Fairness and the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard

To me Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard is one of his most provocative teachings.  It tells of the owner of a vineyard who went out early in the morning to hire some people to work in his vineyard.  A group of laborers agreed to work for him for the price of one penny.  Later that morning, the owner of the vineyard found a group of unemployed people standing around in the marketplace.  He invited them to come work for him and they too went to work in the vineyard.  He did the same thing at noon and then again later in the afternoon.   When the day was over, the owner called all of the workers together and paid each of them a penny.  Those who went to work early in the morning complained that if those who came to work for the owner later in the day received a penny, they should have received more.   To this the owner of the vineyard responded, “Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny?  Take that thine is and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even unto thee.  Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?  Is thine eye evil, because I am good?”   (Mathew 20: 1-16)

Many of us have a notion that people should receive nothing more or less than a portion of God’s blessings proportional to their

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efforts when compared to other people.  I call this notion fairness.  Fairness demands that the laborers who worked more should have received more than the laborers who worked less.  I distinguish this from justice and equality.  Justice says that we should receive what we are due regardless of how our efforts compare to others.  “Eye for Eye.  Tooth for Tooth.”  (Leviticus 24: 20)   The value of a day’s labor was one penny.  Thus the owner of the vineyard was justified to say “Friend, I do thee no wrong.”  Equality on the other hand demands that each man receives an equal portion of God’s blessings.  Thus the owner of the vineyard for whom it was lawful to do what he would with his own money made each of the laborers equal by giving some more than they deserved.   The owner of the vineyard was just and he treated the laborers equally but he was not fair.

This parable suggests that in the final judgement God will not be fair.  He will be just. In that every good work will be repaid.  But because he is full of grace, for those who live the gospel, he plans to do more.  “All that my Father hath shall be given unto him.” (Doctrine and Covenants 84: 38)   In a kingdom where all the faithful receive all the blessings of God there is no room for fairness.

I do not mean to say that fairness cannot do us mortals any good.   In a talk entitled Weightier Matters, Elder Dallin H. Oaks drew a distinction between our eternal goals and the means by which we achieve them.  He used the issue of diversity as an example.  It is good to appreciate diversity, he said, but we should not seek to create diversity for its own sake.  We appreciate diversity to achieve unity.  Diversity is the means.  Unity is the end.  “We must not confuse means and ends,” he said.

I argue that fairness can sometimes be useful but if it becomes an end in of itself, it can be destructive.  Fairness can regulate the free market to ensure that it is creating maximum prosperity for all of God’s children.  Let’s consider medical school admissions.  Medical schools should admit the most qualified candidates not because they deserve it more than their competitors but because they will make the best doctors.  Fairness, then, ensures that our society has the best healthcare possible.

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Fairness can be destructive when it becomes an end in of itself because it can block the progression of others.  You could use fairness as justification to argue that a young man who breaks the law of chastity be denied a privilege like serving a mission or entering the temple even after he repents because it would not be fair to those who did not break the law of chastity.  You could use fairness as a justification to demand that a teacher not spend extra time helping a student who is not doing well in her class because it would not be fair to the students who are doing well.  But fairness will not help a young man who keeps the law of chastity in any way.  He gets to serve a mission and go to the temple. What is it to him if another young man receives the same privilege?  And fairness will not help the students who are doing well in a class. They will continue to do well regardless of what is done to a student who is doing poorly. But fairness does hurt a young man who breaks the law of chastity and it does hurt a student who is doing poorly in class.

To conclude fairness can be useful if it is a means to an end but if it becomes an end in of itself it can impede the progress of our spiritual brothers and sisters.   It can stand in opposition to the atonement of Christ whose purpose is to place saint and sinner on equal footing in the eyes of God.   I pray that our love for each other may swallow up our notions of fairness that we may seek to accomplish the purposes of God—“to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.”  (Moses 1:39)

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