Sunday’s sermon: Equal and Fair?

equal vs fair

Texts used – Exodus 16:2-15; Matthew 20:1-16

  • With two 4-yr-olds at home, you can probably guess what one of the most common phrases in our household is right now – 3 little words: It’s. Not. Fair. Frankly, you don’t even have to have kids to know just how prevalent this phrase is in childhood. You only need to have been around children who’ve been playing together for more than 5 minutes. Inevitably, you will hear one of them lament, “It’s not fair!” Maybe it has to do with a toy. Maybe it has to do with a game. Maybe it has to do with a snack. In our house, it often has to do with who gets to pick the afternoon movie. And maybe it doesn’t have to do with anything specific at all!
    • IF we’re being honest – “it’s not fair” is a phrase that is far from restricted to childhood alone → hear it from adults almost as frequently
      • In terms of relationship
      • In terms of work-related issues (benefits, pay, treatment, etc.)
      • In terms of politics
      • Just about anywhere and everywhere.
    • Childhood phrase “It’s not fair” has become replacement for “I’m not getting my way”
    • With children (and maybe even sometimes adults) → many typical responses to this
      • Simple logic: “It was your turn last time. Now it’s your brother’s turn.”
      • Long-winded explanation: “Johnny gets bigger portions than you because he’s older. His stomach can hold a little more than yours can, and his nutritional needs are different than yours.” (admittedly: often lose children long before you finish the explanation)
      • Playful response (from a familiar member of our congregation): “Some kids get nice moms and some kids don’t.”
      • Somber: “Life’s not fair” (also not super effective for a young child who doesn’t really understand the gravity of a statement like that anyway)
      • Our response at home: “That doesn’t mean anything” → fairness for you ≠ fairness for me
        • Granted, this is a concept that flies pretty well over the heads of two 4-yr-olds. But think about it for a minute. How often, out in the world, do we deem something “not fair” at a glance? And how often are our ideas of fairness and equality so intertwined that we cannot separate the two? Do we even need to separate the two?
        • Scripture readings for today address fairness and equality and whether or not we can call them the same thing
        • Before we dive in, let’s set down a couple definitions so we’re clear as to what we’re talking about.
          • Equal: being the same in quantity, size, degree or value
          • Fair: in accordance with rules or standards
  • So as I said, both our Scripture readings for today address fairness and equality, but probably not in the way you might be thinking. Both our Old Testament and New Testament readings tell stories, stories in which the characters are basically saying, “Wait a minute! That’s not fair!!”
    • OT – story of Moses and Aaron leading the Israelites through the desert after their escape from slavery in Egypt → In fact, this story comes follows directly on the heels of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea on dry land and leaving the Egyptian army to be obliterated as the waters crashed back together.
      • Not exactly a pretty time in their history → This is part of that period where the people’s elation at being freed from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh has actually worn off, and now they’re beginning to realize how difficult this journey through the wilderness is going to be … and they don’t like it very much.
        • Verse after verse … story after story of the Israelites complaining against Moses and against God → 2 frequent phrases:
          • 1: (heard in our story today) “Oh, how we wish that the Lord had just put us to death while we were still in the land of Egypt.”[1]
          • 2: “We were better off in Egypt! At least there, we had food and water.”
        • Basically the Israelites’ version of “It’s not fair!”
      • And this is exactly how our story this morning starts out – text: The whole Israelite community complained against Moses and Aaron in the desert. The Israelites said to them, “Oh, how we wish that the Lord had just put us to death while we were still in the land of Egypt. There we could sit by the pots cooking meat and eat our fill of bread. Instead, you’ve brought us out into this desert to starve this whole assembly to death.”[2]
    • But the Israelites certainly aren’t alone in their complaining in our Scripture readings this morning → NT – parable of the workers in the vineyard
      • Basic storyline
        • Landowner goes out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard → agrees to pay workers one denarion
          • 2 important points
            • Pt. 1: “early in the morning” → What time to farmers get up?
              • Jack – 4:30 a.m.
              • Gregory – 3:30 a.m.
              • Dad – 5:30 a.m.
              • So the first workers are recruited basically at the crack of dawn to start their work day in the vineyard.
            • 2: Denarion = 1 day’s wages for field worker → translated to U.S. minimum wage for 10 hrs. work = $72.50
        • NEXT → landowner goes out again a few hrs later (~9:00a), sees more people standing around in the marketplace with nothing to do → hires them as well
          • Text: He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I’ll pay you whatever is right.”[3]
        • Process is repeated at noon, at 3:00 in the afternoon, and again at 5:00 in the evening
        • At the end of the day → landowner instructions to his manager: “Call the workers and give them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and moving on finally to the first.”[4]
        • Now this is where the trouble comes in: When those who were hired at five in the afternoon came, each one received a denarion. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more. But each of them also received a denarion. When they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, “These who were hired last worked one hour, and they received the same pay as we did even though we had to work the whole day in the hot sun.”[5] → field workers’ version of “It’s not fair!”
