That’s Not Fair!

That’s Not Fair!

Lent 2 (NL1) John B. Valentine
Matthew 20:1-16 March 5, 2023


So ... it’s Lent in the year of our Lord 2023.

And we’re walling through some of the key parables of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew ... so as to allow the key values of the Kingdom of God to come into sharper focus ...

And it gets me to wondering if any of you have read or see or hear in the news this week about the hullabaloo over law schools across our land???

Apparently ... the law schools at Harvard and Yale ... and Columbia and Georgetown ... and Stanford and Berkeley ... or ‘Cal’ or ‘Cal-Berkeley’ or whatever it is that is the new moniker of my alma mater just over the hill there ...

All made a decision to no longer submit their data to US News and World Report ...

And were all thus disqualified from the annual institutional rankings list of the best law schools in the country.

Now those schools all ‘said’ that they made that decision based on the fundamental unfairness of the rankings ...

But future legal students and their parents objected that it was unfair of them to pull out of the rankings ...

And US News and World Report objected that the schools had actually pulled out because they didn’t want the metrics by which they admit students aired in public.

And ... at the end of the day ... ALL of the parties involved were pointing fingers at one another and saying “That’s not fair.”

Can you imagine how messy it might get to have our nation’s legal scholars ... and law school administrators ... and future legal students ... and Supreme Court justices all pointing fingers at each other and saying “That’s not fair.”

If you haven’t read any of those articles ... trust me ... it’s a mess!!

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You know that phrase “That’s not fair”???

• It’s a phrase which we all master at a ripe young age ...

• It’s a phrase which we perfect our articulation of by the time we enter Middle School ...

• It’s a phrase which we weaponize against one another for the rest of our lives ...


Actually ... would it be to much to ask you to rummage around in your memory banks for just a minute and see if you can come up with a specific instance of a time when you objected “That’s not fair!!”???

Any of you recall ever speaking those words to an actual authority figure???

• Like maybe a parent .... in the face of the preferential treatment of a sibling???
• Like maybe a teacher ... in the face of the preferential treatment of a classmate???
• Like an umpire or referee at some athletic event???
• Like a judge or a police officer or some other civil authority???

The fact of the matter is that we CHERISH the ideal of fundamental fairness ...

• We like our news “fair and balanced” ...
• We want our judges to be “fair and impartial” ...and ...
• We scream bloody murder when fairness seems to be weaponized against us.

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Now there’s lots that is fascinating about the whole concept of fairness ... and how we think about it ... and how we apply it ...

But didn’t you ever notice how it is that we only ever seem to bust out the objection “That’s not fair!” as short-hand for saying “That’s not fair to me!”

I mean ...

• Who among us objects “That’s not fair” when the ref makes a ruling that favors our team?

• Who among us objects “That’s not fair” when grandma give us the biggest scoop of ice cream?

• Who among us objects “That’s not fair” when the police officer lets us off without actually writing that ticket???

The fact of the matter is that ... while we may say we want things to be “fair” ... what we really want to be assured of is that the scales of justice aren’t somehow tipped against us.

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Consider this story:

There once was a young university professor who drew the short-straw and was assigned to teach a large-format lecture course to some 250 college freshmen.

And she was so overwhelmed by the number of students in her class that she felt she needed to outline in detail ... in advance ... all the requirements for the course.

So the syllabus she worked up contained

• ALL of the class times ....
• ALL the reading assignments ... and
• ALL of the topics of ALL the papers.

So on the first day of class ... she explained the syllabus ... and highlighted the fact that:

• the first of three required papers was due in her office at noon on September 30th ...
• the second due in her office at noon on October 30th ... and
• the third on November 30th.

And she concluded by saying ... “I want these finished and on my desk at 12:00 noon on the appointed dates unless you are physically confined to the hospital or there’s a death in the immediate family. Does everyone understand the assignment?”

“Oh, yes, professor! We understand.”

So September the 30th rolled around ... and 225 of the students brought their papers into her office on time ... but twenty-five of them had failed to complete their assignments ... and they were scarred to death.

After all .. they were freshmen ... they were just making the transition from high school ... and they approached their professor in a posture of abject humility.

“Please don’t give us an F .... ma’am! Please give us a little more time. Give us one more chance. We’re so sorry!”

And she offered them grace ... and she gave them an extension.

So then ... a month later ... October 30th came around. And this time two hundred of the 250 students had their papers in on time.

And the other fifty of them were assembled outside of his office at the bewitching hour ... frantically explaining how they gotten caught up in homecoming ... and midterms ... and too many assignments ... and hadn’t properly budgeted their time.

