Matthew 20:1-16 –
“It’s Not Fair!” said the Servants.
Jesus knew that, that life isn’t fair. And so he told a parable about it.
He takes a common situation and tells a story we can remember. He puts heavenly meaning into earthly things. And we can all relate to it. This parable is no different.
The situation is common enough – an employer in the ancient world, and even in some places today –hires day-labourers. The vineyard owner hires men to help him at 4 different times during the 12 hour work day. Now this is a little strange. Especially the hiring at the 11th hour.
The first workers are promised a denarius, a typical day’s wage. The terms of the subsequent labourers that a hired are a bit vague, “whatever is right” will be what they are paid.
When payment time comes at the end of the day, those working longest begin to wonder – what will I be paid? “Whatever is right!” in their mind, was more than those latecomers. So when they received the same – they were upset. And we can relate to that feeling. It didn’t seem fair.
But after all, it was the agreement they made, it was the owner’s money, and his right to pay others in line with his own sense of fairness.
Where is Jesus going with this parable? What does it mean? He’s talking about fairness in the kingdom of God - the vineyard, and God, of course, is the owner. And we are the workers.
But what kind of workers, and what is a fair price? It seems this parable raises many questions. Chief among them, “what is fair?” Let us spend a few moments looking at fairness today in light of God’s work in Christ, and hopefully gain a deeper understanding of just how unfair – and just how fair – our God is.
When We Say “It’s Not Fair!”
Fairness is a concept we Brits are familiar with. From an early age, we learn what “fairness” is all about. Soon after the words “No!” “Me” and “Mine!” children learn that handy phrase, “It’s not fair!”. And we find ourselves echoing our own parents, “Who ever said life was fair?”
Still, we have an expectation that it will be! When someone cheats and gets away with it we feel indignant. Slighted. It’s not fair!
“I’ve been in this job for years, and that young upstart gets the promotion while I’m passed over? It’s not fair.”
“I’m a good parent. I really, really love my children. How come everyone else has perfect children, and mine have all the problems? It’s not fair!”
“I lived a good, clean, life. No smoking – I tried to eat well. And now the doctor says I have lung cancer. But Freda has smoked 40 a day for 40 years, and is just fine. It’s not fair.”
Or how many other examples of UN-fairness could we think of? In the end, our sense of fairness is most keen when we feel WE are the victims of an injustice. Or when we feel someone is treated more favourably than we are – for no good reason.
The thought process is usually something like this:
1) I am good. I deserve good things.
2) I am not receiving good things.
3) Something must be wrong.
4) Who is going to fix it?
But is this the way a Christian should think?
Perhaps we would be better asking:
I am good. I deserve good things. Am I that good really? Not according to the teaching of Jesus.
2) I am not receiving good things. Yes we all do in abundance but mostly we miss them.
3) Something must be wrong. Yes, but with us, not with God.
4) Who is going to fix it? God will fix it in fact He already has
God Says, “You’re right, it’s NOT fair!”
God is supremely unfair and supremely fair at the same time.
How is God Unfair – “he does not treat us as our sins deserve, or repay us according to our iniquities”. Some would say this is not fair. You might look at the sinner over there and WANT God to punish him or her. You might expect that a fair and just God would mete out due punishment to THOSE people. If he doesn’t, it’s not fair!
But if there was a bank error is in YOUR favour, you are usually not the one to complain about it. Was the servant who came last to the field the one complaining about receiving an entire day’s wage? No. It is the other servants who felt they deserved more – they spoke up.
Perhaps one lesson in this story is the great danger in comparing ourselves to others. When we do we risk losing sight of our own faults and failings.
So which servant are you? Which one am I?
We should see ourselves, with humility, as that final servant – the one who deserves it least. We should all say with Paul, “I am chief of sinners”. For, in all fairness, none of us deserves the blessings God gives. But this morning we thank God for his forgiveness in Jesus, for always giving us a clean start, for always treating us with justice and mercy.