It’s Not Fair!


By Stephen Terry



For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard.


And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place; and to those he said, 'You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.' And so they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing.

And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, 'Why have you been standing here idle all day long?' They said to him, 'Because no one hired us.' He said to them, 'You go into the vineyard too.'


When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.' When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. "When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, saying, 'These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.'


But he answered and said to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? 'Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?'


So the last shall be first, and the first last.  Matthew 20:1-16


This parable illustrates a fundamental problem with grace for the works oriented Christian.  It just does not seem fair.  But is it simply a disagreement over what the wage should be based on the length of service or the amount of work done?  If we are to understand why it is fair, we must go beyond a simple surface reading of the parable.  All of Jesus’ parables focus on one thing…relationships.  Jesus himself pointed out the value of relationships in the Gospel of Mark:

 And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, Which is the first commandment of all? And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.

And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.

And the scribe said unto him, Well, Master, thou hast said the truth: for there is one God; and there is none other but he: And to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.

 And when Jesus saw that he answered discreetly, he said unto him, Thou art not far from the kingdom of God…   Mark 12:28-34

The essence of this encounter between Jesus and the scribe is that relationships must be based on love.  Israel had a contractual relationship with God.  We do our part, the sacrifices and the offerings, and God will do his part, providing the blessings.  Jesus here points out that a relationship based on love goes far beyond what any contractual relationship ever can.

In certain card games you play with a trump suit.  Adventists are probably familiar with the game “Rook” which has trump suits declared by the highest bidder at the start of each hand.  The nature of the trump suit is that no matter how high the card played from any other suit, the lowliest of cards from the trump suit will always win the play.  Love is like a trump suit declared by God.  No matter how great the sacrifice, no matter how great the offering, love trumps it all.  Thirty, forty, fifty years of right living to obtain a reward from God can be trumped by the lowliest act of unselfish love.

The scriptures illustrate this over and over again.  We can find this even in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew chapter 1.  Judah was the contractual heir and carried the ring and staff of authority, but his contractual relationship with the family and God was trumped by Tamar’s act of self-sacrifice, and her offspring became the ancestors of the Savior rather than the sons of Judah’s wife Shuah the Canaanite.

Again in the story of Rahab of Jericho, we find her act of self-sacrifice in protecting the spies of Israel at the risk of her own life trumped the contractual relationship between God and Israel.  God’s contract with Israel was for the destruction of the Canaanites, but Rahab’s act of love trumped that contract and saved her and her household. Eventually, she married Salmon and was honored to give birth to Boaz who also was an ancestor of Jesus.

Ruth also overcame God’s contract with Israel to become an ancestor of Christ.  She was a Moabite, and by contract Israel was not to allow a Moabite to enter into the congregation even to the tenth generation. Yet Ruth’s act of self-sacrificing love in leaving her people to care for her mother-in-law Naomi trumped that contractual relationship and not only bought her inclusion in Israel but also the honor of being an ancestor of Christ when she gave birth to Obed.  Obed was the father of Jesse who was the father of King David.

Even Bathsheba was able to enter into the honored genealogy of Christ.  Matthew had great trouble with this.  Even he had difficulty accepting this. Being a Jew he understood about right living and when it came to Solomon in Christ’s genealogy, he could not even bring himself to mention Bathsheba’s name, calling her instead, “the wife of Uriah.”  Sometimes we focus so much on the sins of others; we become blind to seeing them as God sees them.  Although David plunged himself into the darkness of adultery and murder regarding Bathsheba, yet he repented of his sin and with Bathsheba raised Solomon to humbly honor God in his life.  For this, both Bathsheba and David are part of the genealogy of Christ.  Also Solomon and David wrote much that was included in the Bible as counsel and inspiration for us today.

God’s contract with Israel was that adulterers should be stoned to death.  David’s first born by Bathsheba died.  The prophet Nathan made it clear that his death was related to the sins of adultery and murder that David had committed.  The child’s death for those sins represented the death of God’s firstborn one day for our sins.  The lesson was not lost on David.  No sacrifice of man can ever rank higher than God’s sacrifice, because God made Himself lowly through Jesus and used that lowly trump card of love to save us all.  Once again the  contract was trumped by love.

