Life Is Not Fair: A Monologue

Author UnknownSeptember 22, 1996


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Matthew 20:1-16

†† I heard the rooster crow for the third time.†† I knew dawn was about to break, so I got out of bed and climbed to the roof to where my brother-in-law was sleeping in the cool night air.I tried to rouse him, but he slept on, snoring.The very earliest light illuminated his face as it did my own.†† I thought about what different men the sunlight was falling on.I couldn't remember a day in my life -- except for sabbaths -- when I slept past dawn.†† I doubt my brother-in-law had ever seen the dawn, unless it was through the bleary eyes of a man just going to bed after drinking all night.

†† I had told him the night before that the harvest would be at its peak this morning and I expected him to get up with me and see if we could both get hired to work in the fields.†† It was the one day of the year when there was more work than there were people to do it, and even my brother-in-law could get a job.He started to complain about his back, but I glared at him and he shut up.I'll give my wife credit.She backed me up.†† She told the lazy good-for-nothing to do what I said.But here he was, dead to the world. I didn't have time to wake him and wait for him to get dressed and come with me.I'd let my wife sort that out later.

†† I climbed down the ladder and walked down the street to the center of town. I was irritated to see that one or two others had arrived before I did.I liked to be the first man there every morning.I was known as the hardest worker in the town.I cursed my brother-in-law for delaying me.It didn't really matter.The landowners had not arrived yet.I was surprised, however, that one did come hurrying in just as a couple of other men arrived.†† I pushed myself to the front of the group, but didn't need to.He asked us all if we wanted to work.He needed all of us.I told him that we would work if he paid each of us one denarius for a day's wage.That was usual, so he agreed and we went with him.

†† The dew had burned off as we bent over the stalks of grain, swinging our scythes and binding our sheaves.We were not unhappy when, a couple of hours later, the landowner left and returned with some more harvesters to help us.I noticed, however, that my brother-in-law was not among them.

†† The sun rose to its zenith and we broke for the midday meal. More harvesters joined us and we worked slowly through the hot afternoon, but the field was far from done.

†† The sun now is low in the sky and we see the worried landowner leave again and soon he returns with more people.My brother-in-law is among them.I wonder where the landowner found them.They are the ones who have never done an honest day's work in their lives.†† I watch out of the corner of my eye as the landowner hands them harvesting knives and they take them uneasily into their hands.†† I see them walking warily out into the field.†† They look around trying to figure out what they are supposed to do.My brother-in-law watches me for a moment as I swing my knife and cut a swath of grain -- the stalks fall smoothly all in one direction.

†† He tries to swing his harvest knife the way I am doing it.†† He's at the wrong angle though.The knife twists and falls out of his hand.†† He picks up his knife and tries it again.This time he hits too high on the stalk. The grains shake loose and fall to the ground, of use only to the widows and orphans who will descend upon the field at nightfall to pick up the smallest grains from the ground.†† Although there is little use in it, my brother-in-law begins chopping at the base of the stalks of grain like a woodsman cutting a tree with an axe.†† While I carefully gather my bundle of grain in my arms to tie it into a sheaf, he is faced with stalks that have fallen every which way, like a child's game of pick-up-sticks.It will take him what's left of the daylight to pick up that mess and tie it up, all for only a handful of grain.

†† I move on shaking my head.†† How do such people survive? I wonder.†† Of course, I know how my brother-in-law survives.When we were boys, we were in the synagogue school together.He always tried to copy my letters.†† Whenever he was called upon to read from the scriptures he complained of a sore throat.I knew the rabbi didn't believe him, but the boy knew so little that it pained the rabbi to hear him try to read the holy book.Nevertheless, I often heard the rabbi praise the boy's work to his mother.I think the rabbi felt sorry for her.Her husband drank too much wine and her life was hard.I was no scholar, but I tried.I did my best.I got what I deserved -- no more and no less.

†† For most of his life, my brother-in-law survived because his mother fed him and provided him with a home.†† When his mother died, his sister -- my wife -- took him in.I was ashamed of my brother-in-law, but my wife has borne me so many sons, I say nothing. I often think about how fortunate I was to learn the hard lessons of life early.†† No one took care of me when I was old enough to work.I had to earn my way before I was fully grown.The toughness of life made me a man who asks for nothing except a fair day's wage for a fair day's work.

†† Finally, the fields were cleared.The sheaves were set up on the threshing floor.There would be work tomorrow for those willing to beat the heads of grain off the stalks and throw the straws in the air to be carried off in the breeze.I would be there.†† But I doubt the landowner would hire my brother-in-law no matter how shorthanded he was. I saw the landowner eyeing the one sheaf of grain my brother-in-law managed to tie together.††

†† The landowner told the foreman to line us up in the order we had been hired.†† This was usual and so I went to the front where I always did.The foreman knew me and said,"Not today, Avram.He wants the last hired to be first."Probably wants to chew them out and send them off with nothing, I thought.So I shrugged and went to the end of the line.I resented this little game.I had been on my feet all day and I wanted to be paid and go home.

