God is unfair.
Matthew 20 forces us to deal with this hard reality. Though an equitable God who treats everyone with the same favor would be easier to handle, that’s 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. And going out 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. Going out again 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.
God is revealing Himself to us, giving us an opportunity to draw closer to Him. To learn about Him. To get to know who He is and what makes Him tick. What a privilege! So what can we learn about God from this passage? The most obvious is this: God is unfair. His generosity isn’t equitable; it doesn’t coincide with work load or hours. He is more generous to some than to others. And if we’re all honest, this makes us a little uncomfortable.
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 said He would. And they agreed to this. He fulfilled every promise that was made to those workers. There is no reason they have 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, the vineyard is His and all the money belongs to Him. He didn’t have to hire those workers at all. It was a gift to be hired in the first place. What right does a worker have to demand more from Him? Absolutely none.
GOD IS GENEROUS.
Or do you begrudge my generosity?
Here is the root cause of the frustration of the morning workers: they despise 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.
Apart from God’s grace we are all hardwired to think “Me first!” To view the world in a sense of wages: I worked this hard, I earn this amount of benefits. 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. For those who feel undeserving and unworthy, He delights in blessing.
THE PROBLEM OF COMPARISON
If those morning 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 worked harder.
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.
THE MOST UNFAIR ACT
They 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 we deserve one thing.
The only wages we have ever truly earned in this life: wrath.
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
But the scripture has shut up everyone under sin. ~Galatians 3:22
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 on our planet: Jesus. Jesus would receive all the benefits of His perfect life.
But that isn’t what happened. Instead, God chose to lay the punishment of the unrighteous on the only Righteous One. He punished the Innocent for the crimes of the wicked. He forsook the holy One and welcomed the sinners. I don’t know of a more unfair act in all of history.
You see, what this parable 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.
Let us repent for thinking more of ourselves than we ought. Let us repent of being upset by the gracious heart of our God toward others. Let us repent of looking down on the sins of others, when we ourselves are capable of the same evil apart from His grace.
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. But in His grace, He satisfied His justice while pardoning sinners through the bloody sacrifice of a perfect sin offering: Jesus, the righteous.
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