What is fair?

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost; 20 September 2020; Proper 20A (RCL); Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16.

Oh, this parable irks us. I don’t know how often I’ve heard in a bible study on this parable, “But it’s just not fair!” I think that’s exactly what the teller of the parable wanted us to think. It should challenge our understanding of what is fair.

The lectionary places it immediately after the parable of the ten thousand talents, skipping over all of chapter 19, which consists of teaching concerning wealth. I think Matthew intended the two parables to be a kind of inclusio around those teachings, forcing us to think of our relationship to wealth. The king in the first parable and the landowner in this parable have the right relationship to wealth. Give it away.

The vineyard owner agreed with the day laborers for a denarius, which the NRSV translates “the usual daily wage.” It also turns out to be about what a household needed to live on per day. Anyone who has ever done day labor knows the tenuousness of that way of life. If you get picked for work, things are ok; if you don’t, things are not so good.

Interestingly, when the owner asks the men in the marketplace at 5:00 why they are not working, they reply, “Because no one has hired us.” Life will be tight for them tonight. So he hires them and says that he will pay them what is fair. When they receive their wages, they receive a denarius. So, the on grumpy person in this story thinks he will get more, because he has worked all day. Instead, he receives a denarius. The vineyard owner asks if he is envious because the owner is generous. In Greek, he says, “Is your eye evil because I am generous?” The evil eye goes beyond just jealousy and can do harm to the one on whom it is cast. Is he casting his evil eye on the landowner, or on the one who worked only a few hours?

What the owner does is make it possible for all in the village to eat that night. Fair it may not be, but perhaps just. He certainly builds up good favor with those laborers whom he hired late in the day. They will be glad to work for him again, and perhaps even willing to buy his wine when they have a little to spare.

The Israelites are told to only gather enough manna for one day. When they gather more than a day’s worth, it rots overnight. In the Lord’s Prayer, we are instructed to pray for our daily bread. Hoarding anything more is Pharaoh-like behavior. What’s fair is what keeps the village together, rather than pushing the marginal over the edge.

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