The Fairness Doctrine(1)

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 25
September 24, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Unfair labor practices were rampant when Jesus was alive. The story he tells in today's gospel lesson resonated with his listeners. They didn't scoff, and say to Jesus, "C'mon! Be real! That stuff doesn't happen! It can't happen. It's so obviously unfair!" No, the hired hands don't say this. The UFW (United Farm Workers) doesn't have their backs. There is no civil rights legislation to which they can appeal. They cannot submit a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). There is no fairness doctrine to protect their right to be heard. They are forced to choose: fairness or following Jesus.

Ever since Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden because of their disobedience, society has been beset with labor problems.

Without apples and vegetables readily available for food, the first couple needed jobs. They would henceforth need to work for a living, they were told. No more pomegranate juice cocktails at dusk in a grove of palm trees. No more grapes, figs and dates just for the asking. No more free lunches of cucumber and tomato salads. The ride was over. The house was no longer going to comp these meals.

God minces no words: "Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return."2

So, labor issues are common in the Bible. Remember the squabbles Abraham and Lot had over where their flocks and cattle could feed? The scriptures tell us that we must sow before we can reap, that laborers are worthy of their hire, that the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few and that if we don't work we won't eat.3

Some jobs are not acceptable work: "Thieves must give up stealing," writes Saint Paul, "rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy."4 To the Colossians, he also wrote: "Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters."5

And today, labor strife is not uncommon. Although jobs are not scarce, labor is needed most in fields that pay the least. Temp service companies like Manpower, KellyServices, McLellan Temporaries, SelectTemp, Nesco Resource Staffing and others are doing a brisk business. Some of these temp outfits work only with medical staff. Others specialize in the tech field. Still others offer day laborers to business entities who need an office painted or weeds pulled. Some of these day laborers are paid in cash at the end of the day. They get no raises, no holiday pay, no paid days off and no promise of continuing or future employment. They show up for work every day with the knowledge that they are always disposable. And what is even more galling, they may be working alongside someone who is a company employee who does get raises, holiday pay, paid days off and is reasonably assured of a position with the company for the foreseeable future - and who is getting paid more for the same work!6

Unfair labor practices were rampant when Jesus was alive as well. The story he told in today's reading resonated with his listeners. They didn't scoff, and say to Jesus, "C'mon! Be real! That stuff doesn't happen! It can't happen. It's so obviously unfair!"

The hired hands don't say this. The UFW (United Farm Workers) doesn't have their backs. There is no civil rights legislation to which they can appeal. They cannot submit a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) established by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. There is no fairness doctrine to protect their right to be heard.

In fact, they know that Jesus' little story about the angry workers is regrettably all too true. A person who is hired in the afternoon might indeed get paid as much as the guy who started work at 7 a.m.7

The jealousy and coveting factor

We identify with the guys who worked their tails off for 12 hours in the "scorching heat" because we've been there. We can see ourselves in the story, and most of us do not identify with those youths who were hired at the last hour and were paid a full day's wage.

No, we relate to the laborers who are arguably treated in a most unfair manner. When the boss treats the late arrivals with favor, we covet that same preferential treatment for ourselves. And we're jealous of those who get it.

We're a bit like the prophet Jonah in this regard. The ancient prophet had preached in Assyrian capital of Nineveh and told its inhabitants that the city had 40 days to repent, or the one true God of Israel would dispatch the entire lot of them to kingdom come.

They repent. God spares the city. Jonah sulks and complains, "O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? ... I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live."8

Jonah wanted God to be fair. He is much like the disgruntled temp guys in today's gospel lesson. Jonah, like the workers, is not pleased with how God is doing his business. God doesn't seem to be fair. Jonah and the hired don't care for partiality and favoritism; don't care for the grace and mercy bestowed on latecomers, sinners, people unlike them, people not of their tribe.

We spend a lot of time in life being grumpy about and jealous of the good fortune of others - complaining about our own perceived lack of most-favored-person status in the eyes of God. We are like the apostle Peter who, after receiving marching orders from Jesus on the shores of Galilee after the resurrection, looked at the disciple John and asked Jesus, "Lord, what about him?"9

Jesus responded in very much the same manner as the owner of the vineyard in today's reading. The businessman had said, "Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?" Jesus said to Peter, "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!"10

It is problematic to covet or complain about how God is running the show. It's highly frustrating. Keep it up, and you're going to be a bundle of nerves, weeping and eating sorrow by the spoonful - bitter as gall and about as friendly as a bramble bush.

God is God; God has blessed us, and we best let it go at that.

Fair or foul?

There's no more common complaint of a child, especially those with siblings, than "It's not fair." We adults have enough life experience to know that life is not fair. It's a common truism we say to tell others to suck it up, get a life and move on.

But let's go back to Jesus' comment to Peter. "What is that to you? Follow me!"

In this comment, Jesus destroys all questions about preferential providence and perceived notions of fairness. Jesus has a point: "What is that to you?"

Look at the people around you, as Peter did that morning on the shores of Galilee after they had just enjoyed a breakfast of buttered toast and tilapia - a breakfast that Jesus had prepared, by the way. Peter saw his colleagues, and singled out John, who along with himself and James was a part of the Big Three - Jesus' celebrated inner circle. Look around at the family, relatives, neighbors and associates nearby. So what if some have lucrative careers, bigger houses, better health, greener lawns and can afford Hulu, Netflix, Prime and the NFL channel?

And then we might get all indignant about freeloaders who abuse government food programs, people who get Section 8 rent reduction assistance, the elderly who get an assistance check every month and deeply discounted medical care. Oh, there's a lot of unfairness out there.

In Jesus' words: "What is that to you?"

His second comment is a direct order: "Follow me."

Jesus is telling us that it is not about fairness - it's about following. Will we or won't we?

If we follow Jesus, we are implicitly turning our lives over to the Savior of the World, and the incomparable God of the Universe. We are surrendering our ill-conceived notions of what is fair and what isn't to a trustworthy God. We are saying that we will follow Jesus and surrender our lives to God.

Saint Paul said that "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners - of whom I am the foremost."11 That's why he understood that the worst possible outcome for all of us would be that God is fair. In this he agrees with the psalmist: "He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities."12

The worst thing that could happen to us would be to wake up to a world in which God decides to be fair.

Fortunately, we need not worry.

Because now we know the Good News: God is not fair, and we will follow him faithfully.