And the young professor ... being a sympathetic sort ... gave in and said ... “Okay ... I’ll give you one more chance ... don’t let it happen again.”

And for the next thirty-one days ... our young professor was the most popular professor on campus.

Then November 30th rolled around ... and the final of those three papers were due. And this time 150 students came into the classroom with their papers prepared ... while the other hundred arrived with a rather casual attitude about the whole thing.

They didn’t have their papers ... but they weren’t worried.

And when the professor asked them ... “Where are your papers?”

They replied ... “Don’t worry about it. No sweat. We’ll have them in for you in just a couple of days.”

But what happened next caught them dead in their tracks.

The professor took out her grade book and began to pencil “F”s next to the names of the students who hadn’t brought their papers ....

And those students responded with unmitigated fury ... crying out “That’s not fair!”

“What was that?”

“That’s not fair!”

“Mr. Johnson” ... the professor called to one of her students ... “Did I hear you say that it’s not fair?”

“Yes” ... Johnson said in a furious tone ... “it’s NOT fair.”

“Okay ... I don’t ever want to be thought of as being unfair or unjust. Is it justice you want ... Mr. Johnson?”


“Okay” ... she continued ... “If I recall correctly, you were late on your paper the last time too ... weren’t you?”

“Yes ....”

“So I’ll go back and change that grade to an F.” And the professor again took out her pencil and her grade book and changed Mister Johnson’s passing grade on that second assignment to an F.

Then she asked ... “Is there anyone else who would like to have justice?”

Amazingly enough ... no one did!

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Do you see what happened there?

• The first time the students begged for mercy ... unsure even how to ask for it.
• The second time they asked for forgiveness and little bit more time.
• But ... the third time ... they presumed it ... and went so far as to demand it.

But isn’t that ... quite honestly ... what we tend to do with God? I mean ... the history of our whole personal relationship with God is a history of grace and love and undeserved favor ... right??

We couldn’t ... wouldn’t ... exist on this planet for five minutes without God’s creativity and mercy and grace!

But ... because God is so gracious and generous ... we begin ... after a while ... to take it for granted ... and twist it into this convoluted presumption that somehow we are worthy ..... WORTHY ... of the goodness and the graciousness and the generosity of God.

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You see ... the parable which Jesus tells that we heard read a little bit ago paints a picture of people going to work ... picking grapes in the vineyard ...

• some busting their backs for twelve hours through the heat of the day ...
• some for six hours ...
• some for three ... and
• some for just barely even one.

But then ... at quitting time ... the master of the vineyard calls them all together and pays everybody the same wage ... such that the slacker who was lounging around in the marketplace nursing a hangover until four o’clock gets paid as much as the gal who clocked in at dawn.

And the result of what the master of the vineyard did was what??

GRUMBLING! Murmuring! Meanness!

And that story ends with the employer asking his worker-bees ... “Do you begrudge me my generosity?” ... or ... more literally ... for all you Greek-readers out there .. “Are you giving me the stank-eye because I am doing something good?”

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A fellow named Studs Terkel once noted that the typical American attitude is akin to this:

“I’ve got it made because I deserve it. And if you don’t have it made, then you don’t deserve it. And if you don’t have it, it’s obviously because you didn’t deserve it in the first place.”

But then he went on to note that:

“When things don’t work out that way, as has been the case for a lot of Americans recently, a certain kind of meanness sets in.”

And ... at least to my ears .. Terkel’s term “meanness” sounds a whole lot like “grumbling”.

For the fact of the matter is that we don’t know what to make of it when our assumptions about what is fair and what is right ... what is just and what is unjust ... turn out to be different that God’s.

You see ... we celebrate God’s graciousness and generosity and goodness all the time ...

But when that graciousness and generosity and goodness cuts through my sense of fairness ... it elicits not gratitude ... but grumbling.

∙ When “bad” people receive a truckload of grace ... we grumble!

∙ When “good” people receive that same truckload of grace ... we assume that they deserve it!

But ... this divine other-worldly “grace” stuff ... this radical forgiveness and goodness stuff is so far beyond our human powers of comprehension ... that it doesn’t make “sense” ...

And it may well cause us to grumble!

But ... end the end of the day ... when the work in the vineyard is ALL done ... this story is a reminder that God doesn’t play by our rules ... that God isn’t so much great as God is good ... and that ... at the end of the day alls any of us can say is “Thanks be to God!”

“That’s Not Fair!” was a sermon preached by Pastor John Valentine on the weekend of March 5, 2023 — the 2nd Sunday in Lent.  The text upon which the sermon was/is based is Matthew 20:1-16 (the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.)  To access a copy of this week’s worship bulletin, click here: Worship Order 20230305