If we stand before God and say, “I have never missed a Sabbath at church.”  He will say, “I trump that with love.”  We can say, “I have memorized huge portions of the Bible.”  He will say, “I trump that with love.  We can say “I have never eaten anything unclean or bad for me” like Peter did in Acts 10.  Peter took particular pride in avoiding things that might contaminate his experience.  But God said “I trump that with love, so get down off of your roof and go to the unclean.” It was unlawful for a Jew to even enter the house of a non-Jew for fear of losing their spiritual experience, yet God told him to do just that.  Peter, realizing he had been trumped, obeyed.  And as a result the household of Cornelius received the grace of Christ.

Those who are careful to walk the right path, say the right things, avoid the things they should avoid have a hard time with the trump card of God’s love.  It is hard to see in the midst of all they have sacrificed to live clean lives how God can honor a murderer, and adulterer, a prostitute, or even a non-Adventist above them.  Like the other son, they feel that the prodigal son has received more than he should based on what he has done.  And some even give up on living a righteous life out of frustration.  This is right where God wants us all to be. 

We cannot save ourselves no matter how closely we adhere to the terms of the “contract.”  At any time another may come and enter into the Kingdom of Heaven before us because they have trusted in God’s trump suit, God’s love.  When we give up on attaining to righteousness, God deals us a new hand of cards full of trumps that we can play.  We then rely on God’s righteousness to keep us supplied with trump cards.  Whenever we play these trump cards of self-sacrificing love to bless others, we receive new cars to replace those we have used.  As Jesus said after reciting the Lord’s Prayer, “For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” Matthew 6:14-15  In other words, if we fail to show self-sacrificing love toward others, how can we expect to receive it from God?

Yet in spite of the hardness of our hearts, it is God who starts the cycle of love for each of us.  The Bible tells us “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God…” Romans 5:10  How we respond to this love makes all the difference.  We can respond by running away.  We can respond by trying to cut a deal with God. “Now that you have found me God, I will clean up my life so I can be a true child of yours.”  Or we can simply say “God, in no way do I deserve the love you have given me.  Help me to love like that.”

If we respond in the first manner, we will miss out on all God has to offer.  If we respond in the second manner, we will begin to compare our understanding of righteousness to others and will become jealous when those who do not adhere to the same “contract” still receive the same wage.  If we respond in the third manner, we will trust the Owner of the vineyard to pay us according to His love and not worry about what others might be doing.

Returning to the parable of the laborers, the deeper meaning can now be understood.  Those who agreed to work at the beginning of the day, agreed to work for a specified wage.  They had a contractual relationship with the owner.  He may not have even been able to get them to commit to coming if He had not agreed to pay them the accepted day’s wage.  For these workers, it was all about the reward.  They would work hard but had the reward not been what they specified, they probably would not have worked at all.  This attitude was demonstrated when they had to be told by the Landowner to take their wages.  They apparently scorned even what they had agreed to.  In all likelihood, those of this class will not work for this Landowner again, feeling they have been cheated, when it was they themselves who would not work unless the wage was such and such.

In contrast to these, all those hired later came to work in the vineyard, trusting the Landowner to pay them whatever was fair.  They knew they had not worked a full day and did not expect much but trusted themselves to the Landowner’s character.  This class of workers will probably be happy to work for this Landowner again, knowing that he gave them more than they deserved.  Where the first class limited themselves to being paid based on their contract, the second class was limited only by the Landowner’s love and generosity.

The first class of laborers would probably say that the contract is necessary to protect them from exploitation.  In other words, the Landowner cannot be trusted outside of the agreement.  Was the Landowner opposed to entering into the contract?  Maybe, but obviously He did so anyway.  God will always allow us our free will. But when we try to strike a bargain with Him, we will always end up with less than we might have had because we will be limited by the terms of the agreement we ourselves forged. 

If we say “God if you will give me healthy child, I will serve you forever;”  If we say, “God, I will believe in you if you get me out of this financial jam;”  If we say, “God, I will avoid everything that might contaminate me and my family, if you will save us;” we are offering God contract terms, and He will take us up on those terms, but we will receive so much less than we might have received if we had simply trusted His character to take care of us and ours.

I resolve to simply trust Him.  To see what He will provide based on His character and not based on what I am able to commit to.  My commitment to righteousness tends to be like ropes of sand anyway.  Therefore, I only want to surrender to Him and trust in His mercy and love.  As the Publican said “God be merciful to me a sinner.”  Won’t you join me in surrendering your heart to that love right now?