†† The landowner called his steward, who was carrying a bag of money.†† The steward told those in front to step forward one-by-one and pressed a coin into each one's hand.I assumed it might be a penny or two.I didn't pay much attention, until my brother-in-law stepped forward, received his pay and then let out a whoop and ran to the back of the line and said,"See, Avram, a whole denarius!"††

†† I think it was the first time anyone had ever paid him a day's wage in his life.Too bad he hadn't earned it.I assumed the landowner was desperate and the last bunch he had hired had driven a hard bargain, but my brother-in-law said they hadn't haggled at all.†† The landowner hadn't promised to pay them at all.He just invited them to work in the fields."Nobody ever hired me before, Avram!"he said.

†† His gratitude to the landowner was touching -- and well-deserved.†† The landowner certainly hadn't gotten much in exchange for his denarius.††† My mood lightened, too. I figured the landowner was in a good mood.He was inclined to be generous and, if he was fair, I ought to make about 10 times as much as my brother-in-law.So, when the steward called my name, I didn't just hold out an empty palm to receive a coin, because I expected the steward would pour out much of what was left in the bag. But no! The steward took out only one denarius and dropped it into my cupped hands.

†† "What is this?"I asked the steward.

†† "It is your pay," he said.

†† "But I worked all day!"I cried.

†† The landowner heard me and came over and asked what was wrong.I told him that I and the men who were left had worked since dawn and we were being paid only one denarius.††

†† "Isn't that what we agreed to?" asked the landowner.†††

†† I admitted it was, but I said it was not fair that the men who had worked all day in the heat of the sun should be paid the same as those who only dawdled for an hour in the cool of the evening.

†† The landowner asked me whose land I had worked on.†† I told him it was his.He pointed to his bag of money and asked who it belonged to.I admitted that it belonged to him.

†† "If I want to be generous, I will be generous," he said."Now take your pay and go home."

†† So I did.I smoldered as I walked down the road listening to my brother-in-law laughing and thanking God for having received a whole denarius.To add to my mood, it began to rain gently.My brother-in-law raised up his arms and thanked God for the rain, talking about how refreshing it was, how cool it felt after all that work.

†† "All that work!"He had hardly broken a sweat.†† The rain only made me steam like a hot rock.

†† Finally, my brother-in-law noticed my mood and quieted down.†† He asked me why I was angry.

†† I said, "Because I have to put up with a fool like you, because I have a wife and five sons and I not only have to feed them but I have to put food in your useless mouth as well -- because I got up before dawn this morning and worked all day for the same pay that you got -- because I am going to work hard all my life and you are going to play all your life and when we get done, our bodies will be rolled into the same hole in the ground."

†† While I was talking, the rain came down harder.It was running in our eyes. It was rolling off our ears. Our hair and clothes were sopping wet.Suddenly, I saw myself and heard myself as if I were another person.†† I saw my face covered with rain as if I had been crying all my life.I heard my mournful voice talking about my body being rolled into a hole in the ground.I began to laugh.

†† My brother-in-law looked at me in astonishment. "Avram," he said finally, "I've never heard you laugh before."

†† I considered this for a moment.He was right.Oh, I had laughed with a fatherly "ho-ho-ho" when one of my children did something that pleased me.I had come close to real laughter on my wedding day, but I didn't want to be even more the butt of my groomsmen's jokes than I already was.I had laughed with derision when I saw my brother-in-law trying to cut wheat; but I had never laughed freely, joyously -- for no reason.†† I could understand my brother-in-law's consternation.Here I was, the most serious, uncompromising, rigid, and, yes, angry person he knew, laughing my head off while standing soaking wet in the rain.

†† "What's so funny?" he asked.

†† "You," I said. "Me.Look at us.Did you ever see such different people?" My brother-in-law looked at me closely.

†† "No," he said. "No two men could be more different from each other than you and I are, Avram.You are always up at the crack of dawn.I sleep all morning.You work hard all day.I don't even know how to work.My sister loves you.People look at me with contempt.You have five strong sons.I have no one."

†† "Not true," I said."That's not entirely true, brother.My family is yours as well."

†† "Avram," my brother-in-law asked, "have you lost your mind?"

†† "Maybe," I laughed, "but I think I have found my soul.Look at us, brother.Two men so different, yet look at the same rain falling on us both.And didn't the same sun warm our backs today? Mine bent over in the field and yours curled up in a blanket on the roof."

