‘It’s not fair’

“It’s not fair.” Many famous people have said that line, not to mention every child. We all long for justice.

Our Geneva Lecturer at the University of Iowa this spring was Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff. His public lecture was “Charity is Not Enough: Why Justice Matters.” He reflected on his experience in South Africa in the 1970s, where the defenders of Apartheid argued that they were a generous people who had given much to the other races. The victims of Apartheid responded that charity was not enough. They demanded justice. Charity cannot excuse people from doing less than justice. Charity must include justice. The audience was very receptive.

It was the second presentation that triggered some controversy. In “What Makes Gratuitous Generosity Sometimes Unjust?” Wolterstorff used the parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16 as a jumping off point for the issue. The fact that the later workers were paid the same as the first occasioned a significant debate.

Three responses

Although the owner responds to the grumblers “Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? I am not being unfair to you,” people often react by siding with the workers. This was not fair. Even young children recognize this.

Conservatives say it is not fair to reward the “slackers.” They assume if you are not ready for work right at the crack of dawn, you are lazy. They argue that this type of behavior would ruin the economic system. The next day no one would work all day if working only a couple hours gets you a full day’s pay.

Progressives say this is not generosity. The owner has a duty to give a living wage to everyone who works for him. How could the owner justify owning the field and deciding wages if the workers do not have their basic rights to daily food, shelter and health care met?

Pious voices argue that God can do whatever God wants to do. To this, Wolterstorff rightly countered that if we are to be image bearers of God, we need to understand how God acts so we can act accordingly.

Just charity

What are the principles for charity? Charity must be just. That means it must recognize another’s rights as an image bearer and give them what is due to affirm and advance their worth and dignity. Charity goes beyond justice, although never less than justice. Charity should not take that which has been promised to another and give it away. Charity should not exclude some because of discrimination, unjustified ill will or favouritism. Charity should not publically disgrace or demean anyone. If one does not have enough to give to all, how does one give justly?

Gracious generosity

In the discussion time, everyone was concerned about justice but no one was advocating for charity or generosity. While encouraged that people were pro-justice, I found it concerning that there was little wrestling with charity or grace.

The parable is still doing exactly what Jesus meant it to do. It is messing with our understanding of the world. Before this parable is the story of the rich young man. Peter asked what the disciples will gain for following Jesus. Jesus makes a huuuuge promise of a 100x reward, but then comes this parable surrounded by the phrase about the reversal of the last and the first.

This parable jumbles our categories. If you are only working for your pay, your reward or your purposes, you will not be satisfied. If you are in competition with everyone else, you will not win. If you think you are God and can decide what is just, you will be left with a lot of questions. If you are only concerned about your rights, you will complain and lose. Let this parable continue to challenge you to image God in gracious generosity.

Thank God that his fundamental principle in dealing with us is generosity and grace; it is not restricted to justice. Be a gracious person, not violating justice but going beyond it.

“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 NIV).  


  • Tom Wolthuis

    Dr. Thomas Wolthuis is a CRC pastor serving as the English pastor of the Chinese Church of Iowa City. He has been a campus minister, institute president, professor, pastor, and church planter. His Biblical Studies podcasts are at www.geneva-ui.org.

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