What’s fair?

So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner.” If we are honest about it, we empathize with those folks who worked hard all day. At one level we agree that they received what they were promised, but…there is that voice within that says, “it isn’t fair.” The workers’ notion of what is fair gets challenged pretty quickly when the landowner asks them: “Are you envious because I am generous?

…that is how we translate it into English. If were to simply translate it word for word from the Greek, the question becomes: “Is your eye evil because I am good?”  And just maybe that is the better question that goes to the heart of the matter – how we see things.  Several weeks ago, in a homily, I offered that the Bible is not a book of answers, so don’t start looking in the Bible for the answers it gives.  Start by listening for the questions it asks. So…when we encounter something that strikes us as unfair, maybe we should resist the answer about fairness and entertain a question about how we see things.

When it comes to judging fairness, we humans are at a bit of a disadvantage. While we certainly compile a wealth of experience about fairness over our lifetime, there is evidence that we are a bit hardwired in our reaction to perceived fairness or lack thereof.

A few years ago, Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal, two zoologists at Emory University, wanted to explore where our distaste for unfairness comes from.  To study this question, they designed an experiment using capuchin monkeys.  Pairs of monkeys were placed in adjacent cages where they could see each other and trained to take turns giving small granite rocks to their human handler.  Each time a monkey handed over a rock, the monkey would receive a piece of cucumber as a reward – an exchange that both monkeys found quite satisfactory. The rocks were free, the cucumbers tasty – what’s not to like? All was good until the handler changed things up.  After a few “fair and even” exchanges, the handler rewarded the first monkey with a chunk of cucumber as usual but gave other monkey a grape — a major upgrade in culinary preferences of capuchin monkeys. This exchange and upgrade were witnessed by the other monkey who became enthusiastic about the next rock exchange. And why not? There were grapes in his future! The handler gave him another piece of cucumber.  The handler then gave the other monkey another grape for free.

What happened next? Was there shared joy because the other monkey was getting the culinary delight of grapes? Was their envy? Perhaps the cucumber-only monkey asked himself, in the original Greek of course, “Is my eye evil because of the human handler’s good?”  Just kidding.

The cucumber-only monkey lost it.  Not only did they refuse to eat the cucumber; it got thrown into handler’s face.  The monkey began to bang against the bars of the cage, throw the remaining rocks in every direction, and make furious gestures at her grape-eating companion.

The experiment has been repeated using other primates with similar results. Other scientists have studied the development of fairness in human babies finding that infants as young as nine months old will react quite strongly and negatively to perceived unfairness.  Clearly, as Brosnan and De Waal concluded after their experiment, fairness is a concept that is deeply rooted in the human psyche. What is rooted there, almost primally it seems, colors the way we perceive situations.

Over the last several weeks, after the news of my transfer to a new assignment in Virginia was made public, many folks have reached out to me to express their feelings about the situation. Among the kind words, memories and comments, there was a recurring notion that this transfer was “not fair.” …and then I start preparing for my last weekend of homilies here at Sacred Heart – and it is a gospel that goes to the heart of what we think about as fairness. Something primal, something instinctive.

In Jesus’ parable, the landowner represents God. Was the landowner fair? As I mentioned earlier, the Bible is not a book of answers, rather it asks great questions. Maybe a better question about the landowner is whether he was seeking fairness? Was he seeking to make sure our equation of work and reward was well balanced? Doesn’t seem so. The landowner makes clear that he is seeking the good. The good that is independent of someone’s capability or productivity, the good that is intrinsic to what it means to be human. Maybe what the landowner cares about is that every last person in the marketplace finds a spot in his vineyard. Whether the person came early or late, they found their place.

We ask whether it was all fair. Perhaps the better question is whether it is Good (with a capital “G”).

Is it fair that I have a new assignment? Trust me, there is a part of me that sees this all as a journey of I’d-druther-not-go. But there is the part of me that will take a breath, listen to the questions, and find myself and my place in this parable.

When the landowner went out looking for workers in the vineyard, he didn’t find me at dawn or nine o’clock. Noon came and went. Maybe the landowner found me about three o’clock or so. But he found me. He put me to work in the vineyard of the slums of Kenya. Then moved me to other parts of the vineyard to do what was mine to do. Eventually he moved me here to this vineyard in Tampa. Was it fair?

It was Good. It has been Good in each and every place. It will be Good at my next assignment. It will be Good here at Sacred Heart. It will always be Good – it’s in the vineyard. It what God wants. What we need. And what better place to be?

Amen.

2 thoughts on “What’s fair?

  1. All of the parishioners at Sacred Heart have been touched by the goodness that you have brought to our beloved parish. True your path is now in a different vineyard to help others continue to see “the good” that is theirs to do. We have been blessed by your presence here. Sunday, at Mass, you stated that these past 13 years have been the best of your life. For me, it has been true too for what you have shared with all of us: your knowledge of our faith, your compassionate heart, and your always speaking lovingly of Christ’s love for us. I will keep you in prayer as you enter the next vineyard that God has prepared for you. May God bless you always, Father George!

  2. You are so right. Sacred Heart was good before the Franciscans arrived in that this was God’s House — it was sacred ground and rich soil and filled with the Holy Spirit — that simply needed more tender care than it was receiving. The Franciscans quickly nurtured that rich soil, embraced people throughout the Tampa Bay area, and realized growth 100 fold. Your own tenure as pastor at Sacred Heart has seen continued growth beyond what we thought was possible —- you have helped us create an awareness of GOOD, of what we’re called to do —- a base from which our new cadre of friars can lead us to even greater heights of personal growth and of stewardship for our community. Thank you so much for 13 years of GOOD!!!

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