Every time I read this parable, I feel like the story really, really sucks. People who are already really lucky and have lots of stuff will get even more stuff, while the unfortunate people, who don’t have a lot – or maybe any – good things will lose even the stuff they have. How is that fair?
The concept of what fairness is isn’t necessarily a straightforward one. Fairness means different things, in different contexts, to different people. In Social Psychology and intergroup relations theory, researchers often try to delineate different psychologically salient concepts of fairness and what those mean for people as they interact with each other and experience the world. 1
There is the ‘fairness’ of equity or merit: what you get in – either in relationships or in other areas of life – is what you get out. A servant who puts a lot of effort into getting the pound his master gives him to grow and prosper will receive much more in return, because he has put in much more. Conversely, the servant who puts in no effort, because he knows his master is a hard man who reaps what he does not sow, gets nothing in return because he himself put in nothing. In this sense, the parable is completely fair. It also reflects what life is so often like, a truth experienced painfully by people who, for reasons so often beyond their own control, find that they do not have anything to give. Those who live with depression understand this kind of fairness only too well: the crippling effects of chronic and major depression mean that, for many, there is nothing to give and nothing received in return. The friends you once had abandon you because you aren’t what they need, and because being with you can be draining: they might even think that you just don’t like or care about them anymore. People living with depression lose their jobs because they can’t get out of bed in the morning. They lose relationships because they can’t maintain them. They lose their homes, their families, and sometimes their faith because the effort is beyond them. It is common to experience devastating personal loss precisely because you’re getting out what you’re putting in. In a sense, this is fairness, the same way that reciprocity in, say, economics, is fair.
There is also the ‘fairness’ of equality, where everyone is treated the same and receives the same outcome regardless of what they put in, or of their needs. In the sense that people and groups seek harmony, this in an operating principle of fairness; it underpins social theories like communism because it reduces human interaction to a principle of absolute commonality that ignores real difference. In legal proceedings, and when speaking about human rights, the fairness of equality makes perfect sense. For people living with depression, it can be a source of comfort because it means an end to discrimination. It means that a person suffering from depression, or any other mental illness, is not to be treated differently from anyone else on that basis.
But this fairness isn’t always fair, and isn’t always experienced as fair. A person who needs more help will not necessarily receive more than anyone else, though it may be necessary for them to actually be equal. Nor is this the sort of fairness advocated for by Jesus: the Jesus of the Bible displays a demonstrable bias toward helping the oppressed, the marginalized, and those in need over and above other people: “the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost” (Lk 19:10).
We find that there is another kind of ‘fairness’ principle guiding social and personal relationships: fairness based on need. The needs principle, and norms of social responsibility, tell us that fairness means an obligation of giving to people and helping them based not on their absolute equality with others, or on what they have contributed, but on what they actually need. The person living with depression might need more help and support than their neighbor, and that’s okay. They might never be able to repay it, and that’s okay.
God’s promise of fairness is this kind, and while He makes it to everyone (for all who are saved can never earn or repay it), this kind of underserved love is perhaps felt most strongly by those who live their lives in the midst of suffering and darkness. God promises that He will make it right: “Light rises up in the darkness for the upright; the LORD is gracious, merciful and righteous” (Ps 112:4). I know that, in the end, God’s justice is about love and compassion for those who are suffering. I trust that, though this is often not the justice of the world, in God’s kingdom we will be lifted up and know the kind of healing that undoes all the wrongs, and all the pain, and everything that isn’t right or fair about the world.
Where does this leave us with the parable about the servants and the pounds? The story is marked by all the ‘fairness’ of the world, but it isn’t really fair. It also isn’t really about Jesus or the kingdom, because Jesus is not the wicked master who gives to those who have and takes from those who don’t. It’s about the world, and how inadequate and painfully true its justice can be, and how there is no escaping it no matter how much you believe in the Kingdom, or in God, or in the things to come. Here and not-yet-here, God’s kingdom does not remove sin from the world. But the parable – and, more importantly, the story of Zacchaeus that precedes it – tells us something about servanthood. We live in the world of the wicked master, but we are servants of God, and that kind of fairness is what we are called to live by: “It is well with the man who deals generously and lends, […] He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures for ever” (Ps 112: 5, 9). The writer of the letter to the Hebrews exhorts us to “[let] brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers […] to do good and share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Heb 13:1-2, 16). Jesus tells us that “when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you” (Lk 14:13-14).
Although I live with depression, I am no less called than any other disciple to live my life this way. I am called to give all I have, regardless of how little that seems to be, and regardless of how happy I feel or how difficult it is. I, like the rich happy man, and not entitled to curl up with myself and be content to reap while others sow. That is not God’s justice. As I am receiving in the gift of God’s love infinitely more that I could ever hope or imagine or merit, so God has called me to live that love in the world by embodying, in good times and bad, the free gift that I am given as best as I am able. Some days, when I feel like I’m drowning, that won’t be a lot. But the fairness that we are called to – the one reflecting God’s love – isn’t about tallying up the score, or always performing the same. It’s about holding nothing back that you have to give, regardless of what you receive in return.
Though the justice of this fallen world is imperfect and unfair, yet I am not bound to it nor afraid that this pain is the final word or the ultimate truth of my life, for “The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid; for what can man do to me” (Heb 13:6)? I will follow the Lord, trusting that this darkness is not the truth, though it can feel like it. Although I may in this world live in darkness, and though the darkness never be vanished, yet I am “not afraid of evil tidings; [my] heart is firm, trusting in the Lord” (Ps 112:7).
1 To learn a little more about these concepts and the theories surrounding them, you can check out “Equity Theory: Reconciling Affirmative Action” in Taylor & Moghaddam’s Theories of Intergroup Relations: International Social Psychological Perspectives and “Helping Others” in Brehm et al. Social Psychology 5th Ed.↩