God isn’t fair. And it’s a good thing he isn’t.
We’ll get back to that in a minute. For now, I want to start off our time together with a reading from Matthew, so if you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone and you want to follow along, please go to Matthew, chapter 20, beginning with verse 1. Matthew 20:1. Matthew tells us a parable from Jesus that highlights this concept of fairness and it’s one that we resonate with. Human beings have a pretty strong sense of fairness. We often refer to God as “fair,” but in the words of one of my favorite characters, Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
The textbook definition of “fair” is “in accordance with the rules or standards; legitimate.” In accordance with the rules or standards; legitimate.” But we often extend that meaning to go beyond just the adherence to the rules. Instead we intertwine that with a sense of justice, equity, or righteousness, and so our definition of “fair” goes beyond what the literal meaning is and that causes us problems because then we are unclear about our expectations of what is fair. And that becomes part of our expanded definition. We usually only call things “unfair” when events do not meet our expectations. We usually only call something “unfair” when events do not meet our expectations. When they exceed our expectations, we have no problem with “fairness” whether or not it adheres to the rules. Have you ever heard someone complain that the umpire didn’t make a fair call when their team won? Have you ever heard someone say that the IRS was unfair because they gave back too much money? Or heard someone say that the grocery store was unfair when they gave you extra change? No. Fairness is only called into question when events do not meet our expectations. And that’s what we see in this passage from Matthew.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.
“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
The workers who came first DID think the owner was being unfair.
That’s why they were complaining. And the thing is we can empathize with them. If we had been working all day long and a group of people came at the last instant and got the same pay, the first thought through my mind wouldn’t be, “Oh, what a generous guy.” It would be, “Are you kidding me?” We start judging right away. We think to ourselves and sometimes out loud that they “didn’t deserve it.” And maybe that’s true and maybe that’s not, but the question is, is it fair? The owner promised them one denarius for a day’s work when they accepted the job, and that’s exactly what he gave them. So why weren’t they satisfied when they got what they were promised? It goes back to this sense of expectation. If someone gets a full denarius for one hour of work, we think in our heads that our labor is worth eight denarius and our expectations change. So even if we got exactly what we were promised, it’s hard for us to be satisfied because we were expecting more. But the truth is, the owner was fair and more than fair to some of the people. And if you were one of the guys who came last and received a full day’s wage, you WOULD think the owner was generous. You would even think he was fair. In fact, more than fair.
This might get you to wondering if it wouldn’t be better to just live a sinful life.
If it doesn’t matter when we repent then why not wait a while? Party hard. Be selfish. Look out for number one. And at the end of your life, repent. And that’s what some people did a long time ago. At one time it was believed that you were only allowed to repent once and that if you blew it after that, you would be condemned, so people would often wait until they were on their deathbed before confessing their sins before Christ so that their sins wouldn’t be held against them when they came to stand before God. But there are two flaws in the logic, and it’s the same two flaws in my plan for surviving a plane crash. When I was little, I figured out that all I would need to do to survive a plane crash is wait by the door as the plane was plummeting and then at the last possible moment I would jump out because then I’d only fall a few feet instead of the thousands I would fall if I jumped out earlier. But there are a lot of flaws in that logic. The primary one being, “What if I don’t jump out in time?” That’s the problem with deathbed confessions, if you wait too long, you might be waiting forever. And then there’s the problem of gravity. Jumping at the last second doesn’t account for the speed you are already traveling at. Even if I jumped in time wouldn’t negate all the velocity I had built up by plummeting with the plane and the same goes for our lives. Asking for forgiveness doesn’t negate a lifetime of sin if you don’t really mean it. It’s just an empty gesture if it’s anything less. Thankfully, we don’t believe that repentance is a one time thing. And when you realize you need it, it’s best to start as soon as possible.
When reading this parable, we get stuck on this concept of work and reward.
Because the truth is, for most people, work is work and life is what happens after work. So when we read this parable we get trapped into the notion that the only reward we get is the payday at the end of it all and that’s not the complete picture. Jesus’ point here is not that you have to work to get into Heaven, but instead that it’s never too late to receive God’s forgiveness. That no matter when you come to realize you need it, that the reward will be the same. But also, Christ is trying to impress upon us that God is fair – in fact, more than fair. It’s only our perception of “value” that holds us back from realizing the reward we are receiving is more than generous already. It’s like salaries for professional athletes. I remember reading one time about a pro basketball player who wanted to get $35 million a year because he felt that’s what he deserved – not based on the actual value of putting a ball into a hoop, but based on the fact that others he felt weren’t as talented were getting about that much. The same is true with movie stars and other people in the entertainment industry. It’s not the actual value of the service they provide, but their perception of what they deserve and what we are willing to pay. This concept of “value” that the workers are pushing back against is a human concept of self-worth instead of anything to do with God’s fairness. This concept of “value” is a human concept of self-worth instead of anything to do with God’s fairness.
God is unfair. And I’m so glad he is.
Because God looks at us like we look at our own children. We love them, even when they mess up and we hope they don’t keep repeating their mistakes, not because it will change the way we love them, but because we want to see them live life to the fullest! God is willing to pay for our damages and he already did that for us when he sent Jesus in our place. Christ paid the price for our salvation, not because we deserved it but because he loves us. If our relationship with God were like a business, we wouldn’t survive because what God has to offer is worth more than we could ever afford. Not just in the afterlife but in this one. The workers in the parable don’t realize it, but their reward for walking with God is exactly that. They get to walk with God longer because they came to know him earlier. That itself is a huge reward. Again, it’s our concept of “work” that holds us back from realizing that part of the reward is simply living in the grace of God. I know I wish I had known God earlier. I hear stories from people who regret not having a life-changing moment with Christ because they grew up knowing God all along, and I think what a blessing that must have been. I don’t know of anyone who came to love Jesus later in life who didn’t wish they knew him earlier, because knowing him is it’s own reward. Knowing Christ is it’s own reward. So those workers who begrudge not getting more of a reward are missing the point that they already got it. The work itself was it’s own reward.
In the book, Andy tells a story that brings all of this home.
He talks about a time when his children were very young and he had bought a new car. It was a used Infiniti but it was the nicest car he had ever owned. It was in mint condition and he had every intention of keeping it that way. But unfortunately, not everyone in the family was on the same page. He was taking out the trash and as he passed his car, he noticed a big letter “A” scratched into the hood. He was furious! He looked around and demanded to know who had done this! His two sons were standing next to him and suddenly got quiet, so Andy looked at them and his son Garrett, all of five years old, said to him, “Allie did it.” He looked over at Allie, his youngest child and only daughter who was just three and a half at the time and pointed to the car. “Did you do that?” he asked her. “Yes, Daddy” she said. Suddenly, all of these different thoughts went through his head. Would a three year old even understand what she had done? Would she understand labor cost, renting a car while this one was fixed, the amount of money it would cost? Of course not. He could demand that she repay him for the damages, because that would be fair. Absurd but fair. So what did he do? This is what he wrote, “I did the only thing I could do for someone I loved as much as I loved her. I knelt down and said, ‘Allie, please don’t do that anymore.’ She said, ‘Yes, sir, Daddy.’ Then she hugged me and went back inside. I continued to love her as much as ever. And I paid for the damage she caused. I wasn’t concerned about fairness. It wasn’t appropriate to figure out what was fair. What was more important was grace and mercy. Even if it meant that I had to pay for what she had done.” That’s what God has done for us. God has paid it all so that we can live a life of love and peace in his company. And it’s not about fairness and it’s not about reward, but about the grace and mercy of God’s love. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.