morning to hire day laborers to work in his vineyard. He finds a group of workers, agrees on their day’s wage, and then sets them to work. Throughout the day, he keeps going back to the marketplace to hire more workers, promising to pay them “what is fair.” At the end of the day he has his manager gather all the workers to pay them. He starts with the workers who only worked for the last hour, but he pays them for a full day of work.

Naturally, the people who have worked for 12 hours assume they will get more. But when their turn comes, they get the same wage as the people who worked the least.

We had barely finished reading this parable when one of the campers asked the question that most of us probably think when we hear this parable:

“Wait! How is that fair?! Some of the workers hardly worked at all – they didn’t earn as much as the people who worked all day.”

Of course, the camper was right. Under a moral system where fairness is judged according to the standards of proportionality, where fairness means everyone getting what they have earned, Jesus’s parable about the laborers is NOT fair.

Under that same moral system, the rich man in the parable from today’s reading has done nothing wrong. His wealth is his – he earned it (by making smart decisions with his resources and maximizing his crops) and thus he has every right to do whatever he wants with his wealth. And saving it – rather than wasting it on conspicuous consumption - is the SMART thing to do!

So, why does God call him a fool (not to mention demanding his life)? It doesn’t seem fair!

Fairness is one of the most fundamental moral priorities in Western culture – it is one of the “nearest and dearest concerns” that we are taught from infancy. In fact, Moral Foundations Theory[2] identifies Fairness as one of the six essential themes of intuitive ethics – the moral standards that appear at the foundation of every culture’s ethical systems, although they appear in different configurations and priorities.

In other words – there are really deep-seated psychological reasons why we care so much about fairness… and why it is so disorienting, so offensive, for Jesus to violate our expectations about what is fair!

Of course, there are different ways of judging fairness.

Fairness can mean that everyone gets what they deserve… that no one cheats and no one gets a benefit they didn’t work for. That’s an individual-focused understanding of fairness.

But fairness can also be understood from the perspective of the community as a whole, recognizing the interconnectedness of society and that no one is really “self-made” because no one can “succeed” without the systems and structures of our society. From this second perspective, fairness means that those who have received the most benefit from society have a responsibility to give back. Fairness mean that everyone contributes as they can (although not equally) and that everyone gets what they need.

It is this community-oriented understanding of fairness that I believe Jesus is working from in today’s gospel reading, and also in the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, and also in Luke chapter 11 – which precedes today’s reading – where Jesus challenges the Pharisees about their hypocrisy and greed.

In that exchange (Luke 11:37-44) Jesus draws a direct connection between greed and the failure to care for others in need. He calls out religious practice that is about personal performance, about individual piety, while ignoring the needs of others.

He accuses the Pharisees of missing the point of faithfulness to God’s law, because they “neglect justice and love for God” (Luke 11:41). For Jesus, justice, fairness, isn’t about getting what we deserve, it’s about making sure everyone around us gets what they need.

Once we understand that this community understanding of fairness is the one Jesus cares about, the reading from Luke 12 starts to make more sense. The man who approached Jesus asking him to enforce fair division of property is willing to sacrifice his community, his relationship with his brother, over a matter of possessions. And although the foolish rich man in the parable must have had workers to help with his harvest and his construction project, he is so self-absorbed that when he is deciding what to do with his excess wealth, he cannot even acknowledge the existence of anyone else. In three short verses he uses the words “I” and “my” eleven times, and when he says “you” he is talking to his own soul.

“Fairness” for these two men is an individual concern, focused on getting and keeping what they deserve, but this perspective destroys relationships, it dehumanizes other people into tools used for the purpose of selfish accumulation, and it blinds them to others who undoubtedly – given the persistent reality of poverty – need the wealth they seek to hoard.

The problem with greed is a problem of individualism. It’s a problem of restricting our frame of reference down to what we deserve – or at the most, what those associated with us deserve – and failing to recognize that God’s fairness, God’s justice is about the whole human community.

Now, this understanding doesn’t necessarily make Jesus’s teaching easier to take. When Jesus was challenging the Pharisees’ self-focused piety in chapter 11, one of the legal experts responded by saying “Teacher, when you say these things, you are insulting us” (Luke 11:45).

Yes, indeed. God’s justice DOES challenge us. The teaching that fairness is not about getting to keep what we have earned IS an offensive teaching. Jesus is calling out everyone who ignores the needs of others in favor of our own excess. He is certainly calling me out. Putting ourselves first is pretty basic to human nature. And money and possessions have a special power to act on that nature.

Again, Debie Thomas puts her finger on the sore point, when she observes that: “Jesus talks about money and possessions more than just about any other topic. Why? Because there’s something about it that distorts us. Something that makes us defensive. Something that makes it very hard for us to hear the Gospel in its risky, scandalous, impolite, imprudent, and radical fullness.”[3]

Teaching us to love our neighbors is all well and good until it has economic consequences. Until it challenges our right to keep what we think of as ours. Until Jesus tells us that caring for people in need – in need of resources, in need of safety, in need of dignity – is NOT a matter of voluntary charity. It is a matter of fairness, a matter of God’s justice.

But here’s the thing, God’s fairness is, truly, gospel. It is good news, even for those for whom it means holding more loosely to the things we want to keep for ourselves. It is good news even… especially… for those in our society who have and who hoard the most!

Because possessions have a way of possessing us. They have a way of twisting our priorities and making fairness about what we deserve instead of about what our community – our entire human community – really needs.

But fairness that is only about getting what we deserve… that path leads to death. None of us deserves grace.

Thankfully, God’s nearest and dearest concerns don’t look like ours. God’s concern is for the kind of fairness that transforms community:

transformation that frees us from self-absorption;

transformation that heals us from the addictions of greed and selfishness;

transformation that destroys the lie that money can buy happiness, or even security, and replaces it with the truth that we all belong to each other.

The gospel today is good news precisely because it challenges our values. That challenge, and the community orientation that it calls us into, is where we experiences the fullness of the gospel: the good news of the grace that saves us all.

Thanks be to God.


[2] Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind provides an in-depth analysis of this moral theory and of the research conducted in American society about the relative positions of different factions as related to moral foundations. A brief summary of Moral Foundations Theory is available here:


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