Cucumbers & Grapes: The Confusing Fairness of God

For the Sisters of Burnham Abbey

Sunday September 20th, 2020 – Trinity 15

Exodus 16:2-15, Philippians 1:21-end, Matthew 20:1-16

I want to start with this rather amusing story I found this week:

A few years ago, Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal, two zoologists at Emory University, decided to study the evolution of fairness. They wanted to explore where our distaste for unfairness comes from. Is it a cultural add-on, or is it hardwired?

To study this question, Brosnan and de Waal 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 relinquished a rock, she would receive a piece of cucumber as a reward.

Capuchins love cucumbers, so both monkeys found this arrangement satisfactory, and handed over their rocks with enthusiasm. But then, 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 the second monkey a grape — the equivalent of fine wine or caviar in the monkey world.

Seeing that the game had changed for the better, the first monkey perked up, and very eagerly handed over another rock, expecting, of course, to receive a grape, too. But no — the handler gave her another piece of cucumber. To make things worse, the handler then gave the second monkey another grape for free!

The results — which you can look up on YouTube — were striking. The first monkey just about lost her mind. Not only did she refuse to eat the cucumber; she hurled it at the handler’s face. She then proceeded to bang against the bars of the cage, throw her remaining rocks in every direction, and make furious gestures at her grape-eating companion.

The experiment has since been repeated using other primates, and the results have been astonishingly similar. Scientists have also studied the development of fairness in human babies and found 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.


We have a couple of examples of how deeply rooted fairness is in the readings this morning.

The newly freed Israelites seem to have rather short memories as they rail against Moses, Aaron and God for the perceived unfairness of their new situation in the wilderness. According to them, God has led them into the wilderness to let them starve to death. Of course, he did! God, in his infinite mercy and goodness, feeds the Israelites consistently and daily, morning and night. He did this not only to meet their physical needs but also the need for them to know that he is the Lord their God.

We know that the world is an unfair place, people are treated unfairly at every turn and have been since the beginning. I also think that there are varying degrees of unfairness and we need to keep perspective on the truly unjust and unfair issues facing our world. It is not all cucumbers and grapes!

I also couldn’t help but wonder if St Matthew heard the parable of the landowner and hired labourers and what he made of it? He had been a Jewish tax collector! I suspect that Matthew, in his role as a tax collector, had a skewed view of fairness. His job would have been a good one, secure and well-paid; good for him. Yet his fellow Jews in Capernaum would have seen him as a collaborator with the Romans, in the category with prostitutes and other sinners. Matthew would have paid the heavy price of isolation from his fellow Jew – he was a traitor in their eyes. Yet Matthew had become a genuine follower of Jesus, a convinced Jewish Christian. He, like Peter, Andrew, James and John, did not hesitate to follow Jesus when called.

Jesus seems to be speaking to these disciples, warning them that fame and fortune were not going to be reward for following him. Being close to Jesus was not going to make them the favoured few for all time. Maybe Matthew and the others needed an attitude adjustment? Peter and the others could be the workers that were there at the start of the day, Matthew sometime later? Like the monkeys and us, their sense of fairness was based on being good and doing the right things with the expectation of reward. This is what Jesus is warning against.

Along with the warning, there is also a reminder of the grace and generosity of God. We cannot store these things up or bargain with them, like the monkeys with the rocks to exchange them for cucumbers when we think we need it.

Tom Wright: ‘The point of the story is that what people get from having served God and his kingdom is not, actually, a ‘wage’ at all. It’s not, strictly, a reward for work done. God doesn’t make contracts with us, as if we could bargain or negotiate for a better deal. He makes covenants, in which he promises us everything and asks of us everything in return. When he keeps his promises, he is not rewarding us for our effort, but doing what comes naturally to his overflowing generous nature.’

I know I need the reminder today of the covenant of God and that he will keep his promises. While the world isn’t as fair as it should be, and I am not always fair to others as I should be – God is infinitely fair even though we don’t understand how sometimes.

I need to renew the promise that St Paul admonishes us to do ‘live a life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.’ We can take inspiration from Matthew as he left his tax booth to follow and live the life worthy of the call.

Author: Sue Lepp

Newly appointed Priest-in-Charge of the Hambleden Valley Group of Churches and will start later in January 2021. Time for a new start at the beginning of a new year. I served my curacy in the Parish of Langley Marish and trained at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. Former Nurse in both Canada and the UK. Specialised in Palliative Care, Gynaecology-Oncology and a bit of Orthopaedics (just to keep me travelling). Worked as a MacMillan Nurse Specialist in a few specialities in London.

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