God isn’t fair. And it’s a good thing he isn’t.
We’ll get back to that. We like it when things are “fair.” It makes us feel like all is right in the universe. But what is “fair?” 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,” but for us we intertwine that definition with a sense of justice or righteousness. The practical application of “fairness” goes beyond the literal meaning of what is fair. Have you noticed we only call things “unfair” when something doesn’t meet our expectations? When we get MORE than we’re hoping for, we have no problem with “fairness.” It’s only when things don’t go our way we feel life is unfair. Has anyone in the history of America ever complained the IRS gave them back TOO much money? Or demanded an umpire reverse a call that won their team the game? Or complain the grocery store was unfair when they gave you extra change? No. Fairness is only called into question when things don’t go our way. 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.” – Matthew 20:1-16
It’s hard not to feel empathy for the people who were hired first.
Working in a vineyard is not easy labor, and if we had been working all day long and a group of people came at the last instant and got the same pay, we would probably be pretty ticked off, too. The first thought through my mind wouldn’t be, “Oh, what a generous guy.” It would be, “Are you kidding me?” It’s hard not to get self-righteous in those instances. We think to ourselves (and sometimes out loud) they didn’t “deserve it.” And whether that’s true or not, does it matter? Why are we complaining? As long as we get what was promised to us, why do we get so concerned over what someone else gets? It goes back to our sense of expectation. If someone gets a full denarius for one hour of work, we think in our heads our labor should be worth eight denarius. So even if we got exactly what we were promised, we are no longer satisfied. We feel cheated! Someone else got away with working a whole lot less for the same amount of money. But the truth is, the owner was fair to us. We accepted the deal as is and we got exactly what was promised. 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.
So why not just goof off until the last minute?
Why put in the time, the hard work, the effort if it doesn’t matter? Some people approach faith with just this attitude. Why bother trying to be GOOD, going to church, and praying if all I have to do is say I’m sorry and I’m instantaneously forgiven? Why not live it up? Party hard. Be selfish. Look out for number one. And then at the end of your life, repent. By the way, that’s not a new idea. A long time ago, people actually did this. It was commonly believed you were only allowed to repent once and if you blew it after that, you would be condemned to an eternity in hell. So people would wait until they were on their deathbed before confessing their sins so it wouldn’t be held against them in the afterlife. But there are two flaws in that logic. The same two flaws that are in my plan for surviving a plane crash. When I was little, I figured out all I needed 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 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 it wouldn’t negate the velocity I had built up by plummeting with the plane. I don’t negate the speed built up by falling thousands of feet, just because I jump at the last second and the same goes for our lives. Asking for forgiveness right before you die doesn’t negate a lifetime of sin if you don’t mean it. It’s just a hollow gesture if you haven’t spent time working on building your relationship with God. 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.
Because of how we grew up, we get stuck on this work/reward concept.
The amount of work you put in should equate to what you get out of it. That’s why we feel like the people who started working at the beginning got a raw deal or ripped off. But that’s missing the point. Jesus’ point here is not you have to work to get into Heaven, but instead it’s never too late to receive God’s forgiveness. No matter when you come to realize you need it, the reward is the same. Jesus is also trying to impress upon us God is fair – in fact, more than fair. It’s only our perception of “value” holding us back from realizing the reward we are receiving is more than generous already. It’s like salaries for professional athletes. When Alonzo Mourning was playing for the Charlotte Hornets, he was bitter because the team didn’t offer him $13 million a year – which at the time would have made him the second highest paid player in the league. It wasn’t because the money wasn’t enough. I mean let’s get real – does anyone DESERVE even a million dollars a year for putting a basketball through a hoop? What he was bitter about was not the actual amount of money, but the money IN COMPARISON to what other players were making. By the way, that $10 million a year would have still made him the second highest paid player in the league. But Mourning isn’t alone. You could say the same for any number of people from movie stars to YouTubers. 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. Let’s be honest. If we were paying people by what they contributed to society, teachers, doctors, and 1st responders would be getting endorsement deals by Nike instead. This concept of “value” the workers in the story are pushing back against 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 make mistakes. We hope they don’t repeat them, not because we get anything out of it, but because we want them to live life to the fullest! We are willing to pay the price for our children’s mistakes because we love them and want them to succeed. And that is exactly what God has done for us. 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, too. The workers in the parable don’t realize it, but being a part of the work that God is doing IS a reward in itself. Knowing Christ is its own reward. We are often just too blind to see it.
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. His daughter, however, thought it could use some improvement. 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 take to fix it, why having the letter “A” scratched into the hood wasn’t a good thing? Of course not. He could demand 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.
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Highest-paid_NBA_players_by_season#1995-1996 – that was even higher than Michael Jordan that year