Life Isn't Fair
Matthew 20.11 "These men who were hired last worked for
only one hour, while we put up with a whole day's work in the hot sun -
yet you paid them the same as you paid us!"
must possess the wisdom of Solomon. So difficult are some of the problems
of bringing up children, that I for one regard parenting as a voyage of
discovery no less hazardous than that of an explorer in darkest Africa.
How does one persuade a young child that kittens don't like being carried
around by the tail? How do you tell a young boy who exclaims, "Dad, I
think you're the best dad in the world!" that he's going to come down with
a bump one day? And how can a teenager be reassured that when a week-old
romance fails, the end of the world hasn't arrived?
A friend with two-year-old non-identical twins has to give elaborate
attention to ensuring that each is treated with absolute equity. Toys,
clothes, food, treats - they must all be carefully measured and selected
so that neither twin perceives the slightest disadvantage. If not, there's
hell to pay! How is she to prepare them for the realisation that life
isn't fair? Each has differing talents and personality and will no doubt
experience different outcomes in their lives. Each is going to have to
discover one day that fairness isn't something God has programmed into our
The author of Matthew's Gospel makes the
same comment at the end of the parable of "The Workers in the Vineyard."
Life, he says, is one day going to get so unfair that those who came last
in life's race are going to end up top of the heap, and those who thought
they were first are going to be last. How's that for unfairness!
In drawing this conclusion Matthew is following a tradition common in his
day of interpreting Jesus' parables as allegory, a tale "speaking one
thing, and signifying something other" as Heraclitus puts it. That is, he
assumes a hidden meaning, one which has to be teased out, a meaning which
isn't necessarily obvious.
A serious problem with
this approach is that each interpreter tends to project onto Jesus'
parables his or her personal priorities and needs. The result is a babel
of meanings which are as confusing as they are often contradictory.
Nevertheless, Jesus' parables do seem to require of each of us that we
react to the tale in our own way. That is, there's no standard response to
this or any other parable. It's easy to recognise that each parable is
about real life. Those who heard them in the first century would have
instantly recognised the situations and characters. But they had to decide
for themselves in what respect the parable impacted them individually. In
this instance, the interpretation doesn't come from Jesus but from
In thinking about this parable for myself, I recall that I for
one have picked up daily workers in exactly the way described here. I've
driven my car up to a group of eager men, elbowing each other aside in the
hope of getting a day's wage.
I know what it's like to be the person
doing the hiring. I can feel once more the discomfort of knowing that I'm
one of the wealthy, and that there's nothing I can do to help these men
except pay as generous a wage as I can. I can give the ones I hire a
decent meal and a midday rest - but I can't alone cure the social ills
which have put them in this position. I have my family to care for, my
children to bring up. I can't be expected to penalise them by taking us
all down to the level of the labourers I hire, can I? Life isn't fair, and
The Palestine of Jesus' time was a place in which, due to
the economic development brought about by Herod the Great and the Romans,
ordinary peasants were being moved off the land. The employer in this case
would have been a mega-rich landowner (by comparison with landless
peasants) who had taken advantage of Roman patronage. He would have been
an exceptional and kindly man to give wages as he did - and the grumbling
could be expected in the circumstances. Those who were favoured would have
been grateful. Those who were less-favoured were understandably
So what does all this mean for us today? Are there hidden
meanings which we have to dig out of this parable? Or, once we understand
the environment in which Jesus lived, worked and told this story, is there
a plain message?
Work it out for yourself. How does the parable of "The
Workers in the Vineyard" speak to you?