St Barnabas Downham

Sunday 22nd September 2002

It’s not FAIR!

"It’s not fair!"

How often one has heard that cry from one of the children.

Certainly the workers in the vineyard had a case to put before the National Union of Vineyard Workers when they complained about their treatment at the end of the day. Those who came last were paid as much as those who had borne the burden and heat of the day.

Mind you, they had agreed on their side of the bargain when they started, so their complaint was not that they had been underpaid but that those who started work at the eleventh hour had received exactly the same amount for one hour’s work as they had been paid for a full ten or twelve hours.

We are, of course, dealing here with a parable and the parables of Jesus Christ are almost invariably about our relationship with God. The prophet Isaiah in the first reading had already fired a warning shot across his readers bows when God through him says:

My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways not your ways – it is the Lord who speaks. Yes, the heavens are as high above the earth as my ways are above your ways, my thoughts above your thoughts.

Notice that he doesn’t say that God’s thoughts are totally unlike our thoughts. He uses the comparison of height, tallness and shortness. Even a child can understand what these things mean as soon as they’ve grasped the concept of height. Daddy’s taller than Mummy; both are taller than I am; but I’m taller than my little brother Andrew who is therefore the shortest of any of us. It all makes sense because he understands the dimension – tallness – which is being compared.

God, then, is telling us through the words of the prophet, not about something we don’t understand at all, but something about which our understanding is limited. And his expectation is that one day, if we’re prepared to learn, we too shall understand the whole business of fairness as he does – in the same way that parents expect that their children will begin to recognize the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, wise and foolish and many other things.

To begin with our ideas of right and wrong have to be very simple: like our ideas of tall and short: we learn that something is either right or it’s wrong. But as we grow up our parents teach us to distinguish between various gradations within right and wrong – as expressed by words like good, excellent, bad, better, worse, fair, disgraceful, tolerable, and unfair – and apply them accurately both to our moral choices and the behaviour by which we express such choices..

I wonder if you can see where all this is leading. Yes, it is very important to teach a child the difference between fair and unfair especially where the rights of others are concerned. Children first need to be taught simple fairnesses like "taking turns" "sharing their sweets", "not queue-barging" and "playing fair".

But every child needs to progress beyond these simple rules; otherwise he or she will remain nothing but a child, and, as St Paul says, the time comes when we should "put away childish things". The trouble with many grown-ups is that they suffer from what we might call "arrested moral development" and one hears otherwise mature people still complaining about things "not being fair". When anyone says "It’s not fair!" it’s probable that their feelings are taking them back to the nursery-stage.

For the fact is that in God’s world, fairness, though it has its place, is only one of several virtues which we must consider when we’re trying to do his will in a given situation. It’s no use thinking we’ll always be able to get by with one or two simple rules. That’s the nursery attitude again.

Take the example of the Referee in Association Football. He knows the rules, but every minute of the game he has to be applying on top of them what’s called the Advantage Rule if the game is to be satisfactory.

For instance if a player in one team (other than the goalie) handles the ball, the other team has a right to expect to be awarded a free-kick. But suppose that in handling the ball the offending player accidentally diverts it into his own goal (yes, such things do happen, even amongst professionals). The experienced referee won’t stop the game for the "hands" offence, but will reckon that the fact that it resulted in a goal to their opponents is more than enough to redress any balance upset by the offence.

See what is happening? If the Referee followed the No-Hands rule to the letter – whistle, stop game, free kick – it would be less fair in this instance than ignoring the offence and allowing the other side their goal. To argue as some people might, that the referee is being unfair, is to misunderstand the nature of Football. It’s about scoring goals, not how many free kicks are awarded. In this instance the Ref. applies a higher Rule – the Advantage Rule – in the interest of greater fairness.

You and I then shouldn’t be too surprised if from time to time God, the Almighty, All-Wise Referee, appears to allows an element of unfairness to enter our lives. Before accusing him of unfairness we need to be sure that what he allows to happen is not for the ultimate benefit of creation of which we are a part.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to for us to come to terms with in this respect is the fact that death appears sometimes to strike so indiscriminately.

Part of the problem is that few people are ready for death, their own or others’, so that when it comes unexpectedly their natural reaction is to feel unfairly treated. But given that death and taxes are the only two certainties in life, being wholly unprepared for either of them is, shall we say, not a very adult attitude.

As Christians we believe that our death is a necessary part of our perfection. On earth we can only approximate to the perfection for which God created us. His idea, remember, was not primarily that we should have a good time in this world, but that our chief end should be to glorify and enjoy him for ever. Enjoyment should come into it, just as it should come into playing football. But if a team were to suppose that enjoying themselves is the chief end of football, rather than scoring goals, they would be wrong. Not only will they lose every match, but neither they nor their opponents will enjoy the game very much!

St Paul understood the dilemma of death when he wrote in the second reading:

Life to me, of course, is Christ, but then death would bring me something much more… I do not know what I should choose. I am caught in this dilemma: I want to be gone and be with Christ, which would be very much better, but for me to stay alive in this body is a more urgent need for your sake.

One can see his difficulty. But if we have the mind of Christ, which St Paul urges all Christians to have earlier in the same letter, we shall thereby have the mind of God. And as Isaiah said in the first reading we shall begin to see and understand things from God’s point-of-view, not just our own, and what appears to our infant minds to be so unfair may turn out to be nothing less than a blessing in disguise.