Fairness and Justice

Once there was a woman who owned a small company that makes clothes. Business was steady and things were going well, and then the pandemic hit. She and her leadership team watched in shock, with the rest of the country, as sales plummeted for several weeks in a row. One of the team suggested that they should try something different, and since they had all the supplies, and everyone was beginning to wear masks, they made several test batches and put them on their website for sale. Quickly, they saw that had been a really wise decision. They had managed to keep most of their staff on with the help of a PPP loan, but soon, they needed to hire more people to handle the extra workload. 

First, they hired a tech specialist to manage their on-line orders—only a fraction of their business had been online before, and they needed to upgrade their system and handle online requests efficiently. The next week, they brought on two additional people to help make the masks, and work on new designs for special fits and needs. Two weeks later, they hired another person to deliver masks locally to larger clients like senior residences, care centers, and schools. 

The time came when all of the new staff were receiving their first paychecks, and although of course their hourly pay was supposed to be confidential, the delivery person exclaimed in surprise before they could stop themselves when they saw their check, as it was more than they had expected, and one of the long-time staff couldn’t help but overhear. They were frustrated because it didn’t seem right that someone who was so new to the staff, and only a driver after all, was getting paid so well. 

Finally, they went to the owner of the shop and complained, telling them it just didn’t seem fair. The shop owner replied, “Friend, I have done nothing to hurt you; we agreed on your salary, and I have kept my commitment to you. Take your pay, and spend it as you wish with gratitude. I choose to pay our new staff a just wage also. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”1

The parable Jesus shared in our gospel reading this morning as well as this modern day retelling by a fellow pastor leaves the vineyard workers and the assembly with a lot of varying feelings. Like the workers who arrived at the vineyard first it’s easy to cry out that what the vineyard owner did wasn’t fair. Comparison, fairness, justice, deserving are so ingrained into our cultural upbringing that it’s been hardwired into our brains for milenia. In fact, experiments have been done that have proven that fairness and these emotions we experience when we feel we are treated inequitably even exist in monkeys, dogs, and other animals too.

In order to better understand the concept of fairness, Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Wall, two zoologists at Emory University designed an experiment that tested the emotional response of mimicked unequal pay in Capuchin monkeys in 2013. Two monkeys were placed in two testing cages next to each other and trained to give rocks to their handler in exchange for cucumbers, a food which they love. The experiment starts off well and each is satisfied with the payment they received. Then the conditions changed. The first monkey handed their next rock to the handler and again received cucumber for their efforts. However, the second monkey was given a grape instead. Grapes are the equivalent of fine dining to Capuchin monkeys and the first monkey was eager to exchange another rock for the upgraded food. The results of the experiment are incredible to watch and are viewable in Frans de Waal’s TEDtalk on YouTube. Upon receiving ANOTHER cucumber the monkey’s ire at the injustice was immediate, rattling the cage, hitting the tabletop, gesturing angrily at their counterpart, and even throwing the cucumber pieces at the handler in protest. It’s an extraordinary video to watch.

Our sense of justice tells us that we only get what we earn. That there’s no free lunch. We need to earn our place, earn love and approval of others, and for many earn the right to have the same basic human rights and privileges as everyone else, but God’s sense of justice is different. God’s sense of justice isn’t grounded in our warped human sense of fairness. It’s centered on everyone having exactly what they need, where the beloved community is treated with equity. 

Luther, in the Small Catechism, reminds us to trust that everything we need–clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money, goods, a devout [partner], devout children, devout workers, devout and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, self-control, good reputation, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like—is provided for us, and for all people, by God. It is for us to be good stewards of what we are given and ensuring that God’s abundance is made available for all.

As you go out into your week, I invite you to take a step back, and notice. Where is God providing for you today? How can you ensure that God’s abundance is available for all people, as God intended? Where in your life are there opportunities to hold up the dignity of every human being?


1 Modern Retelling of the Matthew 20 parable by Rev. Meagan McLaughlin.
2 Frans de Waal’s full TEDtalk “Moral Behavior in Animals

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