Matthew 20 forces us to deal with the hard reality that this is true. Though an equitable God who treats everyone the same would be a lot easier to handle, that’s just not our God. Jesus makes this clear as He tells this parable:
For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. Going out again about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. And, when going out about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’
And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last. Matt 20:1-16
Whoa. Now seriously, who among us doesn’t think, “Well, that’s not fair and pretty uncomfortable.” But we know these challenging parts of the Bible are there to teach us, so what can we learn?
Through this passage, God is revealing Himself to us. Giving us an opportunity to learn about Him. So, what can we learn about God here? The most obvious is this: God is unfair and makes no bones about it. His generosity isn’t equitable.
We know we cannot earn His grace, blessings or favor through works. His generosity doesn’t coincide with workload or hours. Bottom line, He is more generous to some than to others. Hmmm, so if we’re honest, this makes us a little uncomfortable. Or in some cases kind of peeved.
So, let’s ask the question that those morning workers asked, “Why didn’t those who worked more get paid more?” Here are some things we can learn from God’s response.
GOD DOESN’T WRONG ANYONE.
Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go.
God might not be fair, but he doesn’t wrong anyone. He is just. His point to those morning workers is that He paid exactly what He promised. And they agreed to this so there is no reason to be angry with Him.
GOD CAN DO WHAT HE WANTS WITH WHAT IS HIS.
I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?
In this parable (and in life), the vineyard is His and all the money belongs to Him. The workers already received a gift by being hired in the first place, so what right did they have to demand more from Him?
GOD IS GENEROUS.
Or do you begrudge my generosity?
Here is the root cause of the frustration of the morning workers: they are angry at the generosity of God. Why? Because they weren’t the primary recipients, and they worked more hours. They felt more deserving of His generosity.
HIS WAYS ARE NOT OUR WAYS.
So the last will be first, and the first last.
We are all hardwired to think “Me first!” We think, I worked this hard so I should earn this much. But God’s ways are not our ways: the last have the greater benefits. For those who think God owes them something, He often is harsh with them. For those who feel undeserving and unworthy, He delights in blessing them.
THE PROBLEM OF COMPARISON
If those first workers had been the only ones in the vineyard that day, there wouldn’t have been a problem. But in comparing themselves to the other workers they assumed they were entitled to more. Then the master paid them all the same. They felt insulted to be treated the same as everyone else, after all they had put in more hours. Don’t we all go there at times? Comparison is a beast.
In the same way, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were enraged to hear Jesus extend the same offer of grace to Gentiles, prostitutes, and tax collectors as He did them. After all, they had worked their whole lives to keep the law of God and follow His ways. They had worked harder than anyone! It couldn’t be right that God would be as gracious to a common sinner as to an advanced Pharisee.
Have you ever been upset when someone “younger” in the faith or someone who hasn’t served God as long as you is honored or gets offered that leadership position you wanted? Then you know exactly how the Pharisees felt.
I remember years ago when I was working at the church I was promoted to a new role. One of the employees who I now supervised felt very strongly that I was not fit as I had not been a believer as long as her. It was a very difficult transition, for me and her.
THE MOST UNFAIR ACT
The morning workers longed to be treated fairly, to be treated as “they deserved”. Here is the problem: they were already treated better than they deserved. And the same is true of you and me. In actuality, the only wages we have ever truly earned in this life is wrath. That’s a hard truth to swallow.
There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Romans 3:10-12, 23
For the wages of sin is death. Romans 6:23
If you desire a fair God, as those morning workers did, here’s what that means:
Everyone received the wages they earned, in this case that is death. Eternal death.
Everyone except one person, the only Righteous One to set foot in our world: Jesus. Jesus would receive all the benefits of His perfect life.
But that’s not how it is. Instead, God chose to lay the punishment of our unrighteousness on the only Righteous One.
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit. 1 Peter 3:18
There is no more unfair act in all of history.
WHAT’S OUR TAKE HOME?
What this parable really exposes in the human heart is pride. If you identify with the complaints of the morning workers, here’s what it’s revealing in you:
- You have believed the lie that God owes you something more than wrath.
- You think you have earned your favor with God, that your standing with Him is based on works.
- You think your sin isn’t as bad as others’ sin.
- You perceive yourself to be better than others.
These are some things to give thought to. It is so easy to see ourselves above others sometimes in the most subtle ways. Why does he/she have that when I don’t? Why did God bless them and not me?
But praise be to our God that He isn’t fair and doesn’t give us what we deserve! He isn’t fair, but He is just. Sin never goes unpaid for. He always punishes evil.
SO HOW DO WE RESPOND?
When God’s not fair, how do we respond? Here are three challenging choices.
- Patience. Patience is the capacity to see past the pain and hold on. We are called to run to God. And, if you feel He’s unfair, run to Him with lament. Share with Him your anxiety, confusion, frustration and hold nothing back. God can take it. And, know that this may be an ugly chapter but God is writing a beautiful story.
- Strength. I’ll cry to God for strength, strength in my journey. Agility, balance and traction as I continue on my path.
- Claim Joy. Lean into joy. Joy doesn’t just come, you have to fight for joy. Yet, I will rejoice in the Lord. Sometimes, you have to say over and over even though there is no _________, I will be joyful. The alternative doesn’t solve anything. You can numb out, zone out or check out but then there is no moving forward. How you respond to the “unfairness” sets up your future. Joy is a byproduct of trust – trust in the Lord. Without joy, my heart turns ugly.
It’s not simple and not easy. But, when God is unfair, we need to hold on to the truth that this may be an ugly chapter but God is writing a beautiful story so while I choose to wait, I will cry out for strength, agility, and traction. I will run to God with lament, with my fears, questions, and anxiety. I will choose joy.
For God and you,