Matthew 20:1-16 (EHV)
1 Jesus said: “Indeed the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing to pay the workers a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 He also went out about the third hour and saw others standing unemployed in the marketplace. 4 To these he said, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will give you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour and did the same thing. 6 When he went out about the eleventh hour, he found others standing unemployed. He said to them, ‘Why have you stood here all day unemployed?’
7 “They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’
“He told them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When it was evening, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, starting with the last group and ending with the first.’
9 “When those who were hired around the eleventh hour came, they each received a denarius. 10 When those who were hired first came, they thought they would receive more. But they each received a denarius too. 11 After they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner: 12 ‘Those who were last worked one hour, and you made them equal to us who have endured the burden of the day and the scorching heat!’
13 “But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not make an agreement with me for a denarius? 14 Take what is yours and go. I want to give to the last one hired the same as I also gave to you. 15 Can’t I do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 In the same way, the last will be first, and the first, last.”
Dear heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit on us so that we may repent of our pride, arrogance and greed, but also rejoice in your abundant and undeserving grace, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.
It’s just not fair!
It’s not fair some people seem to have everything, including money, lots of shiny cars and gadgets, popularity, beauty, talents, friends, and a full head of hair, while some people don’t. It’s not fair some people live full and healthy lives despite their best attempts to ruin themselves, while others go to great lengths to look after themselves and their health, but still end up with cancer, Dementia, Parkinson’s, and other insidious diseases.
It’s not fair when the young die tragically, while older people who long to go to their eternal home hang around to watch their family and friends go before them. It’s not fair when natural disasters like storms, floods, fires and earthquakes strike at the innocent. It’s not fair when evil people seem to profit from their crimes, while the innocent suffer at their hands or are criticised for doing the right thing.
It’s not fair when a largely pagan society wants to redefine marriage in such a way it restricts a child’s right to having mums and dads as parents. It’s not fair innocent babies are aborted from life before they have a chance to bless their parent’s lives. It’s not fair when some are born with disabilities or genetic disorders.
Even in church it’s not fair. Why don’t people recognise or thank you for your hard work? Why do they seem to take your hard work for granted? Why do people seem to avoid you and don’t want to listen to your pain? Why are you criticised for your efforts when all you wanted to do was help? Why don’t some of your loved ones have faith in Jesus like you do? And it’s also not fair when Jesus says the last will be first and the first will be last!
It’s just not fair!
Talking about what’s not fair, Jesus uses an unfair picture to illustrate what the kingdom of heaven is like.
He says his kingdom is like a householder going out at 6am in the morning to find some workers to work in his vineyards. They agree to work for him for an average (if not above average) day’s pay. This same householder also goes out at 9am, 12pm, 3pm, and even at 5pm to get more workers. Each time he agrees to pay them what’s right, without specifying the amount.
Then at 6pm he tells his foreman to pay them their wages, starting with the ones who were hired last. Remarkably and very generously, he gave all of them all a full day’s wage, no matter how long they worked.
Now for all those who didn’t work a full day, this wasn’t fair, but the unfairness worked in their favour! They weren’t going to complain because the owner has given them more than their fair share. They didn’t deserve this payment, but the owner decided to be generous toward them. They could thank the landowner for his unfairness.
But seeing the owner’s generosity, the first workers (who started at 6am) expected to receive more than the others, even though they had earlier agreed with the owner to work for exactly the same amount everyone else had just received. Therefore, when they received the same amount as the others, they grumbled about it, saying they worked much harder and longer in the burning sun than anyone else, so why should they receive the same? It’s not fair!
Then the owner reminded them he hasn’t done them wrong. He gave them what they had agreed to. No injustice had been done. He just wanted to give everyone else the same amount, and isn’t it his right to do what he wants with his own things? He then asked them if they’re jealous because of his generosity. Or, literally, he asks them if their eyes are evil because his eyes are good?
And here Jesus puts his finger on our human problem.
Our monstrous eyes of jealousy have decided what’s right and good and fair, at least what is right and good and fair for ourselves. Those same eyes also want to define what’s wrong or evil or unfair, especially when we perceive we’re the ones who have been treated unjustly. Because our eyes are jealous of someone else, we demand to see justice done in our favour, even if this means the other person will be treated unfairly.
But, when we say things are unfair, the focus has shifted away from the generous giver to the jealous eyes of the individual. This means we want to decide good and evil for ourselves, just like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. We want to be the judges of right and wrong. We want to be in a position over and above everyone else.
