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Fairness through the eyes of the Gospel

By Deacon Mike Monagle

Each year when Labor Day rolls around, the gospel parable of the vineyard workers (Matthew 20:1-16) always comes to my mind. It is the story of the landowner who pays the same full day’s wage to workers who have labored from sunrise to sunset and to those workers who show up just before quitting time.

It strikes me that the first group is industrious entrepreneurial workers who get up at the crack of dawn, eager and willing to seek work. Conversely, the latter group strikes me as a bunch of slackers sitting idly around the marketplace until being cajoled into work. And everybody gets the same wage? I must admit, every time I read this, like the workers on the early shift, I tend to grumble a bit. This hardly seems fair.

Achieving fairness was one of the driving principles behind the labor and social welfare laws that came out of the 19th-century industrial revolution and the great depression of the early 20th-century. To care for the most vulnerable among us, federal and state laws were put in place to govern wages, social security benefits, unemployment benefits, workers’ compensation and disability benefits, health benefits, nutritional assistance, workplace safety, child labor, Medicare, etc.

But “fairness” is a relative term. It means something different to each of us depending on our condition in life and what side of the equation we find ourselves. Is it fair to give every Alaskan $3,000 just for living here if doing so cripples the university system and cuts millions in aid? Is it fair to demand that business owners raise the pay of their unskilled employees to $15/hour and provide them with paid family leave? Would it be fair for the federal government to raise my taxes in order to provide a universal basic income, universal health benefits, universal higher education, and affordable housing to everyone? Is it fair for the government to redistribute wealth by imposing a special wealth tax on the most successful entrepreneurs and risk-takers?

These are just a few of the social welfare questions being debated in our society today, especially as the 2020 election campaigns get underway. As Catholics, how should we respond to these issues? Turning to the Church for guidance, how does she direct us to answer these questions? Well, she doesn’t – at least not specifically. But that doesn’t mean she has nothing to say about fairness on these and other issues. The Church helps Catholics answer these questions, and others, by shepherding us to develop well-formed consciences rooted in scripture, tradition, and magisterial teaching. As Catholics, we must approach these issues in faith and reason based on the mission to love one another. A mission given to us by Jesus Christ – even when doing so strains our human sensibilities of “fairness.”

Returning to the gospel parable, the general message is that the landowner (God) treats all the workers the same. By human standards, we tend to view this as unfair. But this isn’t a story about fairness – it’s a story about God’s wonderful charity and generosity. So long as we have not been treated unfairly, how could we reasonably complain when God is generous to others?

This Labor Day, as we reflect on the social welfare programs that this country has put in place, and debate new programs being considered. Let us allow our consciences to be guided by the same charity and generosity shown to us by our Heavenly Father.