          • And maybe that’s our reaction to this parable, too. “What do you mean the people who worked for one hour got the same pay as the people who worked all day? How does that work? How’s that fair?” If we stick with the math we did earlier – 1 denarion = $72.50 today – then some people made $6.04/hr while some made a whopping $72.50/hr! And everything in between. That’s not fair! That is definitely not fair!”
  • But is it truly not fair? Or is it not equal?
    • Remember definitions from earlier
      • Equal: being the same in quantity, size, degree or value
      • Fair: in accordance with rules or standards
    • Pay of the workers in the vineyard certainly isn’t equal (obvious) BUT is it in accordance with the rules/standards set out?
      • Landowner’s reply in the text: “Friend, I did you no wrong. Didn’t I agree to pay you a denarion? Take what belongs to you and go. I want to give this one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you resentful because I’m generous?”[6]  → “Are you resentful because I’m generous?” There it is. This question strikes right at the heart of the difference between equal and fair. When things are equal, it’s quantifiable. It’s is measurable. It is objective – not influenced by emotions, opinions or personal feelings. But when things are fair, there is a measure of generosity involved. Fairness isn’t quite as measurable. It’s subjective – open to interpretation based on emotions, opinions and personal feelings. Fairness is a motion of the heart, not the head.
        • Tricky distinction because there are plenty of things in the world that are equal but not necessarily fair
          • In the U.S., women make $.72 for every $1 a man makes[7]  → all women basically equal to each other … but is it fair?
          • In MN, minimum wage is $7.75/hr but in order to afford Fair Market Rent for a two-bedroom unit, families must earn $17.20/hr (working 40 hrs/wk, 52 wks/yr)[8]  → equal for all those working BUT … If you did the math on that in your head, even if that household includes 2 full-time working adults (which many households certainly don’t), that still doesn’t add up with the minimum wage. $7.75 x 2 = $15.50. Not $17.20. Is that fair?
          • In the U.S., the Family Medical Leave Act only requires employers to provide job protection and unpaid leave for qualified medical and family reasons MEANING when it comes to maternity/paternity leave in America, men and women are guaranteed 0 weeks of paid leave. à equal requirement for everyone (though certainly carried out differently by different employers) BUT … compared with the rest of the world[9]
            • Mexico = 12 weeks paid leave
            • Korea = 41 weeks paid leave
            • Estonia = 87 weeks paid leave
            • Where is what’s fair?
  • Even trickier distinction when it comes to faith → theologies of the past have muddied the waters about what’s fair and equal when it comes to God
    • Perfect e.g. – Doctrine of Discovery: series of papal bulls from the 15th century “gave Christian explorers the right to claim lands they ‘discovered’ and lay claim to those lands for their Christian monarchs. Any land that was not inhabited by Christians was available to be ‘discovered,’ claimed, and exploited. If the ‘pagan’ inhabitants could be converted, they might be spared. If not, they could be enslaved or killed.”[10]  → bred the mentality that not all are equal in God’s eyes,
      • Europeans were better and more worthy
      • Everyone else was a “pagan” and deserved to either be converted, enslaved, or killed
      • Now, we certainly don’t want to say that we think like that anymore – that we’ve spent centuries trying to shake off that unequal, unfair mentality – but there are still remnants of that superior thought that circulate today.
        • In the form of racism (my race is better than your race)
        • In the form of sexism (my gender is better than your gender)
        • In the form of nationalism (my country is better than your country)
    • But what do our readings today actually teach us? How does God react?
      • With the whining, complaining Israelites: Then the Lord said to Moses, “I’m going to make bread rain down from the sky for you. The people will go out each day and gather just enough for that day. … The Lord spoke [again] to Moses, “I’ve heard the complaints of the Israelites. Tell them, ‘At twilight you will eat meat. And in the morning you will have your fill of bread. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.’” In the evening a flock of quail flew down and covered the camp. And in the morning there was a layer of dew all around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the desert surface were thin flakes … When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” … Moses said to them, “This is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”[11]  → God’s response had nothing to do with what the Israelites deserved for all their whining and complaining. It had to do with God’s loving response. It had to do with God’s compassion. It had to do with God’s generosity.
      • God’s response in Mt = short but to the point: So those who are last will be first. And those who are first will be last.[12]  → Again, it has nothing to do with equality. If God were worried about equality, then those who were first would be first. Or all would receive the same at exactly the same time. But God’s concern is fairness and generosity – covering the needs of those who come, no matter when we come, how we come, or what we bring with us. God’s radical inclusiveness isn’t about balancing some great book of pluses and minuses in the sky. It’s about compassion and generosity in the face of … whatever … whether we understand it or not. 
        • Should be our example for how we live out our faith
        • Quote from Glennon Doyle Melton: Christianity is not about joining a particular club; it’s about waking up to the face that we are all in the same club. Every last one of us. So avoid discussions about who’s in and who’s out at all costs. Everybody’s in, baby. That’s what makes it beautiful. And hard.[13] Amen.

[1] ,Ex 16:3.

[2] Ex 16:2-3.

[3] Mt 20:4 (emphasis added).

[4] Mt 20:8.

[5] Mt 20:9-12.

[6] Mt 20:13-15.





[11] Ex 16:4, 11-14a, 15.

[12] Mt 20:16.

[13] Glennon Doyle Melton. Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life. (New York, NY: Scribner Publishing, 2014), 141.