What’s more, when we say it’s unfair, it’s no longer about God and his generosity, but it’s all about us and the way we see things! We’re jealous of God’s generosity toward others, so we end up judging God as unfair. But when we want to tell God what to do, or tell God what’s fair or not fair, we’ve just rejected God’s generosity and set ourselves up as our own god who thinks we have the authority to judge the Creator of heaven and earth.
Not only this, but because every god must have their own religion, we end up making our own self-made religion based upon good works and deserving.
It normally works this way: if you do good, then as god, I think you should be rewarded, but if you do evil, then I, as god, declare you should be punished.
Reward and punishment: isn’t this the way we treat each other? Isn’t this the way we expect to be treated, even by God? Isn’t this why we’re so jealous and discontent with what happens to us or those around us? After all, isn’t this the basis of every other religion on earth, except for Christianity?
This means we’re always going to be challenged by the rules of God’s kingdom because God doesn’t work on deserving or what’s fair. He doesn’t work on our own self-imposed judgements of right and wrong, or our religion of reward and punishment. God works by grace and not by demands.
The grace of God can be quite challenging because God doesn’t work on a deserving basis. God works on a grace system, and grace ignores all the normal rules of reward and punishment.
In Jesus’ parable, the workers who didn’t work the whole day didn’t deserve the full day’s wage, but that’s the point! Grace is unfair, and always will be, because it’s undeserving!
The ones who get upset with God’s grace are often those who think God works (or should work) on a reward system. They’re the ones who are usually proud of their own goodness (or at least their own perception of goodness). So, it’s the proud, who have striven so hard to be one of the firsts in God’s sight, who often get upset because they find God doesn’t work on a reward system, but on a grace system. The grace system makes the first ones last and the last ones first. It’s unfair. It’s undeserving. But that’s what grace is!
So, if God wants to bless someone else, what’s it to you? God can bless whom he wants to bless. He can be gracious and generous with his own things. He can even forgive the worst of sinners because he’s gracious and merciful. It’s not up to you to say what he does with his own gifts. It’s not up to you who should or should not be forgiven. He doesn’t have to answer to you. He hasn’t broken any promises to you.
He still loves you and has provided you with everything you need, like food and clothing, home and family, work and income, strengths, abilities, and senses. He’s already forgiven you and given you the heavenly inheritance of his eternal kingdom. Even if you’re struggling with a life of unfairness and sickness and difficulties here on earth, God still loves you. He still wants you to live with him forever. Your struggles don’t change God’s promises to you.
So, let’s face it – God is unfair! It’s just not fair he sent his own dearly loved Son into this cruel and heartless world to suffer at the hands of sinful, selfish, and jealous humans. It’s not fair that in response to his wise teachings and miraculous healings they would criticise him, beat him, spit on him, and cruelly kill him on a cross set aside for the worst of criminals.
It’s not fair Jesus rescued you when you were lost and sentenced to death. It’s not fair he would shed his innocent blood to pay for your sins. It’s not fair he would receive the punishment you deserve. It’s not fair he would forgive you all your sins. It’s not fair he would do any of this for jealous and arrogant people who often want to set themselves up as their own god.
It’s not fair Jesus would accept you as God’s own precious child even before you could ever deserve it. It’s unfair you would receive all the benefits of Jesus’ death and resurrection, without earning this right. It’s unfair you would receive eternal life as a free and undeserving gift. It’s not fair that, no matter what time of the day you began life in his kingdom, the gift is still the same!
Even today, it’s not fair Jesus would give you his holy body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins. You’ve sinned time and again, but he keeps accepting you at his banquet table. It’s not fair, but God’s grace is always unfair!
And then God asks you to be unfair to others by asking you to also forgive those who sin against you. They don’t deserve it either. They’ll probably hurt you again. It’s unfair, but forgiveness is always unfair! Forgiveness is always a costly gift which can never be earned or deserved.
The unfairness of God lets criminals go free while the innocent One dies. No one here deserves Jesus’ death, and no one here deserves Jesus’ life, but ‘deservings’ go nothing to do with it! All of us equally receive the generous and undeserving gift of eternal life with Jesus in heaven! It’s not fair, but thank God it’s not fair!
Whenever you’re tempted to grumble or complain about life not being fair, look to Jesus on the cross and see the greatest unfairness in the world. But on that same cross you’ll also see the greatest and most generous justice and grace of God.
The grace of God is purposely unfair. On the cross the first One became one of the last ones in order that the last ones like you and me would become like the first One.
No, life and faith isn’t about deserving. It’s just not fair, but remember grace has never been fair – to the glory and praise of God!
May the grace and peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.