†† "I still don't understand," he said. "What does the sun and the rain have to do with it?"By this time the rain was letting up and the sky was clearing in the west.

†† "Tell me, again, brother," I asked."What did the landowner tell you he was going to give you if you would come to work for him for that last hour?"††

†† "He didn't promise us anything," my brother-in-law said."He just asked us if we would come and work for him."

†† "And you didn't bargain with him?"I asked. "None of your friends said to the landowner, 'what's it worth to you' or 'what do we get out of it?' "††

†† He shook his head, "I guess we were so surprised to be asked to work, we didn't even think about what we would get paid."

†† I laughed."That's the way you have lived your life," I said."And this morning I bargained to work for a whole day for one denarius, because that is the way I have lived my whole life.My whole life is a bargain.Everything is supposed to be a fair exchange.Your sister bore me five sons, so I put up with you.I work harder than any other man in town and I should get paid first.I am honest and keep the sabbath and honor my father and mother and so God should bless me and I should go to heaven."

†† "Yes, Avram," said my brother-in-law, "and I and my friends will go to the place of torment."

†† "Really?"I said with mock interest."Tell me about this place of torment."

†† My brother-in-law didn't understand that I was joking because he answered seriously: "It is a terrible place -- like the town garbage dump, where the fire burns forever and people like me are eaten by maggots.Some say it is on the other side of a bottomless canyon from heaven.Others say that heaven is a beautiful city and hell is a lake of fire outside the city gates."

†† "So, if I go to heaven," I said, "I can watch you burning in this lake of fire?"

†† My brother-in-law said seriously, "The teachers say that part of the joy of heaven is seeing the sufferings of the unfaithful."

†† "In other words," I said, "there wouldn't be any fun in going to heaven if nobody went to hell."

†† My brother-in-law looked at me cautiously."What are you saying, Avram?"

†† "I'm saying, where is this God?"I replied."Where is this God who sorts out everyone so fairly and rewards some and punishes others? Do you see a God like that anywhere in this world, brother? Do you see fairness all around you? Is the sunshine fair? Does it only shine on the good people while the bad walk in darkness?†† Is the rain fair?Does it just water the believer's garden and stop at the fence of the unbeliever?Is death fair? Do only bad people die?"

†† My brother-in-law only blinked at me. The answer to these questions was so obvious.

†† "Who sends the sunshine and the rain, brother?"I asked."Who decides when we shall live and when we shall die?"

††† Again, my brother-in-law blinked at me, because the answer was obvious.

†† "God is like the landowner," I said.By this time the setting sun had broken through the clouds and in the east we saw one of the brightest rainbows I ever saw in my life.

†† "But, Avram," my brother-in-law protested, "the landowner wasn't fair.He wasn't just.God is a God of justice."

†† "How did you feel," I asked, "when the landowner gave you a denarius for your work?"

†† My brother-in-law thought for a moment."I felt like I didn't deserve it, but I was very grateful.It was more than I dreamed of receiving.I . . . I felt happy," he said finally.

†† "That's how I feel about that rainbow," I said."And I never felt that way about a rainbow before.I'm not sure I ever really looked at one before.†† Can you see it, brother?"I asked.

†† "Of course I can see it, Avram," he said.

†† "Well, I'm astonished and angry," I said with a laugh."A lazy good-for-nothing like you shouldn't be able to see that beautiful rainbow.That should only be for us good people. Why should you get to see it?You didn't earn it."

†† "You didn't earn it either, Avram," he said angrily.†† He didn't get the joke.

†† "Of course, I didn't earn it, brother," I said."No one earns the right to see a rainbow.No one earns the right to be loved.No one earns the right to have a child.No one earns the sunshine and the rain.I'm not even sure I earned this denarius," I said, tossing the coin in the air and catching it."I only know that having it means that we will have bread on the table tomorrow.After that, I'll have to trust in God to take care of me, the way you trust me to take care of you."

†† "But, Avram," he said,"I think I know what you are talking about now.If people don't think they can earn things, why would they work?"

†† "Because they like to," I said. "Heaven knows, I must like to, I do enough of it."

†† "I liked it, too, Avram.It felt good to be in the fields with the others.I've always envied you having someplace to go -- having a purpose."

†† "Sometimes it's too much of a purpose," I said."Other things are important, too."

†† "Avram," my brother-in-law said, "if I went with you tomorrow to the threshing floor, would you show me how to do the things you know how to do?"

†† "Sure," I said.

†† "Great!" he said excitedly."I'll be up before dawn."

†† "Well," I said, "you may have to wait.†† Tomorrow morning, Iím gonna sleep in."


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