Is God “fair”? Have you ever asked yourself that question? Please forgive me for asking. We ministers have all grown beyond those questions of doubt, haven’t we? At least until we have one of those years when we work hard to win souls for Jesus through visitation, Bible study, and public evangelism, and our baptismal tank does not see a drop of water. Yet, another pastor in our conference, the guy who is always on vacation, never in a hurry, never shows up at worker’s meetings, and never turns in his worker’s reports—practically had people walking into his church off the street and right into the tank! I have been tempted a few times to cry in my tea about God’s apparent unfairness.
So, is God fair? I should confess right up front that this is a trick question, especially when you consider Jesus’ illustration of the workers in the vineyard.
Maybe I find the parable particularly interesting because I used to be a member of a labor union when I worked in a factory years ago. Everybody at the same level of work was paid the same rate. “A” operators were all paid one rate, and “B” operators another. The union considered that fair. Although I accepted the pay, I knew it was not really fair, because some of us worked harder than others. And some hardly worked at all, which bugged me. I believed that those who work harder, do a better job, or have more experience should be paid more. That is fair. Fair; that is, in the world of work—but not in the kingdom of God. What’s fair for salary is not necessarily fair for salvation.In fact, in one sense, you could say that God is not fair.
Notice what Matthew 20:1 tells us about our “unfair” God: “ ‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.”* This text is really an elaboration of Jesus’ answer to His disciples’ question in Matthew 19:25, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus had just informed the disciples that it was difficult for a rich person (particularly one who trusted in riches, as did the rich young ruler) to be saved. This shocked the disciples, for in Jesus’ day, riches were considered a sign of God’s favor. Well, they were in for another shock.
It was an ancient oriental custom for employers, when the harvest came in, to go to the marketplace looking for workers for that day. Men who were waiting in the marketplace to be employed for that day would then negotiate the wages for that day. Matthew 20:2 goes on to tell us that the employer “ ‘agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.’ ” A denarius was a standard day’s wages for a common laborer. So, at this point, the employer was certainly being fair.
This kind employer still needed more workers, the parable goes on in verses 3–7 to tell us: “ ‘About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, “You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went.
“‘He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 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?”
“‘“Because no one has hired us,” they answered.
“‘He said to them, “You also go and work in my vineyard.”’” No unfair labor problems here so far. This was a typical day in Palestine at harvest time. At least it was until the paychecks were handed out.
“‘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.”
“‘The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. “These men 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” ’ ” (Matt. 20:8–12).
I can identify with these guys. How about you? How comes he gets everything handed to him, and I’ve got to work my tail off? There seems to be an unspoken law of life that says that if I do more or do it better than you, I should receive more. “I’ve been working for this company for fifteen years, and now they send in this yuppie out of college and start him at the same salary I’m getting!” “I’ve been working for this conference for twenty years, and they go and send (fill in the blank) to the Pleasant Pastoring district instead of me!”
Notice how the landowner answers his workers’ complaints: “ ‘But he answered one of them, “ I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?” ’ ” (Matt. 20:13).
This employer’s response reminds me of John 21, where Jesus was walking along with Peter, having a heart-to-heart talk, revealing to Peter that his service to his Lord would eventually cost him his life. Peter then sees John following and asks Jesus, “ ‘What about him?’ ” And Jesus’ response in verse 22, as I would paraphrase it, is basically this: “Don’t worry about him. That’s none of your business. I’m talking to you right now. You need to follow Me.”
Did the landowner pay the first-hour workers what he told them he would? Yes. So, was he not being fair? Yes, and no. Even though he paid the folks who worked all day exactly what he said he would, it still seems unfair that those who worked much less should get the same pay. The key to understanding the meaning of the parable is given in verses 14 and 15: “ ‘ “Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” ’ ”
If you are looking at this situation only from the standpoint of who earned more—the landowner is being unfair. But did you notice the words “my money,” “give,” and “generous”? The landowner is endeavoring to turn the workers’ attention away from their working to his giving. Any of their “pay”is a gift from him. Had he not sought them out in the marketplace, they would not have received anything from him.
Remember, this parable relates to the “kingdom of heaven” (v. 1). The parable is an illustration of salvation. And the point that Jesus is making is that our salvation comes from God’s generosity, not our works! In the world’s view, this landowner was being unfair. He gave the 12-hour workers the same pay as the 1-hour workers.
Jesus purposely upset the balance of things here to make His point. The landowner’s way of doing things here was preposterous. He purposely paid all the workers the same and even made sure to pay the last (one-hour) workers first so that the other workers would see what he did. Jesus uses this par-able to shock us and wake us up to His outrageous grace, to His unconditional love that saves us. God’s “unfairness” is His grace.
In the same boat
Sometimes, after we have been Christians for a while and done a lot of good things, we can subconsciously begin to think that we deserve heaven because of what we have done, what we have attained over time. And maybe, even, that we are somehow better than others. But, as the long-haul workers correctly testified in verse 12: “ ‘ “You have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work.” ’ ” Exactly! God is saying here, “The kingdom of heaven, your salvation, is a gift from Me, which I hand out to everyone who will accept it.” When it comes to salvation, we are all in the same boat—sunk—without Jesus. Romans 3:23 reminds us that we have all sinned and fall short of God’s glory.
When we understand this, we will not be envious of God’s grace to others who have not done as much as us. We won’t have animosity about God’s generosity. “But I’ve done more good works!” Maybe so! But Romans 6:23 says that salvation is a gift.
Is God unfair? In one sense, yes. But that unfairness is His grace. Grace is unfair. But that unfairness was necessary for God to save us. These first-hour workers were upset that the eleventh-hour folks got the same pay as they did. But remember, this is really talking about heaven, which we all need and none of us can attain by our works. You see, there is no evidence here that the eleventh-hour converts are harassing the first-hour folks; that is, saying: “Ha, ha! I got to sin longer than you did, and I’m still saved!”
Instead, like the thief on the cross, they are relieved and eternally grateful, saying: “Thank God for His grace. I thought I’d be lost forever!” And, should any of us ever think that folks who come in last got a better deal, we need to remember that it is the first-hour folks who have had the privilege of knowing God longer! The eleventh-hour folks have more scars from sin. For example, I became a Seventh-day Adventist when I was 26. I missed out on the church grade school educational system. I did not have the peace, assurance, and better health that other Adventists had earlier in life.
All these workers in this parable found out that their works had nothing to do with being invited into God’s vineyard. It is only because of God’s generous grace that any of us are saved. As the first-hour workers said to God, “You have made them equal to us.” I am so glad that is how salvation works. I am so glad the ground is level at the cross.
No, God’s plan of salvation is not “fair.” It was not fair that Jesus, the totally sinless One whose works were completely perfect, should come to this earth to be mocked, beaten, and crucified in place of all of us sinners. God in the flesh was treated unfairly so that we could be treated more than fairly.
No, it is not fair! It is generous. It is beyond generous. It is AMAZING. Amazing grace. And you know, pastor, I need that reminder once in a while. How about you?
* All Scripture references in this article are from the New International Version."